Pirita Näkkäläjärvi column: Sámi homeland, a scarce resource

The Sámi homeland areas in northern Finland are finite and fragile, so why are agencies granting broad permits for resource exploitation without informing the people who live there?

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Salvaspalo, Tuulivaara, Tarvantovaara / Credit: Jaana Kurkkio

Watching one industrial project after another trying to enter the Sámi homeland in Finland, I’ve started wondering whether companies and authorities understand that the Sámi homeland is a scarce resource for the indigenous people Sámi. The Sámi languages, culture and traditional livelihoods depend on the Sámi homeland, whereas companies can succeed without exploiting the natural resources of the Sámi native region.

A scarce resource is a term familiar to anyone who has studied economics. Scarcity is at the heart of economics. The late economist Lionel Robbins of my dear alma mater London School of Economics famously defined economics as a science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses. Economics is all about decisions on how to allocate scarce resources.

Second overlapping reservation on Erkuna siida lands

I started thinking about resource scarcity after hearing about the latest attempt by an industrial company to enter the Sámi homeland.

Some technical details as background: In February, a Dutch-originated exploration company Akkerman Finland Oy notified about a reservation it had made in Enontekiö with the intention to later apply for a mining exploration permit in the area. In April, the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency (Tukes) approved Akkerman Finland’s reservation notification.

The reservation is called Hietakero and it’s on the lands of the Sámi reindeer-herding siida Erkuna or Ergon in Enontekiö. The area in question is in the “Arm of Finland”, a narrow strip of land between Norway and Sweden. It’s one the last areas in Finland where the traditional model for Sámi reindeer-herding (with siida village collectives) has been maintained and is still in use.

The Erkuna siida is one the three siidas in the Käsivarsi reindeer-herding cooperative. The name comes from the founder of the siida, Mr. Antti Erkinpoika “Erkuna/Ergon” Palojärvi. The Erkuna siida depends on the reserved area. Seventy percent of the reservation is in the reindeer pastures that the Erkuna siida uses all year round.

The Hietakero reservation is relatively large, 245 square kilometres (the Enontekiö municipality is 8,391 square kilometres in total). The reservation is the second consecutive, and partly overlapping reservation made on the Erkuna siida lands under the new Mining Act since 2012.

File picture showing Sámi homeland area / Credit: Sami Parliament of Finland

Reindeer have nowhere else to go

The Sámi homeland in Finland is a resource in scarce supply for the traditional Sámi livelihoods (reindeer-herding, fishing, handicrafts, hunting, gathering and their modern forms). The size of the Sámi homeland is 35 000 square kilometres in total. However, the area available for traditional Sámi livelihoods in the Sámi homeland has been reduced and fragmented by the demands of other forms of land usage ranging from roads, construction and logging to tourism, railway plans, wind power and other large-scale projects.

The Sámi homeland is the only “arena” in Finland for the traditional Sámi livelihoods. As recognised in the Finnish constitution and defined in the Act on Sámi Parliament, the Sámi homeland comprises the municipalities of Enontekiö, Inari and Utsjoki, as well as the Lapland reindeer-herding cooperative in Sodankylä.

In this native region, the Sámi have linguistic and cultural self-government. According to the Finnish constitution, the indigenous people Sámi have the right to maintain and develop their own language and culture. Sámi languages and culture depend on the traditional Sámi livelihoods. That is because the traditional livelihoods are natural domains to use the Sámi languages, to preserve the traditions and to carry the culture from generation to generation.

When threatened by competing land usage, reindeer-herders simply don’t have anywhere else to go with their reindeer. In Finland, reindeer-herding takes place in designated areas for each of the 54 reindeer-herding cooperatives. Reindeer have to stay within the boundaries of their respective reindeer-herding cooperatives. (Though reindeer-herders often visit neighbouring cooperatives to collect their stray reindeer.) Sámi reindeer-herders in Finland also can’t access summer pastures on the Norwegian coast anymore, like in the pre-1852 times.

Random communications

The Erkuna siida found out about the Hietakero reservation on their reindeer-herding pastures in mid-May. That was just one day before the official deadline for the appeal.

As is increasingly typical with large-scale “development” projects in the Sámi homeland, information about the reservation reached the indigenous rights owners of the area randomly via grapevine and newspapers. (The Sámi Parliament in Finland heard about the Arctic Railway plans in 2017 on the news). Neither the Käsivarsi reindeer-herding cooperative nor the Sámi Parliament in Finland received an official notification about the Hietakero reservation.

The official decision about the Hietakero reservation was published on the Tukes website, in newspapers and in the local municipality hall that however was closed due to the global Covid-19 pandemic! The reservation decision also coincided with the reindeer calving season (in the Sámi-language May is miessemánnu, reindeer calf month), during which Sámi have little time to keep checking the Tukes website for possible mining reservations on their reindeer pastures.

File picture showing map of Hietakero reservation area / Credit: Tukes

Hikers’ paradise

Reindeer-herders are not the only group for which the Hietakero reservation area is a scarce resource. The area is part of the Natura 2000 network, a haven to Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. The area belongs to the mire conservation programme. As an area protected under the Wilderness Act, the area also attracts hikers and nature lovers. They look for peace, untouched nature, and opportunities for birdwatching. The area is also important for fishing enthusiasts, as it is the beginning of many rivers flowing into the salmon fishing paradise River Muonio on the border of Finland and Sweden. So a lot is at stake in Hietakero.

The exploration company Akkerman Finland Oy believes based on previous research that it will find copper, nickel, gold, chromium, vanadium, titanium, cobalt, platinum, palladium, osmium, rhodium, iridium and ruthenium in the Hietakero reservation. According to Yle Sápmi, the CEO Jan H. Akkerman, a mining industry veteran with a BHP Billiton background, says that their plans are in very early stages. Recognising that the Sámi reindeer-herding, culture and language are important, they will respect these values and follow all rules and regulations to protect them, Akkerman assures.

Success even without exploiting Sámi homeland

At the time of the writing of this column, at least three official appeals have been made against the reservation, one by the Sámi Parliament in Finland. However, the appeals might not have any impact because the Supreme Administrative Court decided in 2013 that under the Mining Act reindeer-herders, reindeer-herding cooperatives and the Sámi Parliament have no right to appeal on reservations in the Sámi homeland ‒ this right is reserved to competing companies only!

In just a week, over two thousand people joined a Facebook group calling for the protection of the Käsivarsi fell area and expressing opposition to mining in the area. The Saami Council has called for the withdrawal of the Hietakero reservation.

Time will tell whether Akkerman Finland Oy will draw the same conclusion as an Irish company Karelian Diamond Resources in 2015. Following Sámi and local protests, the company withdrew its diamond mining plans, located partly in the Kevo strict nature reserve in Utsjoki. The company told the Irish Independent that instead of continuing with the plans in the Sámi homeland, it will divert its attention to another potential development in the south of Finland.

Indeed, industrial companies seem to find opportunities to add value to their shareholders even without exploitation of the indigenous Sámi homeland. As for the Sámi traditional livelihoods, the Sámi homeland is the only area available.