In epic land grab, Finland’s new forest law puts indigenous in crosshairs of development

INARI, Findland—A grey sky hung over Osmo Seurujärvi as he pulled his snowmobile into a clearing among the pines. He killed the engine and silence rolled out of the woods and settled at his feet.

“Oy!” he bellowed as he stepped off the machine and ripped the plastic wrapping off a bale of hay. “OYYYYYYY!”

Several reindeer poked their heads out from behind a line of trees and stared.

He yelled again.

A few clip-clopped through the slushy spring snow towards the hay, then more followed: two at a time, then four at a time, then a steady stream of reindeer all grunting and shoving against each other to bury their heads in the feed.

“That’s one of the lowest in the hierarchy because it doesn’t have antlers,” said Seurujärvi as he looked at a reindeer trying to muscle its way into the feeding frenzy. “That one is tame, and that one might be higher up in the hierarchy,” he said as he pointed to one with a massive set of antlers. “Usually the ones that have the white blaze are cranky and devilish.”

The wet snow was dirty and the hay fell from their mouths and was trampled. More reindeer marched up and their hooves squished and sank as they pushed their way to the food.

Seurujärvi says his family has been herding reindeer so long that nobody knows when they began the practice, but he worries about its future. This month Finland’s Parliament enacted the New Act on Metsähallitus, effectively giving the government the ability to harvest resources like timber in areas vital to the Sami—the Indigenous people of Finland.

Government officials say the act is an administrative change necessary to be in compliance with European Union trade laws and that there will be no impacts to Sami lands and practices. However, Sami officials say their concerns have not been addressed by the government and that the act fails to safeguard their traditional practices.

The conflict between Sami reindeer herders and advocates of the New Act on Metsähallitus reveals a growing distrust of the Finnish Government by the Sami people, which number around 10,000 in Finland and as high as 100,000 across Scandinavia. In Finland’s Sami territory, actions by the state reflect a much deeper battle between government interests, often perceived as colonial in nature, and the protection of Indigenous land, resources and way of life in an area roughly the size of Rhode Island containing 1,100 Sami herders and over 77,000 reindeer.

“Sami culture and livelihoods can’t survive if they are constantly diminished,” said Tiina Sanila-Aikio, President of the Sami Parliament. “We will come to a point when these practices wither away or change, and after that, there won’t be traditional Sami livelihoods, and a very important part of Sami culture will fade away.”

Read more here.

Tristan Ahtone

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