A scarce resource
The global pandemic forces everyone to lockdown. But so-called progress does not stop. These diary entries by Pirita Näkkäläjärvi deal with innovative ways in which the Sámi are making themselves heard.
By Pirita Näkkäläjärvi
This diary offers a glimpse into the multitude of issues faced by the Sámi community at the same time. The global COVID-19 pandemic forces us into lockdown but the threats posed by the so-called development do not sleep. New land encroachments pose a threat to traditional livelihoods and require coming up with innovative ways of making one’s voice heard. On the individual level, we enjoy the long, sunny spring with snow until the end of May, but our reindeer suffer from the long harsh winter. Moreover, the unpredictability of the weather conditions makes it increasingly hard for the Sámi culture to adapt to climate change. The diary also describes the inherent struggles of the modern, well-educated Sámi professionals: how to combine a successful career in the Western system with Indigenous advocacy driven by the obligation to give back to one’s culture and to ensure the survival of a centuries-old Indigenous culture.
The global COVID-19 pandemic reaches Finland, and the government announces measures to try to curb the spreading of the coronavirus. My employer also announces a new policy, and suddenly all of us have to work from home. My job is in Helsinki but I’m still registered as a member of my home municipality Inari, so we head home for corona lockdown. I work as an investment professional in a brand new corporate investment arm, and it’s possible to do my job involving strategic and financial analyses from anywhere in the world. As we of the younger generation adapt to remote working, our major concern here in the North are our elders. They are bearers of our culture and our languages, and we can’t afford to lose any of them to corona. Too much traditional knowledge about our traditional livelihoods would be lost with them.
The first meeting of an EU‒Sápmi think tank founded by the Saami Council. Due to the corona restrictions, we have to meet online instead of travelling to Tromsø on the Norwegian side to meet face-to-face. It’s strange to try and have a creative conversation about the possibilities for enhanced EU-Sápmi cooperation, but this is the new reality that we have to get used to for now.
Exceptionally long spring25 May 2020
We have experienced an exceptionally long spring. As I take my daily photo from our living room window in Inari facing the forest, there is still about 20 centimetres of snow around the house, and it’s the 25th of May! This reminds me of my childhood when we would enjoy cycling on slushy roads in the last week before the end of the school term at the end of May. But over the years the winters have been shorter and shorter, and the snow has melted by mid-May, sometimes even around Labour Day on 1st of May. This winter, however, in some areas there was more snow than in the last hundred years. One of these places was a neighbouring Sodankylä municipality where, according to the Finnish Broadcasting Company, the depth of the snow was 74 centimetres compared to the usual 40 centimetres.
Having a lot of snow means different things to people and animals. In terms of experiencing the spring joys, it was pure enjoyment! Social media has been abuzz with pictures of people skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling. The spring nights have also been exceptional. Bright spring nights leading to the nightless nights of the summer are a familiar phenomenon to us living in the North but having snow so late in the spring has made them even more powerful. The snow cover reflects the light and doubles or even quadruples the amount of light. I spend numerous nights up watching the dance of the sunlight on the snow and colouring the snow with shades of blue, red and gold.
The long spring has however been harsh for our reindeer and the reindeer-herders. Due to the harsh winter conditions, it was extremely hard for the reindeer to find food in the natural grazing grounds. Last autumn was cold and mushrooms, an important source of food for the reindeer, were few. Snow fell on the ground earlier and more abundantly than usual. The snow was hard and included several layers that made it hard for reindeer to dig through to find food on the ground. Part of the ground under the snow was also either frozen or mouldy. There was still a lot of snow when the female reindeer started calving, making it hard for the newborn calves to survive.
The exceptional winter with a record amount of snow meant that a lot of reindeer starved to death despite attempts by most reindeer-herders to provide them with additional nourishment. Most reindeer-herders had to drive with their snowmobiles to their reindeer every day to give them extra food, such as industrially produced fodder. The weakest reindeer had to be brought to homes to be monitored and fed. All of this was very costly for the reindeer-herders, as during normal spring reindeer find most of their food themselves.
The first reaction to this winter and spring has been to characterise them as extreme. However, we have probably only seen the beginning of what is to come in terms of the impacts of climate change on the Arctic environment and the traditional Sámi livelihoods. According to recent research by the SAAMI project funded by the Finnish government, the adaptation of the Sámi people to climate change began back in the 1960s and has resulted in profound changes in the work models of the Sámi reindeer husbandry. This speaks of the resilience of the culture and an ability to adapt to large changes. According to research, the diversity of the work models will increase in the future. A huge challenge, however, is that the level of predictability of the natural conditions and weather has decreased, and instability and abnormality are the new normal.
