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How a Sami village won a historic court battle against Sweden

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How a Sami village won a historic court battle against Sweden
Girjas members after the Swedish Supreme Court announced the ruling. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

UPDATED: A Sami village has won a court battle with the Swedish state over hunting and fishing rights on its territory – a groundbreaking ruling for Sweden's indigenous people, which could force the country to change its laws.


First things first, what's a Sami village?

It is not a village in the most common sense, but rather an administrative community linked to a larger geographical area, in which the Sami members have the right to herd reindeer – and in some areas the right to hunt and fish – regulated by the Swedish Reindeer Husbandry Act.

Not all Samis are members of a village, but only Samis can become members and own reindeer.

There are in total 51 Sami villages in Sweden and the Girjas area stretches roughly from the area between Kiruna and Gällivare in the far north and west to the Norwegian border, around 5,500 square kilometres.

Around 20,000-35,000 Samis live in Sweden, but the exact number is unclear. Photo: Emma-Sofia Olsson/TT

What's the court battle all about?

It's a long-running legal battle, so let us explain the backstory first.

Girjas first filed legal action in 2009, supported by the Swedish Sami Federation. They were contesting a 1993 land reform which extended rights to non-Samis to hunt and fish on their territory.

The state did not dispute the Samis' right to hunt in the area. Rather, the conflict was about whether it was the Swedish state or the Girjas village who had the right to determine who else may be allowed to hunt there.

Girjas argued that the Reindeer Husbandry Act and the principle of time immemorial gave them that right, while the state argued that as the land owner, the decision-making powers of the land belonged to them.

The Swedish Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in favour of the Girjas Sami village.

Members of the Girjas Sami village smiling after their court victory. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

What did the court say?

The ruling is 21 pages, including dissenting opinions (which only apply to some of the background paragraphs, not the legal conclusion where the court was unanimous), and goes all the way back to the 16th century when it tries to work out which of the parties have the law and history on their side.

In the end, it concludes that the Reindeer Husbandry Act in itself does not give the Girjas Sami village the right to grant hunting and fishing rights in their area, despite the Sami village contention that it does.

However, importantly, the court writes that Girjas nevertheless enjoys "an exclusive right to grant hunting and fishing rights as a result of historical circumstances that apply to the area".

This principle is called time immemorial (urminnes hävd in Swedish), which enshrines the principle that rights that have long been exercised de facto are assumed to be permanent.

The court found that this right developed for individual Sami people in the mid 18th-century, and was passed on to members of the Sami village in the 19th century.

Around 2,500-3,000 Sami people in Sweden have reindeer as their main source of income. Photo: AP Photo/Malin Moberg

How important is this?

It is hugely important.

Sweden's Supreme Court is the top court in the land and its decisions set a precedent.

While this particular ruling only applies to the two parties involved – Girjas and Sweden – its sheer legal weight and significance means that it will likely have an impact on other Sami villages in the future.

Not only that, but the decision is likely to spark discussion far beyond both Sweden and Sápmi, the region traditionally inhabited by the Sami people and which extends into Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. Some 300 million people around the world belong to indigenous communities.

As for any potential law changes on the back of the decision, the Swedish government said that it would analyze the court judgment before deciding how to respond, but suggested that law changes may come.

"We need to look at how the ruling is worded and I don't rule out that this could have other legal consequences. That is why a thorough analysis of what the judgment actually says and which measures we need to adopt to handle the consequences," Rural Affairs Minister Jennie Nilsson told Swedish newswire TT.

"This is a precedent-setting ruling so it will affect other Sami villages, Samis who are not part of Sami villages, and hunting and fishing," she added.

The county administrative board in the Norrbotten region immediately halted sales of hunting and fishing permits in the area on Thursday, while Girjas representatives said that they would have a meeting on Sunday to decide how to manage permits in the future.

Anders Eka, chairman of Sweden's Supreme Court. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

How is the Sami community reacting?

"It's good, it feels great," Mats Blind Berg, chairman of the Girjas Sami village, told The Local just one hour after the judgment was delivered on Thursday.

He called on the international community to put pressure on Sweden to ratify the United Nation's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples convention from 1989. Norway is currently the only one of the Nordic countries that has ratified the legally binding convention, whose purpose is to guarantee the rights of indigenous people.

"I would like to send a message to the international public to put pressure on Sweden to ratify ILO on indigenous and tribal peoples' right to traditional land and water," said Blind Berg.

Mats Blind Berg discussing the ruling with Girjas' lawyer Peter Danowsky. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Reporting by The Local's Emma Löfgren and Elias Liljeström


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