Sámi activists win fishing rights case

A Lapland court ruled that Sámi people don't need to buy a special permit to fish on northern rivers because their rights to do so are enshrined in the Finnish constitution.

(L-R) Esko Aikio, Piia Nuorgam (Chair of ALVA Sámi Human Rights Association), Kati Eriksen, Anne Nuorgam, Heidi Eriksen / Credit: Kati Eriksen

Lapland District Court delivered a victory to five Sámi from northern fishing communities, in two landmark cases that have an important significance for indigenous rights in Finland.

Anne Nuorgam, Heidi Eriksen, Kati Eriksen and her 17-year old son went fishing without a license on Vetsijoki river in the summer of 2017. By law, they’re supposed to obtain the necessary permits from Metsähallitus, the state-owned enterprise which manages countryside resources.

The group then turned themselves in to authorities, so that the case would have to come to court to be heard.

A separate case involving Esko Aikio was also heard today. He was caught net fishing for salmon out of season on Utsjoki river, also in northern Lapland.

In all cases, the charges were dismissed and the court found the Sámi were merely exercising their constitutionally-protected cultural rights: and that they didn’t need any special permit to go fishing.

“We started all smiling in the very early part when the judgment was read because there was so much argumentation going in our favour” says Kati Eriksen, one of the Sámi women from northern fishing communities who were accused in the test case.

Sámi innate rights affirmed by court

The court decision boils down to the question of whether Sámi people have innate rights to fish on rivers and lakes in their traditional homeland areas, or whether they need to apply for permits from the Finnish state.

”What we hope mostly is that for all the legislation which has been written that affects Sámi, that lawmakers will very carefully think about how does it affect Sami, and if it does, they will follow the constitution, the paragraph which allows us to follow our own culture” Eriksen tells News Now Finland.

She also responded to some online critiques, which questioned why Sámi people would be exempt from buying permits, if other Finns have to buy permits.

“The Finnish peoples’ rights to practice their own culture is not based on fishing on Sami rivers, it’s our cultures that are tied to fishing. This is for protection and for continued survival of the indigenous culture” explains Eriksen.

She likens the ruling to a form of positive discrimination which is similar to someone with a wheelchair who uses a ramp to get into a building. They cannot be treated like someone who uses the stairs, so only through positive discrimination and a special arrangement are they able to get inside.

(L-R) Kati Eriksen, Anne Nuorgam, Heidi Eriksen on a fishing trip / Credit: Kati Eriksen

Government plans to clarify fishing rights

The government has been working on an amendment to the Fishing Act which they believe could clarify the situation regarding licenses.

Their plan is to offer Sámi peope a personal fishing license valid for a year in their own municipality.

However, the proposal does not satisfy many Sámi.

“Our rights were wiped and our rights were sold to outsiders and what is the solution for the future? I am not the one to say what is the best arrangement, it is not for me and not for the five of us to tell, it has to be in negotiations and good spirits with the Sámi communities here and those who are affected” Kati Eriksen says.