News about a mining reservation reaches usMid May 2020
Sámi reindeer-herders are not having an easy time this spring. Just as we let out a sigh of relief, as snow melts and reindeer calves are safely born, news about a mining reservation in the “Arm of Finland” reach us. Or in fact, reindeer-herders in the area find out through the grapevine and are taken by surprise to hear that a Dutch-owned exploration company Akkerman Finland Oy has made a reservation the size of the City of Helsinki in the reindeer-herding area of Käsivarsi.
According to earlier research, copper, nickel, gold, chromium, vanadium, titanium, cobalt, platinum, palladium, osmium, rhodium, iridium and ruthenium can be found in the area reserved. Many of these metals are in high demand by manufacturers of electric vehicle batteries. This causes a dilemma. On one hand, the electrification of traffic requires a shift from fossil-fuel-powered cars to electric cars, which means mining or otherwise securing a supply of metals like nickel, copper, vanadium and cobalt. On the other hand, the world is only beginning to wake up to the importance of the traditional knowledge of the Indigenous peoples in combatting climate change. But how can traditional knowledge survive, if land essential for traditional livelihoods is given to mining?
We know that it’s impossible for reindeer husbandry and mining to co-exist in the same area, and it’s not right that states are ready to put entire Indigenous cultures under threat due to industrialisation. Yes, our modern societies need minerals, but it can’t be right that an old, traditional livelihood of an Indigenous people is killed by another livelihood.
Cultural grants28 May 2020
Finally, we had good news despite the hard spring. The Finnish Parliament granted the Sámi Parliament so-called Christmas present money at the end of the year, and we were able to distribute 45,000 euros out of it to Sámi artists, associations and cultural workers. I am the Chair of the Cultural Committee at the Sámi Parliament, and today we announced the recipients of the grants. We tried to distribute them as widely as possible among all three Sámi language groups and to all Sámi municipalities and the cities with Sámi associations. There were more applications than grants, but I hope that these grants can support Sámi art and cultural life, at least a little bit.
A really stressful period is over. The Swedish-speaking arm of the Finnish Broadcasting Company finally releases their tv documentary “I am Sámi”. I’m one of the persons featured in it and my role is to explain the political situation of the Sámi in Finland. It’s been stressful to wait for the final results of the documentary. I’ve been worried that my words may have been misrepresented or that I may have been misquoted somehow despite the effort to make sure that everything I say is fact-based and holds even when taken out of context. The final documentary is fine. I watch it many times and admire the dramaturgy and subtle pro-Sámi messaging created by the director.
Corona hair!11 June 2020
Ok, I officially have corona hair now. My fringe is overgrown and it’s been a while since my long hair has been trimmed. A friend of mine comes to my rescue. She is an artisan and she makes me a corona hairband with Sámi decorations in my favourite colours and favourite Sámi ribbons!
A scarce resource13 June 2020
I’m working on a column about the mining reservation in the “Arm of Finland”. We Sámi people often find it hard to explain our worldview and our way of thinking to the Western world. Not because we wouldn’t have education, factual arguments and ability to explain our views, but because the general population simply doesn’t know anything about us. The Finnish school system is highly acclaimed and provides an equal starting point for everyone, but it hardly teaches anything about the Sámi.
So again, I’m trying to find ways to widen the frame of reference people use in analysing the world around them. How to explain why the Sámi homeland doesn’t welcome all industrial activities, and why the traditional Sámi livelihoods have to be a priority.
I have a column in an English-speaking website, News Now Finland. I try to write columns that provide value over a long period. This time I decide to use a term familiar from Economics and title my column “Sámi homeland ‒ A scarce resource”. My key argument is that the Sámi homeland is a scarce resource for our livelihood and that as new forms of land usage try to enter the Sámi territory, it’s not possible even by law for us to move our reindeer to another area ‒ whether a neighbouring reindeer-herding cooperative or a neighbouring country. The state borders were closed for Sámi nomadic lifestyle by the end of the 19th century, and our reindeer are not allowed to cross over to the Norwegian, Swedish or Russian side.
Petition is launchedMidsummer
It is a long story but due to the current Mining Act in Finland, there is a risk that the administrative court will not consider the complaints lodged by the Sámi reindeer-herders and the Sámi Parliament about the mining reservation in the “Arm of Finland”. According to the current legislation, Sámi reindeer-herders and Sámi Parliament don’t have a right to complain at this stage of a mining project. We find it hard to understand why indigenous rights holders and their official representative doesn’t have a say at this stage of the process ‒ there isn’t even an obligation by the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency to notify us about a reservation.
To make our voice heard, an online petition against all mining-related activities in the Arm of Finland was launched just before Midsummer. I was signatory number two after Mrs Minna Näkkäläjärvi, a reindeer-herder from the Ergon siida that would be most affected if a mine were to be established in the reservation area. There is a group of us supporting Minna with the effort. Due to Corona, we can’t meet face-to-face, so we utilise social media tools and video conferencing to work together. I’m proud of the group working around Sápmi and Finland, using their spare time and lending their expertise ranging from reindeer-herding to communications to the cause.
