The Saami Council’s Arctic Strategy — Partnership, Education and Advocacy

The Saami Council released the Sámi Arctic Strategy during the EU Arctic Forum in Umeå, Sweden, in early October 2019. It is the second Arctic indigenous people’s strategic document, which has been released, following the 2016 Inuit Declaration on Arctic Sovereignty. While structurally and in scope different, these two documents demonstrate the increasing role indigenous organisations play in the legal and institutional discourse in the Arctic.

The Saami Council

The Saami Council was established in 1956 and serves as the representative body for the indigenous Sámi people, whose traditional homeland – Sápmi – stretches across Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Russian Federation.

The Saami Council is the oldest indigenous organisation in the world and is one of the leading bodies for the advancements of indigenous rights. As a fully Arctic indigenous people, the Saami Council is a Permanent Participant of the Arctic Council and thus an important part in the decision-making processes that shape governance of the Arctic.

The Sámi Arctic Strategy

The Sámi Arctic Strategy is a document which essentially serves three purposes: first, it aims to strengthen the Saami Council and thus the role of the Sámi in Arctic governance; second, it aims to strengthen the rights of the Sámi themselves and to improve social, cultural and economic conditions in Sápmi. Third, through the Attachment to the strategy, entitled Building Knowledge in Sápmi – A List of Knowledge Gaps and Research Needs, it is the knowledge gaps and research needs that the Sámi themselves consider most relevant.

Strengthening the Saami Council as an International Partner

The purpose of strengthening the Saami Council on the international level is a key element in the strategy. Most importantly, different measures are presented that aim at bringing together indigenous and other viewpoints through the facilitation of meetings with Arctic Council Permanent Participants and Observers.

Problematic in securing sustainable partnership and a sustainable role of the Saami Council for the Sámi themselves is the non-steady funding. Currently, funding for Saami Council activities stems from the four states of the Sámi homeland, i.e. Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. However, instead of a steady and reliable funding mechanism, the Saami Council is required to apply for funding each year, consequently running the risk of not acquiring any. A key measure that is found in the strategy is, therefore, to work on constant funding, or at least to be able to hire a person who is responsible solely for the acquisition of funding.

Unfortunately, the Saami Council is not the only international organisation struggling with funding: as was revealed recently, also the United Nations have increasing problems with securing funding due to inertia of its member states to pay their dues.

Sámi Self-determination

A second major element of the Arctic strategy is the Sámi right to self-determination. On the one hand, this right is referenced in the context of international law. In the section ‘Ensuring the right to choose’, the strategy aims to strengthen the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) as enshrined in international human rights law, , applicable for the Sámi and other indigenous peoples worldwide.

On the other hand, increased self-determination is sought in the context of resource extraction, economic development, and cultural and linguistic development. While these three elements appear to be separate, they are nevertheless inextricably interlinked and constitute the core of the conflicts over land use that have occurred in the Sámi homeland in the past and present.

In order to further work on the reduction of conflicts and to ultimately strengthen Sámi rights, the Sámi Arctic strategy avoids reference to land rights, or concrete international legal instruments, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  or ILO Convention 169. I speculate that this was done intentionally, because land rights and these legal instruments have been and are controversial and any concrete reference might undermine the purposes of the strategy by deterring governments and policy-makers to further engage in it. 

Be that as it may, in order to increase the degree of self-determination, the strategy calls for the development of a toolkit for Sámi communities to advocate and lobby for their interests in light of ongoing and future resource exploitation on Sámi lands. This is also to be achieved through training courses in which available legal avenues are communicated and their use to be taught.

In the context of economic development, the strategy suggests the establishment of a Sámi Business Summit, where Sámi entrepreneurs and investors can exchange ideas, innovations and technologies. The international link, however, is directly integrated and it is suggested to host this summit under the auspices of the Arctic Economic Council. Moreover, the communal dimension is considered and the strategy suggests to develop a standards for sustainable Arctic tourism from which Sámi communities can benefit. 

Self-determination is also to be strengthened in the context of culture and language. Here, the strategy, inter alia, aims to have important documents translated into all Sámi languages. In addition, however, the strategy calls for the use of computer-assisted linguistics, also in the context of collecting and storing Sámi terminology and design. 

Environmental Protection, Climate Change and Sámi Knowledge

As elsewhere in the Arctic, also the traditional Sámi homeland is not spared from the impacts of climatic and environmental changes. The Saami Council is an active stakeholder in documenting and mitigating these changes. To this end, the strategy lays out that the Saami Council will continue its work within the Arctic Council and to commit to the provisions of the Paris Agreement 2015. It will also work on the development of a climate and socio-economic model for Sápmi to determine impacts, risks and costs related to climate change, and to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies. One measure is the instigation of a project on Sámi place names, which serve as indicators for climatic and environmental changes. 

This project can be seen as part of the overall determination to make Sámi knowledge more prominent in Arctic research and science, resource development and education. Generally, the Saami Council seeks to “[b]uild constructive relationship[s] between producers and users of knowledge, including Sámi Indigenous knowledge, in order to improve understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of Arctic environment and Sámi societies.” 

Indeed, Sámi knowledge is a key element that links all aspects of the Arctic strategy as it relates to self-determination, international collaboration, resource extraction or environmental protection. Not without a reason, in the strategy Sámi knowledge is considered a “catalyst for Sápmi’s path forward.” Therefore, the strategy focuses a great deal on different measures to advance the application and dissemination of Sámi knowledge in different and multifaceted ways and contexts, for instance in: research on resource development; sustainability and actionable adaptation policies; impacts of climate change on biodiversity; international research communities; or Sámi cultural institutions.

Particularly as regards research it remains to be seen in how far the Sámi endeavours will be successful on the international level. I mention this, since the 2017 Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation between the eight Arctic states, in article 9 clearly aims to integrate indigenous traditional knowledge in scientific activities. The Sámi Arctic Strategy thus responds to that call and it now rests in the nation states to live up to this pledge. 


The Sámi Arctic Strategy is a comprehensive strategy that addresses core issues relevant for the further advancement of Sámi rights, particularly as regards self-determination. However, while this is so, it places a great emphasis on international cooperation and therefore identifies that Saami Council not only as a Sámi institution, but as an Arctic and indeed international body to foster indigenous rights, and to foster overall environmental protection.

In order to avoid controversy, I speculate, the strategy deliberately avoids mentioning contentious issues, such as land rights. While that may be so, it becomes clear that land rights are an inherent element of the strategy and that everything the strategy aims for necessarily includes Sámi rights to lands. 

It remains to be seen how the Arctic Council and other Arctic and international institutions respond to this strategy. Further, it remains to be seen how the national governments respond to the strategy, especially in light of the rather concrete measures the Saami Council aims to take. Will they support or try to hamper them? 

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