Honourable Court Let the Mountains Live!

Honourable Court,

I would like to return to the essence of this matter: you have the important duty of deciding the future of Southern Sámi reindeer herding, culture and livelihood. The verdict will set a precedent in a court system that is meant to be committed to recognising that the Sámi have Indigenous legal status in Norway, with the right to practice reindeer herding from time immemorial. This principle was established by the Supreme Court in the Selbu case in 2001.

As you already know, the Southern Sámi people are a small minority within the larger Sámi society, with a population of approximately 2,000 on the Norwegian and Swedish side of the border. Båatsoe, reindeer herding, is the backbone of the Southern Sámi worldview, livelihood, identity, language and traditional knowledge since about half the population are reindeer owners, relatives or descendants of reindeer owners. Internal colonisation processes, such as assimilation policies and the violation of territorial rights, have severely affected Southern Sámi communities. Reindeer herding rights have been restricted by administrative and legal measures, and many have been pushed out of their traditional livelihood. The language is listed as severely endangered by UNESCO. In Norway, it is estimated that only about half of the Southern Sámi population speak the language.

It is fundamental to understand that the Southern Sámi cultural landscape is defined and maintained through the continuous interaction between nature, animals and people. If reindeer herding is threatened, Southern Sámi culture, language and knowledge is in danger of disappearing. With increased pressure from a range of industries, it is a continuous ‘life or death’ struggle, as southern Sámi political pioneer Elsa Laula Renberg, wrote as early as 1904.

Honourable Court,

Over 100 years later, the next generation of reindeer herders are equally concerned about the future of the Southern Sámi people. On the fifth day in court, Maja Kristine Jåma’s voice was strong and clear. She did not speak of numbers and amounts, but rather about irreplaceable values:

“At Fosen, reindeer herding is the only Sámi practice that provides an environment where we can meet. Reindeer herding is our core, the very foundation of the Southern Sámi language and traditions. Having taken part in this culture from the beginning, I have learned values that I am glad to have received: values of how to think about nature, and share with it, not just harvesting it. We look after each other. We have respect for the territory we work in. There are a lot of traces of history in our areas, memories of the past, and also hope for the future.”

She takes a deep breath as she narrates the worries, despair and anxiety young Sámi feel when they think about the future:

“The real pain, if we can call it that, came when the shovels were put in the ground. When the construction road was built. Then it became serious for me. We can feel it in our bodies, because we grew up this way, with the reindeer and the land.”

Honourable Court,

What about the double climate burden? I ask, because it was not discussed in the courtroom, but is the very reason why the parties ended up there in the first place. I am aware it is not the Court’s duty to give its opinion on political priorities, but what happens when climate change mitigation measures threaten Indigenous peoples’ right to exercise their culture, identity and way of life?

While young Southern Sámis from Fovsen Njaarke Sijte expressed their concerns in Court, Indigenous leaders demanded that their voice be heard at the UN Climate Summit (COP25) in Madrid. As a matter of fact, the two happened simultaneously, during the first fortnight of December 2019. This is a good illustration of the climate change dilemma, and its double burden.

For the Norwegian government, wind power is the solution to climate change and a central part of the ‘green shift’. For Sámi reindeer herders, the wind power industry is neither green nor a shift. It adds on to existing infrastructure and disturbances that disrupt the Sámi cultural landscape. Piece by piece, the land is fragmented by dams, mines, cabins, railways, roads and tourism or recreation, without Sámi consent. What is new, is only the colour. It is nothing but green colonialism, the president of the Sámi parliament, Aili Keskitalo, claims.

There is strong global consensus that the planet is facing great challenges from climate change. Norway signed the Paris agreement in 2016, and committed to pursue efforts to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C by 2030.

Reducing emission of greenhouse gases to stop global warming through renewable energy production is an important measure in the agreement, but not without contradictions. Not without costs.

In May 2019, the UN Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) launched an alarming report. Nature and ecosystems are rapidly declining and species extinction is accelerating at a rate never seen before. According to the report, the number one threat is not climate change, but rather change in land use.

Wind power installations require extensive areas, the construction of roads, powerlines and turbines as high as 250 metres. Despite its green label, the industry contributes to massive destruction and disruption of pristine nature and the cultural landscape of the Southern Sámi. Sámi reindeer herders face the consequences of both climate change and its mitigation measures. The solution has become part of the problem.

Honourable Court,

I will get straight to the point. The report states that loss of nature and species are significantly less where Indigenous peoples manage the lands and resources. Reindeer herding leaves insignificant carbon and destructive footprints. It is greener and more sustainable than most land-use practices. It is a paradox then, that reindeer herders are accused of blocking sustainable or ‘green’ development.

Indigenous peoples’ traditional livelihoods have contributed the least to polluting and degrading the Earth. At the same time, they are the most affected by climate change.

The unstable climate stimulates new challenges that are not impossible to overcome. However, to be able to cope, it is crucial to secure access to, and maintain the balance of the cultural landscape. Effective participation and self determination of Indigenous peoples in decision making over their lands, territories and resources is crucial in order to pursue this path.

Honourable Court,

The struggle against green colonialism is not only taking place at Fosen, but all over the Southern Sámi area, from Øyfjellet in Vefsn in the north, to Stokkfjellet in Saalpove in the south. It is fought all over Saepmie, across the four colonial state borders of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

I ask: where is the justice in making the Sámi pay the high costs of climate-change politics and mitigation measures?

The message is this: we are facing a turning point in history that concerns more than just the ability of the reindeer to find food in a landscape that is becoming increasingly fragmented by industry, and even more vulnerable to climate change. It concerns the future of our planet, and the very existence of the Southern Sámi people.

Honourable Court,

Did you hear the beating drum? Did you catch the message in the wind? Did you listen carefully enough?

‘Baajh vaeride årrodh! Let the mountains live!’

The text was originally published as Eva Maria Fjellheim, ‘Honourable Court. “Baajh vaeride årrodh! Let the Mountains Live!”’ in the book Let the River Flow. An Indigenous Uprising and its Legacy in Art, Ecology and Politics, edited by Katya García-Antón, Harald Gaski and Gunvor Guttorm  (OCA / Valiz, 2020).