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The EU and Arctic Indigenous peoples

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This article originally appeared in The Circle, WWF’s quarterly Arctic journal, issue 01.16. See all articles here. Previous issues of The Circle can be downloaded here.


Global binoculars are fixed on the Arctic. What was previously ignored as a cold wilderness is hotter than ever. The Arctic Council overflows with inquiries from parties wanting to take part in all the exciting things that might happen “up there.” CHRISTINA HENRIKSEN says the European Union – longing for Observer status in the Arctic Council – has suddenly realized the Arctic is inhabited, by Indigenous peoples, among others. How can the Indigenous peoples benefit from the EU participation? Henriksen is a Member of the Sámi Parliament in Norway, representing the Norwegian Sámi Association (NSR) and the Sámi Peoples’ Party.

THE SÁMI PEOPLE INHABIT almost half of Norway and Sweden, the northern part of Finland, as well as North-West Russia. A large percentage of the Sámi are EU citizens, and those residing in Norway are affected by EU decisions through the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. The Sámi are the only Indigenous people within the European Union and up until recently, the EU commitment to the Sámi has been limited to regional cooperation and project funding.

Throughout the last decade, the European Union has put heavy efforts into joining the Arctic Council as an observer. That has proved challenging, as the EU discovered that among other things, its ignorance regarding Indigenous peoples in the Arctic was a barrier. Banning the import of seal products in 2009 was a tough hurdle for the Union, and the Gwich’in representative was succinct when asked at the First Arctic Dialogue Workshop in Brussels in 2010 what the EU could do for the Indigenous peoples in the Arctic. Quite simply, he said: “First, drop the seal ban.”

The EU seal ban demonstrated the lack of knowledge among European decision makers regarding the Arctic and its inhabitants by the absence of Indigenous peoples’ voices in Brussels. The seal ban was amended in 2015, as a result of the EU acknowledging that a sincere dialogue with Indigenous peoples is necessary to play the Arctic game.

If an environmentalist decided to cry out for Rudolph, would the EU ban import of reindeer products?


The WTO called the Inuit seal hunt “too commercial”, but how are Indigenous peoples supposed to survive if we cannot make a living of our own trades and cultures? If an environmentalist decided to cry out for Rudolph, would the EU ban import of reindeer products? Hopefully not, because the EU should encourage the import of these products. Reindeer meat and wild fish are healthy and ecological, and by increasing their import, the EU would contribute greatly to the development of the Sámi society. While the first Arctic Policy more or less implied preservation of icebergs and polar bears, the human aspect is now a larger part of the policy. That is indeed a step in the right direction. The Policy is being renewed, though the main objectives remain. It is still about international cooperation and preserving and protecting the Arctic (with the peoples who live there), but what it all comes down to is promoting sustainable use of resources. This is the tricky part since the Arctic is viewed as a great source of raw materials and renewable resources.

Climate changes daily affect Indigenous peoples globally. Our ways of living are affected. World leaders worry about climate changes, but these changes also represent certain opportunities. If the tundra melts, then access to minerals is easier. If the sea ice melts in the North-East Passage, then cargo ships from Europe to Asia might get faster (and perhaps cheaper).

Europe and the world need minerals. Recycling is not enough and new extraction projects are needed. Yet, the inhabitants of the Arctic are rarely mentioned. If we are, we might be referred to as obstacles. We might say no. We say no when our land and livelihood are in danger of being ruined for easy profits. That is our right, and national states worldwide have acknowledged that right, through supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Outcome Document of the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. So did the EU, and according to the European External Action Service, the EU will do its share to make sure that the decisions and recommendations of the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples document will be implemented, because Indigenous peoples’ rights is a clear priority for the EU.

The EU demanding that the principle of free, prior and informed consent is followed when economic activities are planned in areas inhabited and used by Indigenous peoples would be a way to implement this. Making sure that international legislation and the rights of Indigenous peoples are mentioned in every discussion on extraction of raw materials would also be welcomed. The EU could also raise its voice to ensure environmental standards are followed in industrial projects while pushing its member states to ratify the International Labour Organization Convention No 169. This convention recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination within a nation-state, while setting standards for national governments regarding Indigenous peoples’ economic, socio-cultural and political rights, including the right to a land base.

So how can the EU contribute? Buy our products, respect our rights and ensure our future.

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