Indigenous people in the EU: the Sami people and their struggle for recognition

Kiruna, Northern Sweden – Climate change

by Jennie Marcela Salinas Guifarro

The European Union has been engaged in promoting and defending the rights of indigenous people since the 90s of the past century. Supporting the fact that partnership with indigenous peoples is essential to satisfy the objectives of poverty elimination, sustainable development, and the strengthening of respect for human rights and democracy as stated in the Working document of 1998, it has built up a policy framework to promote and protect these rights with particular attention from the Council and the European Parliament. In the territory of EU member states Denmark, Finland and Sweden live the only Artic indigenous peoples, the Saami People and the Kalaallit, Greenland Inuit.


The Saami people

As a result of the 1982 referendum for the withdrawal of Greenland from the European Communities, the Kalaallit people are not part of the EU, therefore the only indigenous people belonging to the EU are the Sami. The Sami, also spelled Saami and Sámi, are indigenous people that live in the region of Sápmi that cover the northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula in Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. The exogen term to refer to this population was Laplanders or Lapps, but they are considered as discriminatory by the Sami people. The Sami are descendants of nomadic people whose basis of their economy was reindeer herding along with costal fishing, fur trapping, and sheep herding. Even if there is no reliable information on the population, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) is estimated that they number between 50,000 and 100,000.

In the past, these population have been victim of discrimination from the states of the region, the religion and the language have been banned for decades and they have been deprived from the rights of their lands. Nowadays, even if the Sami population does not have to deal with socio economic concerns regarding most indigenous people across the world, they still struggle for the full recognition of their rights.

This is evidenced by the repeated attempts from the states to act assimilation policies. Likewise, states’ expropriation of land traditionally used by the Sami people without their free and informed prior consent is a threat to their livelihoods, language and culture. Additionally, climate change – as the Artic region warms twice as fast as the global average – affects the Saami people who depend on the artic climate for their living. The solution to this has many times dangerous effects on the population, as pointed out by many indigenous leaders. During the COP26 in 2021 the issue of green colonialism was stressed by Sami people. The practice of land grabbing for the excuse of renewable energy, for the development of wind farms, hydroelectric plants and the extraction of minerals used for batteries for electric cars is reducing and destructing vulnerable ecosystems and nature. Also, the construction of buildings and roads, as well as the tourism activities have resulted in loss and fragmentation of pasture lands, with harmful effects on reindeer movement and on their reproductive levels and survival.

Furthermore, the original traditions of the Sami have been disappearing. More efforts can be done to facilitate and promote their culture, for instance the use of the language as they encompass nine language groups.


EU engagement for the protection of the indigenous population

The EU contributes and applies the UN legal instruments that safeguard indigenous people, but it also has been developing its own legislation. The beginning of the EU work on this issue started in 1998 with the Communication from the Commission to the European Council on a Partnership for integration: a strategy for Integrating Environment into EU Policies and the EC working document of May of the same year named “On support for indigenous peoples in the development co-operation of the Community and member states” that set general orientations for the support of indigenous people. The working document was welcomed by the Council Resolution of November of the same year, as stated in the Resolution, it recognized that the “cooperation with and support for the establishment of partnerships with indigenous people is essential for the objectives of poverty elimination, sustainable development of natural resources, the observance of human rights and the development of democracy”.

In June 2002 a Report from the Commission to the Council was submitted to review the progress of the working with indigenous people and in November, in order to encourage the EU to implement the efforts to support and protect indigenous right the Council Conclusions were adopted. In 2008 the EU Guidelines on Human Right Defenders was adopted, it provides assistance to human rights defenders because of their importance as “natural and indispensable allies in the promotion of human rights and democratisation in their respective countries”. The European union human rights defenders’ mechanism was also launched. through EU’s capacity-building programmes and through its fieldwork and accompanying programmes has been active in protecting and supporting also the defenders of indigenous people’s rights.

An important step from the EU has been taken in 2016 when, for the first time the indigenous people were included in the EU Annual Reports on Human Rights and Democracy in the World, since then a special section dedicated to them has been included. A Joint communication to the European Parliament and the Council named An integrated European Union policy for the Artic was adopted in April 2016 for a “safe, stable and prosperous Artic”. Section 3.3 underlines the EU engagement with Artic indigenous peoples and local communities to make sure that “their views and rights are respected and promoted in the ongoing development of EU policies affecting the Arctic”.

In October 2016 a joint staff working document Implementing EU External Policy on Indigenous Peoples was published. In 2017 The new European Consensus on Development was adopted and an important study on the situation of indigenous children with disabilities was published. In 2018 resolution on violation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the world, including land grabbing was adopted. In 2019, the adoption of the European Green Deal in 2019 and the reforms that aim to propose a new growth strategy for the EU can be seen as an opportunity to strengthen the dialogue with indigenous people in EU actions.

Real steps for the recognition of the rights of the indigenous population

All member states have signed the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), an important instrument for the recognition, protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples. In 2020, the EU supported the implementation of the UNDRIP at country level, through its programming activities, but also through its political and human rights dialogues. The EU has been supporting the realisation of indigenous peoples’ rights by implementing and reviewing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 of 1989 is the most important international law for the indigenous and tribal people. It recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination within a nation-state, while setting standards for national governments regarding indigenous peoples’ economic, socio-cultural and political rights, including the right to a land base. This Convention is binding for the nation-states that ratify it. Only few EU Member states have ratified it: Denmark, Netherlands, Spain. On 23 June 2021 Germany deposited the instrument of ratification that will enter into force on 23 June 2022 and encouraged other countries to do the same. The Convention is entirely compatible with the acquis and is more stringent in most areas relating to the social, economic and cultural rights of indigenous people. The EU cannot ratify the ILO Convention 169 but should do more by pressing all member states to do so.

Putting it all together, the EU has been somehow successful in raising concern for indigenous population. The integrating procedures, guidelines and handbooks have been crucial to develop measures in their favour. It also provides support to local communities through funding programmes such as the national ESIF programmes, the Territorial Cooperation programmes and the programmes under the European Neighbourhood Instrument. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the intervention of the EU have a non-binding effect. More can be done to construct a better dialogue with local indigenous population.

Indigenous people are the most affected by the consequences of the climate change as they are mostly dependent and related to the nature for their livelihood. Their different approach to the nature that see the elements of Mother Nature as sacred and vital can help us to better understand how to deal with the nature and so how to do better policies for its conservation. Climate justice and the rights of indigenous people go hand in hand.