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Environmental Organizations Protest Denial of Saami Herding Rights

A host of environmental and indigenous rights organizations from 14 countries have written a joint letter of protest to Swedish prime minister Goran Persson, admonishing the Swedish government for a lack of initiative in pursuing an equable settlement with its Saami citizens regarding land rights. The protest comes on the heels of a recent Court of Appeal decision denying Saami herders winter grazing rights in the Harjedalen region.

In Sweden -- home to around 17,000 Saami -- private forest owners filed suit 10 years ago against five Saami communities over grazing access, claiming their lands were not included in the range of customary Saami pasturing grounds. The lower court of Sveg agreed in a controversial 1996 verdict, pointing to a perceived lack of archaeological evidence of sustained and immemorial Saami use in the region. In February 2002, the Court of Appeal upheld that ruling, citing the responsibility of the government for keeping herding practices viable and productive. \

The recent letter of protest calls on the government to work towards an out-of-court settlement that will preserve the customary rights of the Saami to winter grazing lands. The Saami seek confirmation of the same rights respected by earlier Swedish governments, as implied in the arrangement of tax payments made by early Saami herders to the Crown in exchange for use of their traditional lands.

The Saami are the indigenous people of northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Thought by most scholars to be the oldest people in Europe, the Saami number roughly 80,000 and are united across national boundaries by a common language, forms of dress, musical traditions and methods of subsistence. With a strong tradition as semi-nomadic pastoralists, many regard reindeer herding as the Saami’s central cultural practice. The animals have customarily been the primary economic resource of many Saami communities, providing transportation, sustenance in the form of meat and milk, clothing, and materials for tools.

Many Saami have adapted to economic pressures and the depletion of resources in their areas by combining traditional subsistence activities -- such as small-scale hunting -- with modern enterprises. Herds are often managed as market-oriented business ventures now and are an important source of revenue.

The financial burden resulting from the defense of the cases has been heavy for the Saami, who were ordered to cover £1.6 million in legal costs for both parties. The future of important traditional methods of subsistence are now in doubt. The only option remaining for the Saami litigants -- having exhausted all legal avenues in Sweden -- is recourse to international courts at even further expense. These recent events touch on sensitive subsistence issues that have long been sources of conflict between the Saami and Scandinavian governments. On the same day that the first Saami Parliament was convened on August 25, 1993, Sweden opened up its mountains to small game hunting and fishing, claiming state possession of those rights. It thereby flouted a prior Swedish Supreme Court decision ruling -- that within certain surveyed areas hunting and fishing rights were exclusive to the Saami. Saami leaders, concerned with the increasing exploitation for recreational and industrial purposes of natural resources and game animals – things that have inspired and shaped their people’s way of life and livelihoods -- are taking action to raise international awareness of the threats facing them.