Nikolas Sellheim

Nikolas Sellheim

Nikolas Sellheim is a student of M.A. Polar Law at the University of Akureyri and holds a Bachelor degree in Scandinavian Studies from the Humboldt-University in Berlin, Germany, and Circumpolar Studies from Bodø University College, Norway. His research interests include the rights of indigenous peoples, with special focus on the Sámi; regional governance in the Arctic; and environmental Arctic policy. He is currently a researcher for the Arctic Centre, Rovaniemi, in the “EU Arctic Footprint and Policy Assessment Project” and is involved in the “Postcolonial Greenland” Project of the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

Grein birt í: Lögfræðingur 2010

The Tradition and the State – Sámi Reindeer Husbandry and the For- estry Challenge in Northern Finland


The Sámi are Europe’s only indigenous people, traditionally inhabiting their homeland, Sápmi, in northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and northwestern Russia on the Kola Peninsula. The Sámi population in the whole of Sápmi ranges between 70.000-100.000. Approximately 7.500 Sámi live in Finland. Reindeer husbandry plays an important role for the Sámi self-identification as an indigenous people. Although not many Sámi are engaged in reindeer husbandry, it is symbolic for and representative of their indigenousness (Lehtola Undated).1 This article deals with traditional Sámi reindeer husbandry in the early 21st century and the challenges to its continued existence alongside the modern forest industry. The focus of the article will be on the dispute in the northern Finnish community of Nellim, which is marked by complex discourses on traditional and modern land use, the rights of the Sámi population in international law, and the legal regulation of a traditional activity within the modern construct of a nation state. It is argued that reindeer husbandry as a government-regulated agricultural activity contradicts traditional reindeer herding, inevitably leading to the dissolution of the latter due to the fact that, despite the legal protection of reindeer husbandry as a Sámi cultural heritage, economic interests – for example, in the form of forestry considerations – prevail. Moreover, the article proposes the hypothesis that despite the recognition of the Sámi as an indigenous people, the rhetoric, discourses and practice dealing with Sámi rights show assimilatory tendencies.

This article is divided into seven parts. The next part will provide a short overview of the legislation dealing with reindeer husbandry and forestry. This is followed by a presentation of the conflict in Nellim, which has a multilayered complex structure. The utilization of international law to solve the conflict – notwithstanding the exi- stence of protective provisions for reindeer husbandry in national law – constitutes the fifth part of the article. Finally, it is argued in part six that the political will in Finland is not sufficient in order to guarantee a sustainable, stronger degree of Sámi rights. The last part will briefly summarize the findings of this article.

Reindeer Husbandry and Forestry in Finland

State-lands in Finland, which constitute about 90% of all lands in northern Finnish Sápmi, have been administered by the ‘Finnish Forest and Park Service’, Metsähallitus, since the mid-1800s. In addition to being a government agency, Metsähallitus is also a state-owned corporation. Reindeer husbandry and forestry are both con- trolled by Metsähallitus, but differ significantly from an economic or quantitative perspective: while about 90.000 people are primarily employed in forestry2, merely 4.800 people in Finland own reindeer.3  In 2008, only 323 people were primarily reindeer herders.4

Since reindeer husbandry is very prone to externalities such as climatic or natural conditions or the (world) market for reindeer meat, the annual income is hard to predict. Therefore, Finnish reindeer herders are dependent on subsidies from the EU, which are based on three criteria: eligibility for subsidies is restricted to herders between 18-66 years of age with other income of less than 26.000€ and possessing herds containing at least 80 animals.5

The Act on Reindeer Husbandry 1990 is the legal basis for reindeer husbandry. In contrast to Sweden and Norway, where reindeer husbandry is an exclusive Sámi right, every EU citizen living permanently in the reindeer husbandry area is eligible to own and herd reindeer. The reindeer husbandry area is constituted of the two regions Lappi/Lapland and Oulu, comprising about 1/3 of the Finnish land area.

The reindeer husbandry area is divided into 56 districts or cooperatives, one of which a reindeer herder is entitled to be a member. As a member of a cooperative, certain pasture areas are ascribed to a herder, often being separated from pastures in the neighboring cooperatives by fences, etc. Every ten years, the Finnish Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry sets the maximum number of animals for the entire reindeer husbandry area as well as for each cooperative. If a herder strives to expand his herd, the other herders are forced to reduce their herds in order not to exceed the maximum number of animals.6 In several articles of the Finnish legislation the protection of reindeer and compensation for damages leading to a restraint of reindeer husbandry is regulated, especially as regards forestry.7 The legal regulations for reindeer husbandry do not recognize the migratory behavior of the animals, which is of fundamental importance for the sustainable aspects of traditional reindeer herding. The contemporary system regards reindeer husbandry rather as one amongst many economic activities on Finnish soil. Sámi customary law, which was a basic feature of traditional reindeer herding, is not recognized in the Finnish legislation.

