Finnish Sámi reindeer husbandry and ILO-convention


In the following, I will shortly review Sámi, the Sámi Homeland, and the Sámi population, also Sámi livelihoods and some topical questions related to reindeer husbandry, forestry and the ongoing debate on the Sámi as indigenous people. In the Sámi area live about 1.5 million people. Of these, however, only 70 000 people belong to a minority group accepted to Sámi origin in regard to their culture.

I go through the concept of the Sámi, Sámi region in Finland, the ecological standpoint, the Sámi reindeer herding in Finland, the traditional and current reindeer husbandry, the snowmobile revolution, the question of whether forestry is a threat to the Sámi reindeer husbandry, and finally the question of Sámi rights and ILO Convention.

The Sámi reindeer herding in Finland

Reindeer herding is practised in all parts of the Sámi regions of the Nordic countries. It has been the most important livelihood for Sámi people during the past two hundred years. However, in recent decades the situation has changed in Finland. Before going further into details of Sámi reindeer husbandry, it is necessary to consider reindeer herding cooperatives, which play a central role in organization of reindeer herding in Finland. The Finnish reindeer husbandry territory is divided into cooperation districts. Each reindeer owner is a member of one cooperative. The cooperatives organize most part of the management of its members' reindeer herds.

Altogether reindeer husbandry is practised in 56 herding cooperatives, 12 of which are located in the Sámi region. About 86 % of the reindeer in the Sámi home region are owned by Sámi, which means slightly over one third of Finland's entire reindeer population.

The traditional reindeer husbandry was different from the current one

Earlier reindeer herding communities lived apart from one another, so the types of over-grazing problems we see today were locally rather restricted. Only the period following the Second World War has been a time of far-reaching changes in the whole reindeer herding area, including the co-operatives of northern Lapland. There is no longer anything traditional about reindeer husbandry in the area aside from freely grazing herds. Work on the terrain is done with snowmobiles and two- and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles, and even slaughtering has been transferred, by EU regulations, to well-managed and hygienic slaughterhouses.

One significant change from the traditional reindeer husbandry is intensive feeding. In many reindeer herding cooperatives, the reduction of natural grazing is compensated by bringing in additional fodder from outlying areas more than ever before. This means that the once self-supporting reindeer husbandry has increasingly been transformed so that it is now dependent on external resources. Traditional reindeer husbandry was in harmony with the natural environment, satisfying all the subsistence needs, including food and clothing, of each member of the community. The requirements of reindeer herding families in those days were more modest than they are today, and communities could live well within the limits of natural grazing.

Is forestry a threat to the Sámi reindeer husbandry?

In recent public debate about forests in northern Lapland, it has been strongly suggested that forestry alone has brought reindeer husbandry to financial despair. In particular, Sámi Parliament and environmental organizations have demanded shutting down forestry in order to secure the interests of reindeer husbandry. However, no material evidence has been presented to prove that forestry carried out in the area would restrict the amount of reindeer or has impeded reindeer husbandry. The forestry practiced in Sámi reindeer herding region is limited and over 60 % of forests in upper Lapland are already protected.

The number of reindeer has increased 2.5-fold since the early 1970s. The number was highest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, more than three times compared to the year 1970. During the same period of time, logging volumes in State-owned forests have decreased by 20%. The volumes were highest in the late 1970s and early 1980s, nearly 1.5-fold compared to the 1970s. Since then, the logging volumes have reduced to a half, despite claims to the contrary.

In my opinion, the problems of reindeer husbandry are attributed more to internal economic factors in the reindeer herding co-operatives rather than to forestry. Fragmented ownership and increased feeding have lead to an overgrazing situation which is seen in the Upper Lapland national parks as erosion of lichen ranges and absence of new birch growth. Since, the problems of Sámi reindeer husbandry lie elsewhere than in forestry operations, reducing forest harvests would provide only a little subsidy to an already subsidised livelihood.

In Upper Lapland, the real problem of reindeer herding is not so much forestry, but the simple fact that there are too many reindeer owners. In the Finnish Sámi region, there are about a thousand Sámi reindeer herders, of whom 60% own less than 50 heads. The average reindeer income of these herders is about EUR 3500 per year, which means that most of the earnings come mainly from sources outside of reindeer husbandry. Hence, the importance of reindeer herding to Sámi economy can be questioned. However, its cultural importance has not been assessed.

In disputes connected with forestry and the sufficiency of reindeer pastures in Upper Lapland, the main question is weather there is room for both modern forestry and reindeer husbandry. It has been claimed that the forests must be preserved to enable the reindeer herders' current way of life. However, the studies on pastures show that this life style hardly meets the criteria of sustainable development. The economic values of forestry and reindeer herding can be evaluated to come up with a solution in which there is room for both activities.

Research information helps to understand which choices are realistic. Even though there is lot of research on status of reindeer pastures, forests and grazing, mutual understanding has been difficult because of political reasons. Therefore, it would be beneficial for political decision-makers to take a closer look at conclusions of these studies, and to sit around the same table with researchers to discuss.

