Under Sweden’s Presidency of the European Union (EU) Council, the EU Forest Directors’ meeting was held, from 15-17 May 2023, in Syöldate/Skellefteå, Sweden, in the heart of Sápmi, the traditional land of the Saami People. Although forest-related issues are central to Saami culture, not a single Saami representative was invited to attend the meeting. To find sustainable solutions for the future, this recurring exclusion and democratic deficit must be addressed.
Opinion piece by:
- Johan Jonsson, Chairman, Mausjaur Saami reindeer district
- Peter Larsson, Chairman, Maskaure Saami reindeer district
- Jonas Larsson, Chairman, Malå Saami reindeer district
- Karin Nutti Pilflykt, Forest Advisor, Saami Council/Sámiráđđ
The Saami are Europe’s only recognised Indigenous People. Sweden has often been criticised for its treatment of the Saami, both by the United Nations (UN) and the EU Council, especially on matters relating to land exploitation, lack of consultation and inclusion, and the systematic violation of the Saami’s right to culture and language. And yet, in keeping with Sweden’s colonial track record, no Saami representative was invited to participate in the EU Forest Directors’ meeting – this, despite the fact that it took place on Saami land, and that forest issues are inextricably intertwined with Saami People’s rights.
Both Swedish and international law contains rules that require the Swedish state to promote Saami culture, as well as to include the rights of the Saami People in decisions concerning issues that affect them. Forest management is undoubtedly one such issue.
The meeting of EU Forest Directors, Member States’ senior officials in the forestry sector, was held in Sápmi, in Skellefteå – Syöldate, in the Saami language. Here, traditional reindeer husbandry is practised in three Saami reindeer districts: Mausjaur, Maskaure and Malå. Although the meeting was held in the Saami heartland, the Swedish Government chose not to invite its Indigenous People. Why does Sweden actively choose to exclude Saami representation? Why do they deliberately try to make us invisible?
Sweden’s prevailing forestry methods, especially clear-cutting, have a very negative impact on Saami traditional reindeer husbandry. Daily, the forest industry damages and destroys forests rich in ground- or hanging-lichen, the reindeer’s food source during the winter time. Safeguarding old-growth and natural forest is fundamental to reindeers’ survival, but over a period of only 60 years, the lichen-abundant forestland in Sweden’s boreal landscape declined by a staggering 70 per cent. The continuing trend is alarming, both for the lichen and for everyone who lives in, and whose livelihoods depend on forests.
Held up against Sweden’s own environmental objectives, its forest biodiversity shows a downward trend. Government authorities attribute this development mainly to ongoing clear-cutting and fragmentation of forests with conservation values, resulting in a further reduction of habitats for a number of threatened species, many of which are protected under the Natura 2000 Network and the Birds and Habitats Directives.
The UN Expert Panel on Biodiversity (IPBES) indicates that biodiversity, and the ecosystem services it sustains are better protected in areas under stewardship by Indigenous Peoples. In a meeting about forestry, it is only right – and more effective – to include and incorporate the knowledge of those who manage them best, i.e., we, Indigenous Peoples.
A fundamental part of Saami culture is our responsibility to safeguard future generations’ capacity to cultivate the land; for that to be a reality, one must use, not overuse, the land. We must now ask: is our perspective about what ecosystems can withstand unwelcome?
Previously, during the first meeting of the EU Council under Sweden’s presidency, the colonial trait was also on display, when it was announced that the state-owned LKAB company plans to open another mine in an area of Sápmi that is already heavily exploited. Further intrusion on Sámiland will make it impossible for the Saami reindeer herders in the area surrounding Kiruna to carry out reindeer husbandry: their right to practise their culture will once again be violated.
We are very concerned that, during the EU Forestry Directors’ meeting, issues highly relevant to the survival of Saami culture were once again discussed over our heads.
We, the Saami People, see a recurring pattern of exclusion. A systemic democratic deficit exists. We therefore now urge both the Swedish government and the EU Council, to make sure to include Saami representation in the remaining part of Sweden’s presidency. It is important that the EU Council, the Commission and the Parliament include Saami representation in all forthcoming meetings that affect us. To find sustainable solutions for the future, we must be involved, not silenced.