The petition attracted over five thousand signatures during the first week after the launch. This took us by surprise because 5,000 is a huge number for the Sámi community of 10,000 on the Finnish side. Perhaps there is momentum for a petition like this. The exceptional corona time has made people all around Finland reconnect with nature, spend more time outdoors and see the value of having areas untouched by industrial development.
Remote plenum26 June 2020
The exceptional corona times also led to exceptional measures at the Sámi Parliament of Finland. Instead of having our plenum in the Sajos Parliament hall in Inari under the golden and silver leaves of the huge art piece Eatnu, Eadni, Eana (Stream, Mother, Ground), we gathered in front of our computers to hold a remote plenum. The agenda mostly included items of technical importance, such as approving the 2019 financial statements. The upcoming plenums in the autumn will have the ongoing amendment of the Mining Act and the development of Sámi climate politics on the agenda. The Sámi Parliament operates with a very limited budget, so we 21 members of parliament gather in plenums only four or five times a year. As usual, time runs out for important discussions and it feels like we have only had time to scratch the surface on many items of the agenda.
Connecting with Lake Saimaa anti-mining network in southeastern FinlandEnd of June
The ongoing amendment of the Mining Act has increased the number of reservations made around Finland. The current legislation makes it really easy to make reservations without having to get the consent of the local communities or the indigenous Sámi people. Consequently, the Sámi homeland is not the only area that has had to welcome a reservation and a threat of future mines.
Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest newspaper in Finland, reports about reservations in the area of Finland’s biggest lake Saimaa. We learn about Mrs Miisa Mink and an anti-mining network that she had established at the end of May ‒ just like Minna Näkkäläjärvi did in Sápmi! Miisa Mink’s Facebook group has over 15,000 members, and they share the same concerns as we do: why has the Finnish state made it so easy for international exploration and mining companies to come to Finland, establish mining companies that hardly pay any taxes to Finland, leaving mining waste to be cleaned by the Finnish taxpayers, and potentially causing irreparable damage to nature?
Our little group connects with Miisa Mink’s network. We welcome support to our cause and the opportunity to share information, and to learn from each other. We all know that a reservation is only the beginning of a process to establish a mine, but on the other hand, people both in our area and in Saimaa say that just a threat of future mining operations makes the future uncertain for young reindeer-herders, landowners and tourism operators. Do you dare to invest in the future in that area, if a mine can wipe everything away?
It has been a hot summer so far. In June, in about half of the country, the temperatures have risen to new heights since temperatures have been measured in Finland. I can’t say that I’d enjoy the heat when I’m here in Inari. Spending the entire “corona spring” here in Inari instead of Helsinki has made me reflect on my childhood a lot. Somehow, I woke to the fact that I’ve always considered cold to be the default. Cold, winter and snow are the ideal. The season of the good life, happiness. Winter used to be something that would always come, in more or less the same way as before. The more we see the impact of climate change, the more we are worried about losing our winters. Our Sámi culture is adapted to winter in so many ways. Our reindeer are adapted to the winters (as long as they’re not too extreme) and suffer from excessive heat of the summer. The recent years have been really scary because everything is so unpredictable. The actual winter is shorter, winter weathers change from one extreme to the other and the snow and the ice melt earlier. It feels like the basic assumptions of our way of life are completely off for good.
New position of trust6 July 2020
The Executive Board of the Sámi Parliament in Finland nominates me to a committee that will start drafting an amendment to the current Act on Sámi Parliament. A great honour! My most important objective personally is to cause the amendment of the so-called Sámi definition. Finland is obligated by the UN Human Rights Committee to review the Sámi definition in a manner that respects the self-determination of the Sámi people. The work in the committee will start in autumn.
Wind energyMid July 2020
It’s my last political task before taking a summer break. The President of the Sámi Parliament in Finland, Mr Tuomas Aslak Juuso, and I are sent by the Sámi Parliament to visit a summer gathering of a movement against wind farms on the Norwegian side, very close to the Finnish border. We are in the area of a Sámi reindeer-herding community Lágesduottar threatened by a large wind farm of 100‒267 windmills called Davvi Wind Park by Norwegian and Finnish companies Vindkraft Nord AS, Ny Energi AS and St1. The wind farm will not be located just anywhere: it is planned in the area of the Sámi holy mountain Rastigaisa, which has at least two old Sámi places of sacrifice.
