A cross-border dispute over reindeer grazing rights heads to Norway’s top court

Lower courts have upheld Norway's right to bar Swedish herders.

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Altevatn is in Norway, but Sámi herders in Sweden claim the right to graze there. (Statsskog)

A court case that pits Swedish reindeer herders against the Norwegian government over grazing rights at a lake in Arctic Norway goes before the Norwegian Supreme Court this week, reports Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

The leaders of Sárevuopmi Sami Village argue that they hold exclusive right to grazing areas on the Norwegian side of the border at Altevatn in Bardu. (The Swedish ‘Sami village’ term is comparable to a ‘reindeer herding district’ in Norway.)

The Swedish herders argue that they hold this exclusive right due to their having used these grazing areas for centuries. The Norwegian state, represented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, as well as the Norwegian Forest Administration, has refuted this, and both district and appeal courts have agreed with the state.

[Swedish Sámi sue to overturn Norwegian limits on cross-border herding]

The Reindeer Grazing Convention, on which Norway and Sweden agreed in 1972, will be key in the Supreme Court case.

The convention facilitates both Norwegian and Swedish reindeer herders’ moving their herds across the border. However, when the convention was to be renewed after 30 years, Norway and Sweden were unable to agree. Following three years of post-deadline negotiations it stranded in 2005.

Even though Sweden withdrew from negotiations, Norway chose to continue the convention as a unilateral Norwegian law from 2005.

The Appeal Court’s ruling in 2019 was clear that the law Norway continued under the name of the Border Reindeer Grazing Act from 2005 should take precedence over traditional use.

Although the Swedish herders have used for more than 250 years, the Hjerttind reindeer herding district on the Norwegian side of the border also uses these areas as winter grazing areas. Thus, pressure on resources in the area may prove too big when Sárevuopmi also uses it in spring, summer, and autumn, prompting Norway to argue that Swedish herders have to give way.

The case is scheduled to be presented in the Supreme Court from Tuesday to Friday this week.