The Sami People and the Northern Sea Route: Juridical, Social amd Cultural Concerns

(By Lars-Nila Lasko, with Gail Osherenko ; INSROP Working Paper No. 154 – 1999, IV.4.1)


The Sami occupy the westernmost end of the NSR which exerts considerable political, economic, and social influence on the Barents Euro-Arctic region. With increased use, the NSR will stimulate economic activity in the region, directly affecting Sami interests and rights. The NSR must develop policies to protect Sami rights and culture, to include them in any benefits, and to mitigate any adverse consequences to their livelihood and culture. The paper describes in some detail the political and legal institutions of the Sami likely to be encountered by the users and promoters of the NSR. It describes the network of Sami organizations, governmental and non-governmental, that regulate relations between the Sami as a distinct ethnic group and the four nation states (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia) within which they reside. The paper also describes the international organizations and institutional framework, which are increasingly important in ethnic and indigenous affairs today.

The overwhelming majority of Sami live in Norway. Expanded use of the NSR will directly effect only the Sami population in Norway and Russia, although Sami in neighboring regions of Finland and Sweden could be indirectly affected. The NSR and developed projects related to and dependent upon it will have effects on a population spread over a very large area. Thus, developments connected to the NSR could effect the Sami differently in different areas.

Expanded use of the NSR will certainly impact the sea-fishing Sami areas in Norway and Russia as well as the harbors of the northern Norwegian and Russian coastline, particularly Narvik in Norway and the harbors of Murmansk in Russia. Since the largest harbors at Narvik in Norway and Murmansk in Russia are connected to large cities with already developed infrastructure and industry, the impact of increased shipping through these harbors would not be likely to have a significant effect on the Sami people, culture or rights. However, plans to construct a large, year-round, deep water port in the Petsjenga fjord in connection with transport and supply of the offshore oil and gas fields of the eastern Barents Sea would undoubtedly have an impact on local population of the region.

The general effects of international use of the NSR for the majority population in Russia and Norway also affect the minority populations within the region. Sami along with other Russians and Norwegians, will benefit from the economic stimulus of increased shipping, tourism, and oil and gas development in the northern waters.

Of the entire Sami population, only a very small percentage earn their primary income from a Sami industry. Nevertheless, the Sami industries are of major significance for the entire Sami population. In addition, many Sami have links with a Sami industry, either by engaging in a Sami industry as a supplemental source of income or to provide for their domestic needs such as through fishing or making Sami handicrafts.

Sami fishing is the oldest branch of Sami industry with long traditions in Sami culture. Sami fishing can be divided into sea fishing and inland fishing. Sami sea fishing is carried on only in Norway and Russia where there is a distinct Sami fishing culture. Sami inland fishing is carried on throughout the entire Sami area. Expanded use of the NSR could have particularly significant impacts on Sami sea fishing in Norway and Russia. As the NSR provides infrastructure for transporting raw materials extracted from the north as well as supplies to the North, the NSR will affect the methods, timing, and scale of resource development in the Barents and Kara Sea. A large section of the Sami population in Norway and Russia are coastal Sami people who from time immemorial have been fishing along the Norwegian and Russian coast and at sea. Both lawyers and the main Sami organizations have asserted that certain coastal rights exist for the coastal Sami population in Norway. These rights, however, have not been confirmed in legislation. If special coastal rights exist for the indigenous coastal Sami and other long term coastal residents in Russia, these too have not been confirmed in legislation. Nevertheless, rights may exist and eventually be confirmed relying on international law, the Russian Constitution, and various edicts of the Russian Federation.

Reindeer keeping is one of the most specifically Sami industries and has had a major influence on Sami culture. Among the Sami industries, only the reindeer industry has been regulated by law, and only reindeer keepers have been accorded special legal status. The need for regulation of land use conflicts between the reindeer industry and other non-Sami industries such as farming and forestry led to the recognition of special legal status for Sami herders. In addition, the Swedish and Norwegian nation states have regarded reindeer keeping as one of the most important cultural factors for the continuation of Sami culture. Thus, reindeer keeping gained official status in the legal systems of Norway and Sweden and remains officially the most important cultural factor for the Sami culture. The fact that reindeer keeping for a long time officially has been the most important cultural factor has also affected the nation states' policies toward the Sami and the legislation surrounding the Sami society.

Legislation differs considerably among the Fenno-Scandinavian countries. What the legislation on the reindeer industry in the various Fenno-Scandinavian countries has in common is that it is based on prescription from time immemorial, which means that the right to breed reindeer cannot be abolished simply by changing the law. The right to keep reindeer is a strong right. In Sweden and Norway, the right to keep reindeer covers also subsidiary rights such as fishing and hunting rights.

Reindeer keeping extends over large areas of land. Thus, the reindeer industry has to exist side by side with other industries and other forms of land use. It is unavoidable that conflicts occur between the interests of the reindeer herders and other interests. Building harbors and the infrastructure connected to harbors such as roads, buildings etc. will probably effect the Sami reindeer keeping. However, the right to keep reindeer is a strong right in Norway which may create lawsuits and legal obstacles to harbor development in Norway.

The fact that the Sami live in four separate states means from a legal point of view that common questions for the whole Sami people are international questions and a part of international law. At the XIIth Sami conference at Еre, Sweden in 1986, the Sami decided to commission the then Nordic Sami Council to prepare a draft Sami convention. In 1990, the (renamed) Sami Council appointed a special legal committee with instructions to prepare and present a draft Sami convention to apply in all four states with Sami populations. The committee then prepared a proposition of principal problems which was discussed by the Sami Council in Helsinki, Finland on 19 May 1992. The Sami Council presented the proposition to the Sami conference in Helsinki which passed the proposition on 15 - 17 June 1992.

Effects of future use of the NSR on the Sami population will depend on specific development plans and the ways in which they might be realized. As more definite programs and plans become known, further studies should be undertaken to determine their impacts on the Sami population and culture and to determine the degree to which such plans are compatible with national and international laws protecting the rights of Sami and indigenous peoples more generally.


    Lars-Nila Lasko, with Gail Osherenko, 1999, The Sami People and the Northern Sea Route: Juridical, Social amd Cultural Concerns, INSROP.©