Sámi rights and ILO Convention

Since the Second World War, there have been many proposals in Finland regarding the establishment of the Sámi's land and water rights. In particular during the 1990s, this issue became topical in connection with the ratification of the ILO (International Labour Organisation) Convention associated with the rights of indigenous peoples. Matters relating to the ILO Convention have been dealt with very broadly in the Nordic countries in recent years. For example, in Finland Vihervuori in 1999 and in 2001 Governor of Lapland Ms Hannele Pokka´s committee endeavoured to arrive at a solution to the Sámi issue which would have meant Finland ratifying the general ILO Convention.

In Finland, when talking of Sámi livelihoods, for the sake of clarity it needs to be said that these are followed not only by the Sámi themselves, but also by the Finnish descendants of formerly Sámi (Lappish) speaking population. Reindeer husbandry in Norway and Sweden differs from that in Finland. The reason for this lies in the settlement history of the northern part of Finland. The reindeer nomadic Sámi, the forest Lapps (also a group of Sámi people), and the Finnish peasants have together inhabited the wildernesses of the Sámi region since at least the 1700s. Local means of earning an income continue to be shared by everyone in the district. It thus seems difficult to elevate one group of Lappish people (the Sámi speaking faction) merely on the basis of language to a superior status compared to another permanent group (the Finnish speaking faction). However, appealing to the ILO Convention Sámi Parliament requires confining the practising of various kinds of livelihoods only to people entered in the Sámi register.

I consider it extremely questionable to arrange land and water rights solely on the basis of the ILO Convention, ignoring the existing documentary evidence on land use rights going back three generations and even more, thereby depriving some people of their rights, while willingly granting these to others. The grounds for such a distinction would be language, rather than historical rights.

The Ministry of Justice commissioned a study on Lapland land rights from the University of Oulu and University of Lapland, and the study was completed in October 2006 and published in the Ministry series of publications. This research shows unequivocally that there are no collective rights the State would have taken solely from Sámi people. The conclusions are congruent with those of Wirilander, Doctor of Laws, in 2001. The political leaders of the Sámi Parliament appear to have problems in admitting that the Sámi definition was made without sufficient background research and the current law based on this definition cannot solve land ownership disputes. The most recent study mends this lack of background research and helps democratic decision processes. Regarding the ILO Convention, it is intended for protecting aboriginals living in old style, not Sámi people having the same material standards of living and lifestyle as other Finnish, Norwegian or Swedish citizens.

Reflections on Norway's solutions

Norway is the only Nordic country that has ratified the convention, but opposing views have emerged there as well, such as those expressed by Carl August Fleischer, law professor at the University of Oslo and advisor in international law to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has recently commented on the Finnmark Act, which attempts to strengthen the Sámi rights to land use in Finnmark County in Norway. The Act came into force on 1 July 2006. Fleischer says that the Finnmark Act is based on misleading the Norwegian Parliament and misusing the concepts of 'original population' and 'positive discrimination'.

According to Fleischer especially the concept of 'positive discrimination' has been misused in Norway. This misuse is based on a special interpretation of the UN convention of 1966, Article 27. However, there is nothing in this article about economic rights or privileges; it is only intended to secure the rights of minorities to practice their religions and use their languages. Fleischer sees a great risk that other people's rights may be pushed aside. Public rights of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation may thus be weakened. Fleischer considers the concept of 'original population' (urbefolkning) as a misleading Norwegian translation for the concept of 'indigenous people' used in the ILO convention. There have also been rather divided opinions of whether the concept 'original population' applies to the Sámi. To join the Sámi electoral register, a person only needs to declare being Sámi, and to have had a great-grandparent who spoke the Sámi language at home. This does not meet the requirements of Article 1 of the ILO convention which defines those groups to which the convention applies. Nor should the definition of Sámi give grounds to grant privileges to anyone at the expense of others.

In Finland, some Sámi politicians have insisted on settling the land ownership issues according to the Norwegian model, ignoring the well-established Finnish legal traditions. Due to such decision those people descending from the Sámi population, but who are not accepted in the Sámi register, would be made as second-class citizens. This would be against the spirit of ILO convention, because this population meets the ILO criteria of indigenous people in the same way as the people in the Sámi register.


The juridical starting point for the ratification of the ILO Convention has a historical basis. Applying to the historical factors such as the ancient Lappish village system leads to conflicts between different stakeholders. Combining the historical practices with current juridical systems calls for meticulous preparation and careful studies of all the consequences. The correct and sustainable basis is the recognition of historical continuity.

According to the current Finnish law, conflicts regarding the existing rights and ownerships are resolved in the court of law. Even the Parliament is not permitted to resolve an ongoing ownership controversy by means of an ordinary Act. Hence, if stakeholders wish to contest the State's ownership of lands within the Sámi region, this must be resolved in the courts.