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

Reindeer herders claim say Norwegian officials do not have the right to limit their access to traditional grazing areas.

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The Altevatnet lake is in Norway, but Sámi herders in Sweden say Norwegian officials do not have the right to limit their grazing activities there (Statsskog)

Sámi reindeer herders from Sweden are hoping that an appeals court in Tromsø, Norway, hearing arguments this week will overturn a lower-court decision they claim denies their historic rights to grazing lands in Norway.

The herders would like the court to overturn a 2005 Norwegian law that set limits on when they may graze their herds in the area around Altevatnet lake, located on the frontier between the two countries. They are demanding that any limits be dropped and they receive compensation for losses they suffered during the past 14 years as a result of the restrictions. The outcome is expected to serve as a precedent for determining similar disputes involving other Swedish reindeer herders and the Norwegian state.

The herders, from the village of Saarivuoma, first filed suit against the Norwegian state in a lower court in 2018, claiming that the regulations violate what they argue are their exclusive rights to reindeer grazing around Altevatnet, an area that today is also used by Norwegian Sámi for grazing.

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In that case, the court ruled in favour of the Norwegian state, which permits Swedish grazing, but only between May 1 and September 14.

While the herders maintain they have the right to use the grazing lands year-round, they say they have no plans to do so. Instead, they are asking the court to require Norway to drop the fixed start and dates, which they believe fail to take into account year-to-year variations in grazing conditions.

At stake is whether Norway can act unilaterally to restrict the rights of Swedish herders to graze their reindeer on the other side of the border.

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The Swedish herders argue it cannot, and point to the 1751 agreement that established the border between Norway (then a part of Denmark) and Sweden (which then included Finland) as their argument. The agreement granted Sámi the right to migrate across borders and to practice reindeer herding.

They also base their argument on a 1968 Norwegian supreme-court decision that recognized the Swedish Sámi’s historic ties to the Altevann area. That decision ended with the Norwegian state being ordered to pay compensation to herders after construction of a hydroelectric dam affected fisheries.

Norway’s argument is that the rules are an extension of a 1972 agreement between it and Sweden that established regulations limiting the right of Swedish Sámi to graze their reindeer in Norway. That agreement expired in 2005, however, and while new arrangement has been negotiated it has yet to be adopted.

Until it is, the Swedish herders argue, the terms of the 1751 agreement apply and neither country can act unilaterally to limit the rights it grants to the Sámi.