Sweden’s indigenous people win rights battle

Sweden’s nomadic reindeer herders have won a 30-year battle for land rights in a court case that has heard accusations of state racism towards the country’s only indigenous people.

A decision in Gällivare district court on Wednesday granted the tiny Sami village of Girjas, inside the Arctic circle, exclusive rights to control hunting and fishing in the area, restoring powers stripped from the Sami people, or Laplanders, by Sweden’s Parliament in 1993.

After a long struggle, during which the Swedish Sami Association petitioned the European Commission and the Court of Human Rights, the case came to court in Sweden last year.

“It is a symbolic step towards getting Sami rights acknowledged, and we hope that this verdict can shape policies towards Sami issues in Sweden. That was the main goal,” said Åsa Larsson Blind, the vice-president of the Sami Council, which represents Sami people in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia.

Lawyers for the state claimed that the indigenous status of the Samis was irrelevant to the case.
“Sweden has in this matter no international obligations to recognise special rights of the Sami people, whether they are indigenous or not.”

In an open letter, 59 academic researchers, including ethnographers and anthropologists of the Sami Research Centre at Umeå University, Sweden, condemned the lawyers for using the “rhetoric of race biology” and revealing “a surprising ignorance of historical conditions”.

Larsson Blind said she was relieved that the court had seen through the “colonial speech” of state representatives.

Sweden does not register the ethnicity of its citizens, so exact numbers are not known, but about 20 000 Sami are estimated to live there, with a minority continuing the traditional reindeer-herding way of life. The Sami language was recognised as an official minority language in 2000.

Sweden’s Sami are also battling plans by Britain’s Beowulf Mining to mine iron ore in the country’s far north. – © Guardian News & Media 2016

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