South Asia hosts more than a hundred million people who are variously categorised as indigenous populations, tribals or adivasis. During the British colonial era, these people were often denied rights, and had their lands forcibly taken away from them. After independence, while many countries did away with some of these discriminatory laws, the challenges for these communities remain. They live in areas that are often rich in minerals, heavily forested, but also far from the infrastructure that would benefit them – leading to high mortality, low literacy, and limited opportunities. As climate change makes a bigger impact on their lives, tribal populations often find that the state does not allow or encourage them to continue traditional practices that would allow them to better adapt.

In comparison, the indigenous populations in northern Europe have fairly well-functioning systems of representation. Yet, they too struggle with issues of land rights, dealing with extractive industries, and maintaining their culture and traditional practices.

Aslak Holmberg is a member of the Finnish Sámi Parliament, and as such was representing the Sámi – the northernmost indigenous people in the world – at the Arctic Frontiers conference held in Tromso, in Norway. He spoke to indiaclimatedialogue.net about how the Sámi and other indigenous peoples have organised in the Arctic, their challenges and successes. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Can you explain how the Sámi are present here?

I am a member of the Finnish Sámi Parliament, which has elections once every four years. There is a Sámi Parliament in Finland, Sweden and Norway – and a similar type of structure in Russia. There is an overall Sámi Parliamentary Council which coordinates the work of all the parliaments in all four countries, and has representatives from them. And there is also the Saami Council, an NGO umbrella organisation of Saami organisations, which along with five other representative organisations of indigenous peoples, has Permanent Participant status at the Arctic Council – the most important intergovernmental body in the Arctic region. I am representing the Saami Council here. The Saami Council, along with five other representative organisations of indigenous peoples, has Permanent Participant status at the Arctic Council – the most important intergovernmental body in the Arctic region. The Arctic Frontiers conference is the largest event in which Arctic issues are discussed – of these issues relating to indigenous communities are particularly important to us, naturally.

How many Sámi are there, and where do they live?

There is no accurate count, but we estimate that the total Sámi population is between 70,000 and 100,000. They inhabit the areas of the far north in the countries of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia – an area that is about as large as Germany.

What are the main issues that you deal with?

Always the main issue is our rights to land and water. There are competing claims on the lands where we live, and are necessary for our way of life; for example from oil companies. It is a challenge to maintain our culture, to resist being merely integrated or assimilated into wider societies. We have our own cultural identity, our own language and ways of maintaining our livelihood, and a separate way of looking at the world. We want to preserve that.

How difficult is it to do that?

Very. Like all indigenous people our main problem is that we do not have states of our own. We have to struggle to gain recognition to lands and territories. We have to fight to retain control over the ownership of our traditional knowledge, our ability to manage our society. Unfortunately the Sámi Parliaments do not have much power. We decide on issues that states want us to decide on. They listen to us, but we have no power to veto. Our budget is basically for study material for the languages that the Sámi speak (three languages in Finland), for kindergarten schools – which we see as “language nests”, and cultural funds to support artists.

Do you cooperate with other indigenous groups in this?

On certain things, yes. We are very active in the UN, and I am part of the group that works on the Convention of Biological Diversity. In this capacity I work with all sorts of indigenous groups, including from Latin America, since we face similarly challenges.

Are you familiar with the challenges that indigenous people face in South Asia?

I have travelled to the Himalayan region. In 2007, I travelled for the first time to India, and then two more times. I also went hiking in Nepal, and spent one month in Langtang, bordering Tibet. But this was before my political career, so I did not really get involved in things.

How did you get involved in politics?

I got kind of sucked in. There are not too many young male Sámi activists. It is somehow more natural for us to have women leaders. Our men traditionally work more in the fields, hunting reindeer, fishing or making handiworks, so many of our political and social leaders are women. I was the Sámi University college representative for the student board, and I guess it just went on from there.

What are your main challenges for the future?

We worry about the oil companies. There is oil in Sámi lands, in the coastal areas of Norway, for example. There are large movements opposing drilling, and this requires direct action. The politicians have not so far responded to this. It is not much of a topic in Finland. We will have to work to change that. The Nordic Sámi Convention has been finally agreed on, and we hope that it is ratified soon by all the states.

Does it help that you have events like the Arctic Frontiers to discuss these issues?

Yes, it does, but we are concerned that – for the first time – there has been no Sámi representative as a speaker at the opening ceremony. This has distressed us.

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