Forestry in Finland is regulated by several laws, which are based on international conventions and decrees. In pursuance of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Sustainable Development, the forestry legislation was completely revised in the 1990s. The concept of ‘sustainable development’ as well as socio-ecological factors was included in the Act on Metsähallitus 1994 (revised 2004) and the Forest Act 1996. Although both acts include provisions for the protection of reindeer husbandry8, a special mandate in Section 2.1 for the activities carried out by Metsähallitus to be “[…] sustainable and profitable […]” can be found. Despite the legal obligations to protect reindeer husbandry and the rights of the Sámi, the disputes over land rights and land tenure create the impression that employment and profitability prevail over socio- ecological factors. Lawrence9 observes that issues regarding employment “trump the recognition of indigenous claims”.

Since about 2005 the profitability of forestry has decreased. Due to reduced marketing related to overproduction in Europe, increased usage of the internet and inflationary prices, several wood processing plants and pulp mills were closed down in Lapland. Primary investments have been relocated to Asia and South Africa in order to reduce costs. This practice was especially prominent during the economic crisis of 2008/2009.10  The downturn of the Finnish forest economy has been accompanied by increasing unemployment and migration from the rural areas into the larger cities, itself contributing to a weakening of the economic importance of forestry.11

Since the 1950s the strategies of the forest economy have been manifested in the National Forest Programmes. The National Forest Programme 2015 from 2008 focuses on biodiversity, sustainability and manifold usage of the Finnish forests, accompanied by projected growing revenues and “social acceptability, economic viability and ecological, social and cultural sustainability”, as well as on market- oriented forestry operations.12

The Nellim Dispute

Resistance to forestry from reindeer herders is based on the negative effects of felling operations on the pasture areas for reindeer. Primary forage for reindeer, especially in the winter, is comprised of lichens, which grow on trees or on the forest ground. Forestry adversely effects or destroys old-growth forests when especially thick trees are felled. These forests however are preferred reindeer pasture grounds due to the high abundance of decade-old arboreal lichens. Moreover, forestry machines destroy the fragile lichen cover, and residue covers the lichens, therefore cutting off their access to sunlight. Additionally, forested areas are more severely affected by changes in the weather patterns, which in times of global climate change, leads to a hardening of the snow cover which the reindeer are no longer able to dig through in order to reach the ground lichens.13

The weak position of traditional Sámi livelihoods in Finland arises because of (i) the appropriation of lands by Finnish and Scandinavian settlers; (ii) the assimilation of the Sámi into Finnish society; and (iii) the introduction of new political and economic systems which negate customary principles of traditional Sámi society. This has led to a conflict in Nellim, a village of 200 in the municipality of Inari in north-eastern Finland. This conflict can be directly related to the above-mentioned three points. 

The conflict in Nellim was characterized by the interplay of three different disputes: first, a dispute over land use; secondly, a dispute over land tenure and associated rights of the Sámi as an indigenous people in the international law context; and thirdly, a dispute over the reindeer husbandry legislation itself. Central to the dis- pute were three reindeer herding Sámi brothers, the Paadar brothers, or the ‘Nellim Group’, who counteracted forestry operations on their pasture grounds. The Paadar brothers were supported by their cooperative, by the Finnish Sámi Parliament and by the Sámi Council. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)14 served as a legal basis for their protest, strengthening their position by the assertion of reindeer husbandry as part of Sámi cultural heritage. The Nellim Group also protested against provisions in the reindeer husbandry legislation, which in turn led to resentments within the cooperative itself.15

The first and underlying dispute concerned land use. Valuable old-growth forest pasture grounds of the Nellim Group were disrupted by forestry activities in 2004, having a detrimental impact on the health and integrity of the herd. Therefore, after non-recognition of their expressed unwillingness to accept the forestry activities, in 2005 the Paadar brothers called in help from the Sámi Council and Greenpeace, who set up a camp in the forests to demonstrate against the felling. Irrespective of the international attention, which arose through the inclusion of Greenpeace, Metsähallitus continued the forestry activities. Only in August 2009 did the Nellim Group and Metsähallitus come to an agreement, which limited the forestry operations on the Paadar’s pasture areas to a great extent.16 It is important to note, however, that while Metsähallitus complied in Nellim, other areas, especially the Inari municipality, are still in the focus for future forestry activities (Inarin Paliskunnat 2009).

