Q&A: Aili Keskitalo on Saami Land Rights in Norway

Norway is keen to develop its mineral resources and add more renewables to its energy mix, but some of these projects are on traditional Saami lands. Arctic Deeply spoke with Aili Keskitalo, the president of the Saami Parliament of Norway, to learn how the Saami are involved in these decisions.

Written byHannah Hoag Published on Feb. 3, 2016 Read time Approx. 7 minutes
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TROMSO, NORWAY – The Saami, like other indigenous peoples living in the Arctic, are feeling the dual pressures of climate change and global interest in natural resource development in the regions that they have traditionally called home.

“Resources are now more accessible due to climate change,” Aili Keskitalo, the president of the Saami Parliament of Norway, said during the opening plenary of the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Norway, last week. She cautioned that “historical blunders have been carried out in the name of economy and development” and that “such development would destroy what we cherish.”

Sapmi, the traditional homeland of the Saami, stretches deep into Norway, across the northern parts of Sweden and Finland, and to the Kola Peninsula in Russia, covering about 388,000 square kilometers (150,000 square miles). Conflicts between the Saami in Norway and the federal government have erupted over hydroelectric projects, wind turbine parks and, most recently, plans for a copper mine in northern Norway.

In her address, Keskitalo added that the Saami are not against development, but they expect to have a key role in shaping the future. Arctic Deeply sat down with Keskitalo to talk about Saami perspectives on climate change and development in Norway.

Arctic Deeply: How has climate change affected the Saami in Norway?

Aili Keskitalo: There are at least three ways that we’ve been affected by climate change. We are an indigenous people of the Arctic and many of our traditional livelihoods are nature based, like reindeer herding and fjord fishing. For example, reindeer herding is affected by climate change because the changes to vegetation and because of the instability in the climate, in the wintertime especially. If it rains in the middle of the winter and then freezes, the grazing plants will be locked under a layer of ice, and it will be more difficult for reindeer to get to the food.

For the fjord fisheries, when the seawater warms up, the fish that we traditionally have fished on near the coastline will migrate further north and away from the coastline. New species are coming in from the south, and we get an imbalance of the ecosystem. We don’t know what that will lead to. But these new species that we are not used to fishing and eating, like mackerel, shouldn’t be up in the north.

We also have the indirect impacts of climate change. The Arctic is opening up and that means that natural resources – oil, gas, minerals – are more accessible to the industry, and that impacts on us because they want to extract it in our territories.

When the Norwegian government would like to change the energy mix and move into renewable energy because it would be good for the climate, they are building big wind-parks in core reindeer-herding districts. The reindeer are disturbed by the construction, the power lines and roads. And when the windmills operate in the wintertime, they throw packs of ice and snow around, because it freezes on them, so it scares the reindeer away. That is the third impact, the impact of mitigation.

Altogether, it is a heavy burden to carry.

Arctic Deeply: Governments and industry are increasingly interested in developing natural resources in the north. Can you tell me more about your position?

Aili Keskitalo: The Norwegian government sees that the end of the oil age is coming closer, so they want to change the Norwegian economy, and one of the ways they want to change it is to open it up for mineral extraction in the High North, which is in Saami territory, our homelands.

Of course, this could be done in some places, but probably not everywhere they want to do it. For now, the Saami Parliament in Norway has not accepted the Norwegian Mineral Act because it does not take our rights into consideration and there are not good benefit-sharing mechanisms in place.

Arctic Deeply: What role does the Saami Parliament have in determining whether or not those projects go ahead. Can you say no? Is there a negotiation?

Aili Keskitalo: We have two roles to take. One is through the Planning Act. Any construction has to be done according to the Norwegian act of planning and building, and we have the right to voice our opinion on any plan, but we do not have the right to take a decision. The other is through the Mining Act, but it’s only restricted to a small part of of the Saami territory, not over all the areas where the Saami have traditionally lived. We can’t accept any new mining when the Mineral Act doesn’t take our rights into consideration.