We learn a lot in the meeting, for example about the nesting of the endangered arctic fox in the area and hear about the huge stress that the entire reindeer-herding community is under due to the windfarm plans. Among the general public, the wind power is perceived as a positive thing but here windfarms are not welcomed. For the reindeer-herding Sámi they are yet another form of land encroachment that would lead to loss of grazing areas and barring of migration routes not only by the area required by the windmills but also the supporting power infrastructure and roads. It’s quite impressive that the Sámi reindeer-herding community in question was offered 123 million NOK, that is about 12 million euros, to give consent to the windfarm, but they turned down the money. The anti-wind movement has published a whole report on the negative impact of wind power on reindeer hudsbandry.
I work in an energy company, which is also active in wind energy. Do I feel a conflict, having a business career in the energy sector, and being active in indigenous advocacy that is very critical to windpower? No. Both my work and my politics are founded on the same values of sustainability, inclusion and equal rights. Taking wind energy as a case study, it’s clear that energy production has to be decarbonised and that wind energy is one of the most important future sources of electricity in the world. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to build windpower everywhere. For example in Finland there are a lot of municipalities that want to build wind farms ‒ and then there are areas where they are not welcome because they would destroy an entire indigenous culture. With my knowledge of both worlds, I have a great opportunity to be a force for good in many ways. My community needs more information on wind energy, and the energy industry needs more information about indigenous rights.
Norway for holidaysSecond half of July
Just like every other person in Finland, we also decide to spend our summer vacation in Norway. Due to the corona restrictions, it’s not possible to travel to, for example, Continental Europe for summer holidays. Therefore, we are so lucky to live so close to such amazing places to visit! Close to Vardø, the easternmost town in Norway, we even see a whale from the shore. So precious!
Al Jazeera published a piece on green colonialism in Sápmi, using the Öyfjellet wind project in Jillen Njaarke in South Sápmi as a case study.
Petition closes with over 37,000 signatures!29 August 2020
It’s the last day of the petition and we can’t believe our eyes! At midnight, when we close the online petition, the final count is 37,200 signatures! People from all over the country and, to some extent, from abroad have signed the petition. When we hit the 5,000 mark, I remember writing that we were surprised. We have been in constant awe throughout the summer, as the number of signatures just continued rising.
We have of course been helped by celebrities who lent their support and their faces to our cause, and helped us get media attention at the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Still, majority of the people who have signed are ordinary Finnish people. It’s really touching and humbling to think of all the support.
It’s the day of the handing of the petition to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Ms Krista Mikkonen. When printed out, the 37,200 signatures amounted to a ten centimetre thick pile of paper! Quite impressive. Our delegation has been in Helsinki for a couple of days. I’m still in Inari, coordinating the media and social media efforts from here. (I went back to Helsinki for one week in August for a couple of work-related meetings before our company reintroduced the remote working policy and I returned to Inari.) During the couple of days leading up to this day, we reach about a million Finnish people through the provincial newspaper Lapin Kansa (front page!), the Finnish Broadcasting company radio and television channels, the largest commercial television channel MTV, and of course social media photos and videos. I’m really pleased with the reach but what makes me even prouder are the interviews that Minna gives on air in primetime. She is so professional, fluent and spot on, and yet so authentic and just herself!
Let’s enjoy this euphoric feeling now because the work doesn’t end with the handing of the petition. The next step is to try to influence the ongoing amendment of the mining act that is due to be finalized this autumn.
Saviours4 September 2020
The Barents Observer writes about the north Norwegian summer that was saved by Finnish tourists.
Speaking at Ministry of Foreign Affairs10 September 2020
I give a Teams video conference speech at the hearing of the Government’s report on Human Rights Policy. My topic is the amendment needs of the Act on Sámi Parliament, especially in light of the 2019 resolutions by the UN Human Rights Committee. The hearing coincides with the bi-annual Day of the Sámi Dress so I’m wearing my newest Sámi dress.
Another think tank11 September 2020
The first meeting of a think tank for the Sámi cultural field initiated by the Saami Council. Our tasks include addressing the immediate challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic, and taking a ten-year review of the Pan-Sámi cultural life. This think tank is even bigger than the EU‒Sápmi think tank, and the great thing is that we also have members from the Russian side of Sápmi. It’s really important to hear about their realities, as the border and language barrier separate us, and we don’t have enough opportunities for interaction. We hear that their cultural life has also been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Preparing for a speech at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment14 September 2020
This is the last day of my diary. I’m staying up late to finish my speech for tomorrow. Our petition group got a call in the morning that four of us have been given an opportunity to speak at a hearing about the amendment of the Mining Act.
We only have three minutes each, so we have divided the topics. I’ll speak about the indigenous rights of the Sámi, and the right to free, prior and informed consent that should be properly included in the amended act. There are 900 persons registered for the event and we didn’t expect to win the speech “lottery”, so the preparation was a bit last minute! But, that’s how life is for a Sámi politician.