The second dimension of the conflict refers to international law, especially Article 27 of the ICCPR17, which Finland has ratified. After a complaint of the Paadars at the UN Human Rights Committee (now the Human Rights Council [HRC]), Metsähallitus followed the request of the Human Rights Committee to cease felling in November 2005.18  Since the usual interpretation of Article 27 includes the protection of indigenous livelihoods, the Comittee was confronted with another complaint: Sámi forest workers considered the stopping of forestry activity as a violation of their right to use the forests and accused the Committee of contributing to human rights violations with its rulings. However, the Committee’s decision to endorse the ceasing of the felling was not withdrawn.19

By the end of 2007, the legislation for reindeer husbandry triggered a conflict within the Ivalo reindeer cooperative, to which the Paadar brothers belong. This dispute can be considered the third dimension of the Nellim dispute. In order not to exceed the maximum permitted number of 6.000 for individual reindeer herders and to avoid high penalties for the whole cooperative, the Nellim group was ordered by the cooperative leaders to slaughter their surplus animals. Although the slaughter followed the legislation for reindeer husbandry, the Nellim Group and the Sámi Council considered the forced slaughter only as a means to come to a quick end to the forestry dispute.20 The Nellim Group took legal action to halt the slaughter and the Supreme Court of Finland issued an order to halt the slaughter on October 23, 2007.21   Interestingly, the already-weak reindeer herding Sámi community weakened itself by referring to an existing legal framework. Consequently, this did not contribute to an overall strengthening of reindeer husbandry or Sámi rights in the Finnish legal system.

The Protection of Sámi Rights in International Law

In Finnish law the right of the Sámi to linguistic and cultural self-determination in relation to traditional reindeer herding is weakened by economic conditions, adverse land use, prevailing land tenure practices and the associated jurisprudence. Therefore, the Sámi reindeer herders’ claims of protection for their culture and self- determination – as well as their equal participation claims – using the Finnish legal system are undermined. Since on an international level Finland values the protection of human rights, international law provides tools for the protection of indigenous rights, which can strengthen the position of the Sámi in Finland. In this context, three instruments of international law are relevant, which in the internationalization of the Nellim Dispute contributed to increase the political pressure on Finland to find a long-term resolution to the land rights issue. These three instruments are the ICCPR and especially Article 27; ILO Convention No. 169 “concerning tribal and indigenous peoples in independent countries” 1989; and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007.

Although Article 27 of the ICCPR does not explicitly mention indigenous people, in common practice it can nevertheless be considered as a standard-setting provision for the protection of indigenous peoples since they constitute a minority in most countries.22 The collective dimensions of indigenous cultures that are protected under this article are especially emphasized. The Human Rights Committee stipulated that indigenous cultures as protected under Article 27 have a very close relationship to their traditional lands and natural resources.23  With this recognition those states that have ratified the Covenant are legally bound to protect traditional activities of indigenous peoples. Ratifying states such as Finland are obliged to implement the provisions of the ICCPR into their legislation. Subjected to international pressure, Finland must now find means to meet their obligations to find a solution to the question of land use and land tenure in the traditional Sámi lands. Otherwise the country would be breaking provisions of international law as well as international human rights standards.

Another reference-point in international law in the context of the dispute in Finnish Sápmi is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, whose adoption in 2007 was endorsed by Finland.24 Despite the Declaration not being legally binding, it nevertheless reflects international norms in the protection of indigenous cultures.25 A special feature of the Declaration is that it grants indigenous peoples the right to conclude treaties, which in international law is a privilege for nation states. Moreover, it identifies indigenous peoples as the owners of their traditional lands, a tenet which nation states are obliged to respect and protect. This underlines the recognition of the special relationship between indigenous peoples and their lands as well as the respect towards indigenous land tenure systems under international law. The common practice in Finland of the state being the sole proprietor of all lands within its borders is weakened in the Declaration. Additionally, Åhrén26  emphasizes that judicial practice in the institutions of the UN decreasingly recognizes the state as the sole proprietor of non-private lands. Furthermore, restitution and compensation for the loss of lands and resources through colonization is mentioned in the Declaration for the first time and therefore corresponds to international judicial standards.

International Law as a Tool for Dispute Settlement?