Arctic Deeply: How would you like to see that Mineral Act change?

Aili Keskitalo: There are three core problems. One is the territory: it should cover all of the Saami homelands. The second is that we should get to at least consult on the mining permissions; that we should be able to consent to new mines in the Saami lands. Third, a mechanisms of benefit sharing should be in place for the local Saami communities that are affected. But we also have issues with waste disposal and the clean up after the mines are closed. It’s not good enough. When the mine fails, there is no one left. The company goes bankrupt and there is no one left to clean up.

Arctic Deeply: What is the legal structure surrounding the lands traditionally used by the Saami?

Aili Keskitalo: We have the Finnmark Act that says that the Saami people have been living in Finnmark, the northernmost county in Norway and have rights to the land. That is a Norwegian act of Parliament. The Saami Parliament and the Finnmark county council co-manage the county of Finnmark, and we are in the process of determining land-rights recognition there.

But for all the Saami areas south of Finnmark – they cover approximately half of the Norwegian territory – we are still not getting there. The last government waited us out, and this government has been saying for almost two years that it is too difficult a matter, and they don’t know what to do about it. But now they are starting a process. Hopefully, that will lead up to land recognition for the rest of the Saami territory and land rights. Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to co-manage more of our homelands.

Arctic Deeply: How does the Saami Parliament interact with the national government on issues of policy?

Aili Keskitalo: We are a part of the Norwegian democracy and we are established by a Norwegian law in the national parliament, a special Saami Act. We are funded through the national budget. We also have some authority when it comes to cultural heritage protection, including culture, language and school materials, and so on.

We have certain areas of authority and we have the right to be consulted on issues that we define as being of concern to the Saami people. That is rooted in the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 for indigenous peoples and tribal peoples. Norway has ratified the ILO Convention, and that obligates them to consult with us, and they do. It’s not perfect, but it is a good example on how to organize a minority or an indigenous people within a national state, and how to structure the interaction between an indigenous parliament and a national state.

Arctic Deeply: You have called for new leadership on development on the Arctic. What would you like to see?

Aili Keskitalo: I would like a balanced view of the Arctic in the future. At conferences like this [Arctic Frontiers] we often hear Norwegian politicians inviting all of the world’s industry to get their piece of the Arctic cake or the Saami cake and I find it really provoking. From the southern part of Norway, they invite others to come up to the north and say, “Look at this, nobody has touched this. Come and get it.”

That is not how it should be. They should ask us for our concerns, and we should be the ones to make invitations if we decide that we want that kind of development in our homelands, because we live here, and we have been here always, and we will be here in the future when the miners go bankrupt and go away. We will be here with their waste in the future.

I would like to see less romanticizing of the mining industry or other extractive industries, and I would like our leaders to open their eyes and see the state of the climate, the state of the Arctic environment and of the Arctic community, and to acknowledge that we are vulnerable and that we already have something to give here.

The Norwegian fisheries are a story of success, with good healthy products. I think that we could build other kinds of industries, more renewable resources like tourism. We have wonderful nature, really spectacular seasons and seasonal changes, and we have distinct cultures in the north. That could be another source of development that is more eco-friendly, more climate friendly and more human rights friendly than the plans today.

Arctic Deeply: Do you find that having interaction with groups from around the circumpolar north at the Arctic Council helps you move forward on policy issues?

Aili Keskitalo: Absolutely. We exchange information, we exchange best practices, good ideas, and we exchange the bad experiences as well. I find that in parts of North America, indigenous rights have been acknowledged, and you have some really interesting examples of both self-determination and self-governance. It is really good to see examples of how it should be done. They’re not all perfect, those examples, but they are really experiences for us to learn from.

Editor’s note: The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid for the travel costs of journalists to attend the Arctic Frontiers conference, but it has not reviewed or approved this article.

Top image: Aili Keskitalo (right) at the opening opening of the Saami Parliament of Norway in 2013. (Flickr/Kenneth Haetta)