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New bombing ranges and their impact on Saami traditions

The Saami Parliament and local reindeer herders are protesting against Norwegian and NATO plans to expand bombing exercises in the traditional summer ranges of Halkavarre, northern Norway. Halkavarre has been used for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years as summer and calving grounds for reindeer, and also contains numerous ancient Saami sacred sites including sieidit (stones where gifts and sacrifices were laid down) and álda and sáivu (sacred hills). The Saami Parliament has raised the issue with the UN International Labour Organization (ILO)-convention and with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR). By Christian Nellemann and Ingunn Vistnes

the Norwegian Ministry of Defence now wants to expand the existing bombing ranges by up to 500 km2

Blue fiords, snow covered mountain tops, and early blossoming flowers are the first sights that reindeer calves see when they are born in spring on the ranges of Halkavarre in northern Norway. These ranges have been used by the Saami herders for hundreds of years. However, the region is also one of the few areas in Europe which provides opportunities for low-level flying training and combined military exercises involving ground, air and naval forces. Testing of missile systems by Norwegian and allied forces has also been proposed for the area.

Not a new conflict
Over the years there have been many disputes between the local Saami people and military and government authorities, and relationships have often been characterized by extended legal proceedings. The last formal agreement between the parties on the extent of bombing exercises in the Halkavarre reindeer lands ended in 1996, and for nearly a decade no new agreement has been signed. The Norwegian Ministry of Defence now wants to expand the existing bombing ranges by up to 500 km2, plans which have been met with bitter opposition from the indigenous people in the area. Mr. Anders S. Utsi, a reindeer herder, was born in a lavvú (a Saami tepee tent) in the summer 80 years ago in the middle of a proposed new area – an area which he says is already being used for bombing practice. His niece, Anne Kirsten Eira, an active reindeer herder, protests strongly. “It is worst for our children. Many feel our uncertainty and are frightened, asking us what will happen to them if they will not be able to live their lives with the reindeer and the land.” Eira goes on to express her commitment to fight for their right to continue their lifestyle in the lands where they have always lived.

The consequences of new military agreements
However, the needs of the defence forces appear to be changing. Recently, Kristin Krohn Devold, the Norwegian Minister of Defence agreed to the location of a new NATO command centre in Jåttå, southern Norway. At the same time a practice bombing range was closed in the south, increasing the motivation to find new practice areas in the north.

Press releases from the Ministry of Defence on June 12th and 23rd 2003, suggest that an increase in allied training exercises will accompany the new NATO command center.
Feelings among the Saami people and representatives are running high. “Norway offers traditional Saami reindeer areas to NATO for bombing purposes totally without our consent or approval”, says Sven-Roald Nystø, president of the Saami Parliament. Ragnhild Nystad, vice-president of the Saami Parliament adds: “Completely unacceptable without any agreement with the Saami people. Sacred sites must be left in peace and it is very disrespectful to the Saami people to do this”, a message conveyed also by Samuel John N. Anti, chief of the local herder district.
“NATO has never bombed or will target any location with religious or sacred sites. We only address strictly military targets. That also applies to training and exercises, of course, and we trust that member countries do the same. We would be most opposed to any such thing”, says Francois Le Blevennec, press officer at NATO, Brussels.

In Norway, the response to the issues being raised with UN officials by the Saamis is measured: “We do not consider this a formal complaint to UNHCHR and thus not legally binding in any way”, says Eirik Bergersen, spokesman for the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. “Besides, in order to have any legal effect, the Saamis will need to have exhausted national level procedures – including all court systems – before they can complain. Norway supports the ILO Convention and works internationally to support indigenous rights. But we were not aware that any sacred or religious sites were involved in these existing or proposed bombing ranges”, he says.

Unregulated piecemeal development can be devastating
In addition to the concerns raised by expanding military exercises, there are significant issues about increasing private and public sector development in the Barents region, and the impacts this may have on the Saami people. Some studies suggest that over one third of the traditional lands – used for reindeer grazing over thousands of years – may already be lost due to piecemeal development of roads, powerlines, dams and recreational cabins. By 2050 – in a scenario of unregulated development – as much as 78 percent of the vital coastal summer grounds may no longer be viable for reindeer herding. The proposed opening of the Barents Sea for full oil exploration also has the potential to contribute to coastal development and provoke further disputes over land use. Similar conflicts between development and the chosen lifestyles of indigenous people arise around the Arctic. The Nenets people in the Yamal Peninsula of Russia are being affected by oil and gas exploration and development, and similar issues arise in Alaska and much of northern Canada. Indigenous peoples have often fought against – but have also sometimes successfully cooperated with - multinational power and oil companies.
While protocols are developed to address climate change issues, the issues of military activities and piecemeal development conflicting with traditional land use still presents one of the greatest policy gaps in the Arctic. Without facing up to these issues, hope will dwindle for many who wish to live with the land as hunters or herders.

CHRISTIAN NELLEMANN is a Senior Associate in the GRID-Arendal Polar Programme, and is working on a report on the possible futures for the Saami people and their traditional lifestyles in the Barents region. The report will be released in the spring of next year. INGUNN VISTNES holds a position in the Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management at the Agricultural University of Norway. She has conducted research in the Polar regions with emphasis on development, indigenous peoples, and impacts on wild and domestic reindeersystem.