ILO Convention No. 169 could potentially serve in the resolution of the land rights disputes in Finnish Sápmi, despite the Finnish non-ratification of this convention.27 However, due to the alleged effective protection of human rights in Finland, the international community expects Finnish ratification of the Convention.28  The underlying principles of the Convention aim at creating at least minimal human rights standards for indigenous peoples in order to ensure the unhindered conduct of their culture, effective participation in governance and self-determination, as well as to provide effective protection against discrimination.29  The land rights provisions in ILO Convention No. 169 strive for the creation of a solid base for the sustainability of indigenous cultures. Moreover, the Convention recognizes indigenous peoples as the proprietors of their traditional lands with all associated rights. Although the vague formulation of the articles does not provide sufficient insight into how far this recognition extends, it is generally presumed that an equal say of indigenous peoples over decisions affecting the use of their traditional lands is ensured.30

The legally binding status of the Convention would significantly strengthen the position of the Sámi in Finland in terms of land use and tenure. Finland’s reservations towards a ratification of the Convention – which, following the disputes in northern Sápmi, have attracted international attention – are primarily on the land rights provisions. Before ratification, Finnish legislation must take a step forward and must adjust its provisions corresponding to the protection of Sámi livelihoods and traditional land use. Moreover, there is an apparent need for increasing self-determination and effective participation.31 Despite several attempts to modify Finnish legislation with the aim of possible ratification of the Convention, Finland has to date been unsuccessful in answering three fundamental questions:

1. Who is protected under ILO Convention No. 169?32

2. Which are the lands the Sámi have traditionally occupied?33

3. Does the mere ‘usage‘ of lands correspond to the provisions of the Convention that refer to ‘ownership’ and ‘possession’?34

The international pressure to quickly find answers to these questions in order to enable a ratification of the Convention has drastically increased since Finland’s entry into the Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2006. However, success is yet to be achieved.

Although the rights in the UN Declaration go beyond those of the ILO Convention No. 169, Sámi organizations and the Sámi Council demand a ratification of the Convention because of its legally binding status. Notwithstanding this, the beginning of negotiations over the ratification of the Nordic Sámi Convention is expected.35

The first draft of a Nordic Sámi Convention was presented to the Nordic parliaments in November 2005. While using contemporary legal language, the draft Nordic Sámi Convention regards customary Sámi law as a trans-boundary law in Finland, Norway and Sweden; at the same time, it does not strive for secession from the nation states, i.e. an independent Sámi state. However, the draft Convention calls for increased self-determination, including the right to represent the Sámi in internatio- nal forums, thus adding an external dimension to their internal self-determination.

The draft Nordic Sámi Convention ascribes the Sámi Council and the Sámi Parliaments near-equal footing in questions regarding resources – almost on the same level as the nation states. The land and resource rights as well as the right to self-determination and cultural rights unite the provisions of the ICCPR, the ILO Convention No. 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In cases of a disagreement over land use the Sámi position supersedes non-Sámi claims. A special emphasis is placed on strengthening Sámi reindeer husbandry, the cultural significance of which is the base on which Finland is encouraged to designate reindeer husbandry as an exclusive Sámi activity in perpetuity36.

The negotiations regarding ratification of the Nordic Sámi Convention have not started at the time of writing. Of special significance is that Finland is in the process of assessing the possible impacts of the provisions set out in the Nordic Sámi Convention on the Finnish legislative framework.37 In Spring 2009 the Finnish Ministry of Justice indicated that negotiations would start in late 2009.38  However, the meeting was postponed and is set to be rescheduled for late May 2010.39

Finland and the Implementation of Sámi Rights

Despite the recognition of indigenous cultures in international law based on their different status as well as their equality before the law, Finnish legislation puts an emphasis on language as a defining trait for a Sámi person.40  Tuulentie41  stresses that the inert implementation of Sámi rights can be related to the perception of the Finnish nation as a unity, i.e. one people based on the same culture and same livelihoods. This rhetoric justifies an assimilation of the Sámi and their culture in the past, present and future, and it breaks with the principle of a people’s right to its own culture. An argument based on one Finnish people therefore compromises the right of the individual and an indigenous minority to effective and viable cultural self-determination.

Similarly, the reference to a legislative system which works for the majority of the Finnish people – and which it is not considered should be changed for a small minority – is based on quantitative rather than qualitative considerations. Tuulentie42 claims that a reference to demographic and economic statistics is reason enough to acquiesce in assimilating the Sámi into Finnish society and to the loss of their culture.

