The Sami are the Indigenous people of Sweden. Extensive mining activities and other exploitation of natural resources in their traditional lands threaten their means of subsistence, culture, and survival. Sweden has been criticized by the UN for not respecting fundamental Indigenous rights, among those core land rights. Sami representatives and activists demand a moratorium on new mining concessions in Sápmi (the area in the north of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia that constitutes the Sami people’s traditional land), until the Indigenous right to free, prior and informed consent has been granted, but thus far their demands have been ignored.
Watch Amnesty International Sweden’s video with artist and activist Maxida Märak.
“I belong to a people that wanders between worlds”
Text and interview by Joanna Backman and Johanna Westeson, Amnesty Sweden
– I come from a culture that’s totally dependent on a functioning natural cycle. Our way of living is an interplay between the forest and the mountains. My people follows the wind, the water and the reindeer. But it’s like we don’t have a place in today’s society, says Maxida Märak.
Maxida Märak is a political Indigenous rights activist and a singer and producer. Growing up in Jokkmokk and living in Stockholm in different periods of her life, has provided her with the best of two worlds, which is apparent in her activism and her musical work. Despite the fact that she’s now based in Stockholm, Sápmi (the area in the north of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia that constitutes the Sami people’s traditional land), has always been very present in her life and artistry. The fight for the Sami people’s rights has always been a core component of her creative work.
– The Sami have been subjected to discrimination and abuse by the Swedish government for centuries. The Swedish government has stolen our land and exploited our territories. The Sami have been converted to Christianity by force, placed in so-called nomadic schools and subjected to racial biological exams. Our traditional drums that were used by the Noadi (Sami shamans) have been destroyed. Today, there are only about 70 drums left in the world, says Maxida.
One of the main struggles fought in Sápmi today is the battle against the mining industry.
Large scale mineral extraction takes place in big parts of the Sami’s traditional land, at the expense of the environment, the Sami livelihood and cultural values. In the balance of interests that must be undertaken when the state assesses permission to conduct mining extraction, Sami land rights tend to be regarded as an “economic interest” among others. Mining concessions are very rarely refused and Sami appeals are rejected. The problem does not end there. Sweden has among the world’s lowest mining taxes, which allows entrepreneurs to exploit land at low risk and without any obligation to give back to the local community.
Foreign mining companies often leave without taking measures to mitigate the harm done, and restoring the land is virtually impossible. The land is a central part of Sami culture and survival – both in relation to reindeer husbandry and other Sami livelihoods such as hunting, fishing, handicraft and spirituality. The heavily expanding mining industry represents a direct threat to reindeer husbandry and other Sami livelihoods – and thus to the whole Sami culture. According to international law the Sami, like other Indigenous peoples, have the right to free, prior and informed consent in relation to all exploitation of their traditional lands. Several UN agencies have pointed out that Sweden regularly violates this central human rights principle.
Maxida is a leading name in the Sami struggle against the mining industry, and she has fought tirelessly for years. She’s shouted the loudest, stopped cars, occupied houses, questioned business leaders and politicians. She has had streets blocked off, organise concerts in the forest out of protest. She has organised demonstrations. Together with other activists in 2014, she arranged the renowned “reindeer rajd” at Jokkmokk’s winter market in Sweden, as a silent protest against the mining industry.
– Today there are about a thousand mining prospects in Sweden. Most of them take place on our traditional land. Sweden will gladly talk about how badly other countries treat their Indigenous peoples and how their politicians intrude on and exploit their lands, but Swedish politicians tend not to speak about exactly the same thing happening here. Our appeals are rejected. Our protests are ignored. Our voices are not heard. My wish is a society in which Sápmi and Sami culture are the norm. A society where our way of living and our traditions are valued as highly as the Swedish. Then we would be seen, and our way of living would count. It’s my goal, and I’ll never stop aiming for that, says Maxida Märak.
Amnesty fights for Indigenous people’s rights in many parts of the world. Now we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is a groundbreaking text that gathers the most crucial rights for Indigenous peoples on all continents. Swedish Amnesty will continue to fight for the rights of the Sami people. On Sami National Day in 2016, we expressed our support for a Sami Truth Commission, which we deem necessary for the Swedish government to come to terms with and make reparations for the historical and contemporary violations of Sami rights.