If you don’t live in the Nordic countries, it’s quite possible you’ve never heard of the Sami — an indigenous people of the European Arctic, whose reindeer-herding culture has remained pretty much unchanged for tens of thousands of years.
With their colorful, traditional embroidery, reindeer skin moccasins and wigwams, the Sami bring to mind some of the native people of North America. But in contrast to the struggle of the Native Americans, the plight of the Sami people is little-known, even among the populations of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia, where their ancient territory lies.
For the past several years, the Sami of northern Sweden have been embroiled in a fight to preserve the forests where they graze their reindeer in the winter. For the Sami, it’s not just about protecting nature — a threat to the forest is a threat to their way of life and culture, and they have invoked the International Labour Organization’s convention on the rights of indigenous peoples to bolster their case.
Theirs is one of the cases KTH researcher Vania Ceccato discusses in her newly-released book, Rural Crime and Community Safety, which explores a number of topics, including violence against women, farm crimes, youth-related issues and crimes against the environment and wildlife.
Which brings us to the Sami’s protests near the isolated community of Jokkmokk.
The book includes a photo depicting a Sami protester getting carried off by the police during a demonstration against mining operators who have been prospecting in the forests where the Sami’s reindeer range. The image is loaded with contradictory messages, in Ceccato’s mind. An expert on the subject of situational conditions of crime, she considers these protests a form of law enforcement, because they’re aimed at prevention of harm to the environment and wildlife crime; and yet, the participants find themselves in conflict with official local law enforcement.
“For me there is no contradiction between the work of the police and the activists,” she says. “Institutionally they represent different groups, but to some extent they are representing some similar interests — the protection of the environment from harm and environmental crime. This calls for new ways of looking at crime prevention in small rural communities and the challenges they face.”
Outsiders can be forgiven for assuming the Swedish public has rallied behind the Sami — after all, Swedes are noted for their promotion of human rights worldwide.
But, as Ceccato’s book — and numerous news articles — illustrate, it’s clear that’s not happening.
One of the problems may be that in Sweden, like most places, city people by and large aren’t all that concerned about the problems rural people face. As a native of Chicago, a sprawling megalopolis in the middle of America’s Grain Belt, I completely understand the preoccupation with urban issues. Which is why I too feel ashamed when Ceccato reminds me of the consequences this kind of attitude leads to.
One of her points is that crime prevention practices have to be less urban-centric. “The Sami are alone in this, and they are pitted against mining companies, local landowners and the local people who depend on the jobs that mining produces.”
Or as one Sami protester is quoted in the book: “In Sweden we denounce the oppression of indigenous people in other countries, but oppress its own indigenous people.”
Ceccato says the case illustrates how difficult it is to put the goal of sustainable development into practice in remote places. But, “people shouldn’t feel they need to choose between survival and environment. This situation pits ‘locals’ against each other”.
The actions of the protesters take on greater importance considering how difficult it is for the authorities to prevent ecologically harmful and criminal activities, such as chemical pollution, deforestation and illegal hunting. Attempts to build a case in Sweden against such activities often run up against other interests, as well as what are referred to as “local traditional practices”, she says.
“The process of finding out, recording, investigating, prosecuting and sentencing these crimes are selective across Sweden,” she says. “Environmental inspectors have a key role in detecting and providing evidence of the problem so that prosecutors can be prepared to ‘make a case’. If this chain fails, it is likely that the case is closed. Although crime registers show an increase in environmental crimes recorded in Sweden, only a few criminals have been sentenced to prison.”
She says the Swedish public is simply neglecting the issue. “Why are we completely blind to these issues that we probably are more keen to see in other countries?” she asks. “Maybe it’s harder to deal with it here because then we have to deal with these big guys, some of whom are local, these mining interests.”
According to the Swedish Geological Survey, Sweden is by far the largest iron ore producer in the EU and is also among the foremost producers of base and precious metals. The industry is critical to the Swedish economy, and thousands of jobs are at stake in the north. So, perhaps people living in Sweden’s major cities find the issue too complex for them to take sides.
But Ceccato says that turning a blind eye to the Sami’s complaints amounts to handing companies tacit consent to explore the wilderness for potential mining operations. And, that’s a problem.
“This explorative use imposes a threat to the forest and to Sami way of life and culture,” she points out. “This may not be a crime yet; but evidence shows no doubt that harm is under way, as expressed by Sami protesters. ”
The controversy reminds Ceccato of American children’s author Dr. Seuss’ environmental fable, “The Lorax”, in which a lone figure pleads unsuccessfully against a businessman intent on exploiting a natural habitat. In the end nothing is left but a polluted wasteland.
“The Lorax speaks for the trees, who have no voices of their own,” Ceccato says. “And the Sami are fighting for their culture. Some of the actions of the mining companies do not reach the point of being a criminal act, but there is a clear environmental harm and that, for me, is enough to take action.
“It doesn’t have to violate the criminal code for us to react.”
Which reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ lines from the “Lorax”:
“Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
Visit KTH’s School of Architecture and the Built Environment
BBC coverage of the mining protests