The Sámi claims for recognition and implementation of their rights moreover challenges the ideology of the Finnish Constitution – and indeed the representative democratic system itself – as being merely based on numeric and western characteristics, leaving out the customary or cultural dimension of the Sámi. Regarding the Sámi as only one stakeholder amongst many strengthens cultural disadvantages, because the benefit for the societal majority (quantitative economic gain) outweighs considerateness for qualitative aspects of culture for the Sámi. This implies the neglect of Sámi history, emphasizing the recognition of only one Finnish history, which underlines the colonialist perception of the Sámi culture as inferior to the dominant Finnish.

The Sámi culture and Sámi customary law are still regarded as backward despite official recognition of the Sámi as an indigenous people and the common practice in international law to value indigenous knowledge and culture highly. Consequently, perceptions of a colonial past are embedded into legislation and lines of argumentation. Moreover, recognition of Sámi customary rights would undermine Finland’s hegemonic powers in Sápmi, negating the governance system of exclusive possession of lands by the state and the Westphalian system of the nation state.

The reasons why Finland holds on to the above mentioned tendencies are not clear and can only be speculated upon. Especially in regards to the declining economic importance of the forest industry in northern Finland – which should strengthen a sustainable reindeer economy even more – it becomes clear that the interest and inclination of the Finnish state to foster reindeer husbandry or reindeer herding is weak. Economic integrity in Finnish Sápmi based on forestry can no longer serve as an argument when taking relocation of production and investment to Asia and South Africa into account.


This article shows the complexity of the land rights situation in Finnish Sápmi, exemplified by a conflict in the municipality of Inari. Newly introduced administrative and land use systems have weakened the Sámi culture and especially reindeer husbandry while economic feasibility (forestry) emerged to trump indigenous culture. In the municipality of Inari this has led to conflict between Sámi reindeer herders and the Finnish Forest and Park Service, Metsähallitus, which, due to the complexity of international law and associated land rights and rights to self-determination, has taken several years to reach settlement.

Since Finland has failed to take effective measures to implement international norms into its legislation, the ratification of the Nordic Sámi Convention remains an open question. This is in part due to its land rights provisions, which are more sophisticated than those in ILO Convention No. 169, yet to be ratified.

End notes 

1. In this article, the western term ‘Lapland’ will not be used to describe the Sámi homeland; rather it will be referred to as ‘Sápmi’, the Sámi name for their traditional lands. ‘Lapland’ will be used to describe the northernmost administrative region in Finland.

2. Finnish Forest Association Undated.

3. Paliskuntain Yhdistys 2009.

4. Statistics Finland 2009.

5. Myrvoll 2004: 100, 104, 108, 109.

6. Myrvoll 2004: 100, 101, 109.

7. Cf. Reindeer Husbandry Act, Chapter 1, Section 2.1. or Chapter 7, Section 42.3.

8. Cf. Act on Metsähallitus 1994/2004 Section 4.2.; Forest Act 1996 Section 6.1.

9. 2007: 164.

10. Hänninen and Sevola 2008.

11. Pohjanpalo and ben-Aron 2009.

12. Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry 2008: 11, 12.

13. Kumpula et al. 2007: 172.

14. Article 27. In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.

15. Helsingin Sanomat 2008.

16. Saami Council 2009.

17. Helsingin Sanomat 2008.

18. Metsähallitus 2005a.

19. Metsähallitus 2005b.

20. Reindeer Blog 2007a.

21. Helsingin Sanomat 2007.

22. UNDG 2008: 10.

23. OHCHR 1994: Section 3.2.

24. Tesar Undated

25. Åhrén (2007b: 126) stipulates that despite the non-binding character of the Declaration, the rights in it are, since they reflect legally- binding human rights applied to indigenous peoples.

26. Åhrén 2007b: 125.

27. The Convention, which can be considered the most important binding document for indigenous peoples to date, has been ratified by 20 states, including Norway and Denmark. Ratification obligates states to implement the provisions of the Convention as applicable law in their legislation.

28. Joona 2008: 123.

29. Thornberry 1998: 17; Joona, T. 2006: 176.

30. Ulfstein 2004: 25-27.

31. Joona 2003: 42.

32. Discourses on the definition of the term ‘Sámi’.

33. The definition of the Sami Homeland in the Finnish legislation is artificial without a real connection to the traditionally inhabited lands. Historical land rights are of central importance in this context.

34. In Finland, propriety rights have not been assessed in the context of the ILO Convention No. 169; Joona 2006: 182.

35. Saami Council 2007.

36. Åhrén 2007a: 27, 28, 30.

37. Koivurova 2008: 292.

38. Finnish Ministry of Justice 2009.

39. Finnish Ministry of Justice 2010.

40. Act on the Sámi Parliament, Section 3.1.

41. 2002: 352.

42. 2002: 349, 350.


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