Indigenous Peoples and the Environment: Convergence from a Nordic Perspective

By Watters, Lawrence | UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Indigenous Peoples and the Environment: Convergence from a Nordic Perspective

Watters, Lawrence, UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy

"The central question here, as in all issues concerning indigenous rights, is who is in a position to control resources. It is question of land rights." (1) Sami--Scandinavia

"To us Indians human rights is a matter of daily survival; it is the right to food, to firewood and to fresh water, but above all it is the right to our customs." (2) Plains Cree--Canada

"Our history, identity, and tribal sovereignity are indistinguishable from the land. From time immemorial, it has always been so." (3) Umatilla--United States


Since the Stocholm Declaration thirty years ago and particularly in the last decade, the rights and status of indigenous peoples (4) have begun to secure a more widely recognized place in international law, (5) including international environmental law. As a result of the impact of several important conventions, the rights of indigenous peoples are increasingly defined. Parallel to these developments, commentators have contributed analysis to an emerging framework for protecting and enhancing the rights of indigenous peoples. (6)

In that same vein, the paradox is that indigenous peoples are confronted with increasing impacts from the demand for natural resources,, development, population growth and international trade. These effects are particularly important because the culture of indigenous peoples is often directly dependent on natural resources and changes are likely to create long-lasting, even permanent environmental harm. Indigenous peoples are thus especially vulnerable to these forces from a cultural standpoint. (7)

Indigenous peoples are also found in some of the most sensitive areas of the world where, as in the Arctic and the Nordic region for example, the flora and fauna are extremely susceptible to irretrievable damage. (8) In this way, culture and the environment are intertwined and for many indigenous peoples, they are indivisible. Any harm to one is almost certain to damage the other and injury to both is a substantial threat to identity and therefore, even survival.

This article considers selected aspects of these impacts from a Nordic perspective, focusing on natural resources, the environment and the Sami (formerly referred to by others as the Lapps), found in the last wilderness of Europe. In light of the vast cultural diversity of indigenous peoples across the world, where it is estimated there are some 5,000 different groups in seventy different countries, (9) it is instructive to examine these impacts in a more specific context, in light of the heritage, belief systems and world view presented. (10) Further, by examining one group like the Sami through the lens of specific conflicts and issues relating to natural resources and the environment, analysis moves beyond theoretical constructs, addressing the challenge in implementing legal principles and standards and in creating and maintaining institutions for the protection of their rights.

In that same vein, an informed understanding of the status of indigenous peoples in one context has value in providing insight into the broader framework of international and domestic law relating to indigenous peoples generally. By considering the context in a more empirical setting, scholarship has the prospect of contributing to a more pragmatic understanding of the issues related to indigenous peoples and the environment, and their rights and aspirations.

Part I of the article introduces the larger picture and the process of transition in which indigenous peoples like the Sami are found. The discussion focuses on both the convergence of legal systems generally which influence the protection of indigenous peoples in international and domestic law and the concomitant impacts related to the concentration of new forces from trade, technology and communications, or, in a word, globalization. These dynamics, in concert with the `internationalization' of the environment, have special consequences for indigenous peoples.

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