Sacred Spring in Saamiland Threatened by Water Prospecting Plans

One of the more recent proposals for development in Saamiland, the ancestral homeland of the indigenous Saami of northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia’s Kola Peninsula, threatens to turn Suttesaja, an historically sacred site in northern Finland, into a water prospecting source. Suttesaja, which means “stream that does not freeze over” in the Saami language, is the largest natural spring in Finland. In April 2001, the municipality of Utsjoki (Finland's northernmost municipality, in the heart of the Sami home region) announced that funding from the provincial environmental body and the European Union had made possible a study of the potential for natural spring water export. Sparsely populated and with an abundant supply of fresh water, the region has an obvious appeal for water prospecting interests.

Suttesaja’s traditional significance to the Saami people is associated with the regular journeys that were made up Ailegas, the “sacred mountain”. Saami pilgrims would make their last stop at Suttesaja and cleanse themselves in its waters before making the ascent. The spring is integral to the health of the local environment as well, as it feeds the Teno (Tana) River, one of Europe’s major Atlantic salmon habitats and a lifeline to the local Saami inhabitants. Many Saami have recently voiced their concerns that both the environmental and cultural impacts of the proposed project have not been taken into serious consideration by local authorities.

After initially refusing to discuss the details of the proposal, pressure from local residents led the municipality officials to hold a series of public hearings beginning last October. But Saami representatives fear that the decidedly one-sided tone of these meetings have only served to ‘rubberstamp’ the proposal, while forgoing the critical analysis that they have repeatedly called for. A series of ‘experts’ hired by the municipality have testified that little ecological harm will result from tapping the spring; one researcher hired to examine the cultural importance of the site has even unequivocally recommended the project go forward.

One of the ironies of the situation is that Utsjoki is the only municipality of Finland in which Saami constitute the majority of the population. (It is estimated that of the approximately 80,000 Saami in northern Scandinavia, 6500 reside in Finland, specifically in the three northernmost districts of Enontekio, Inari and Utsjoki.) Yet there is a significant danger that Suttesaja will be irrevocably altered by the proposed water prospecting infrastructure, and its long history as a sacred landmark of Saamiland brushed aside as a trivial detail in the deliberations that will determine its future. The oral traditions of the Saami of the area document the spring’s traditionally sacred status, but due to past policies of assimilation and Christianization, little remains intact of the old methods of transmission of the Saami’s cultural heritage. Knowledge of the location and spiritual significance of many of the prominent landmarks that captivated the collective consciousness of the Saami in the past has become fragmented and in some cases actively eradicated. The effective denial of autonomy in matters of education and resource management, in particular, despite constitutional guarantees to the contrary in Finland, are primarily due to a lack of resources for self-government initiatives and overt anti-Saami discriminatory practices among the populace. These factors have served to erode the confidence and motivation of older generations of Saami in passing on the language and elements of their cultural identity to their children.

Implementation of the water mining plans without careful examination of the consequences would be in clear violation of Article 13 of the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states: "Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of human remains. States shall take effective measures, in conjunction with the indigenous peoples concerned, to ensure that indigenous sacred places, including burial sites, be preserved, respected and protected." The project leader suggested at a recent public hearing that the weight of international protest could potentially force them to abandon the project. Those interested in contacting the municipality to voice their opinion on the proposed water prospecting venture can find more information at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/protecting_knowledge/message/1935 or by contacting Rauna Kuokkanen at suttesaja@ziplip.com.