Holistic Landscapes: Protecting Sámi Land and Climate Justice — Teachings by Susanna Israelsson
“All we can do is to protect the land, because then we protect the ecosystems, the animals, and the berries — our culture, and the livelihoods as well.”
As we fight climate change and stand for Indigenous rights, maintaining holistic landscapes with functioning ecosystems and climate justice at the core of everything we do is vital. This was the main takeaway from the Youth Visionary Collective’s (YVC) conversations with Susanna Israelsson, a young Sámi woman from Swedish Sápmi and trainee at the Sámi Council, on the 21st of November 2021. As Roots & Routes’ projects presently focus mainly on South or North American communities, it was a great learning opportunity to gain insight into an Indigenous community from Europe. Susanna told the YVC that, despite being on different continents, Indigenous struggles are very similar across the world.
Sunday is the day of reciprocity, when Roots & Routes opens up a space for learning as a nod of gratitude for everyone’s hard work. With interns from Finland, Scotland, Sweden, Uganda and the U.S., many of us learned for the first time that there are also Indigenous peoples in Europe.
Susanna began by inviting us to learn about the Sámi peoples’ spatial and historical pathways. She explained to us that they are a nomadic people, living in what is today called Norway, Sweden, Finland, and parts of the Kola Peninsula in the Russian Federation. She stressed that even though the Sámi people are spread out across many countries — they are one people. As they settled in the Fennoscandian area thousands of years ago when the large ice sheets first melted, they were there when the national borders of today were drawn.
To help us really step into everyday Sámi life, at least for Susanna, she showed us pictures of the reindeer. The reindeer are part of the Sámi creation story, a core livelihood, and integral to who they are. As the Sámi are a nomadic people, they follow the reindeer. And yet, not all Sámi people are reindeer herders, Susanna pointed out.
In Sweden, where Susanna grew up, there is reindeer husbandry both in the mountain and forest areas. The reindeer in Susanna’s family migrate within the forest area, and have been doing so for hundreds of years. This is how she says she came to understand the world, and her relation to nature — by following the reindeer and weather patterns to make decisions on where to go next. In school as a teenager Susanna noticed a difference between her and her peers with how they saw and understood their surroundings. She said that moving through the lands and experiencing them is how she came to learn the names of the wetlands and mountains in her Sámi language. Many of her peers did not have this relation to the surroundings.
Similar to Indigenous peoples’ worldviews in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia, in Sámi culture they speak of using the land in a sustainable way, rather than exploiting it. They are taught that they borrow the lands from their children. Everything they do has to ensure that coming generations can use the same resources. Contemplating how land use will affect their grandchildren’s children goes in line with what Susanna calls a “holistic landscape”, which is needed to maintain functioning ecosystems. Integral approaches to cultural territories that value everything that is there — that it all belongs there — is necessary for the well-being of all living things and Sámi livelihoods. She speaks to these concepts in this video:
Susanna claimed that in Sweden there is a general view that reindeer herding and the mining industry can co-exist, which is not the case. Why? Mining takes up expansive areas of land and so do seasonal reindeer migrations, so mining negatively affects the migration patterns of the reindeer. For this same reason, the Sámi people nor the reindeer cannot survive on bits and pieces of the land. Mining corporations propose that they will take just small pieces here and there, but as Susanna put it:
“One cannot put a landscape in pieces and expect it to function the same as before. If you take the pieces out of the puzzle, it is not complete”
— Susanna Israelsson
The perception in society is often that it is enough to simply put a fence on an area and keep it “untouched” to preserve biodiversity. Yet, just as Sámi people are often invisibilized, so is their influence on the landscape. Susanna stressed that it is easy to frame areas in nature as “untouched”, but they are not. They are well preserved since the Sámi people have always been there. She proposes that instead the notion of untouched should mean to keep their ancestral lands untouched from extractive industries and other developments. Here, Indigenous peoples stewardship should be examples of best practices.
According to Susanna, the mining industry is the dirtiest industry there is for the environment, and the minerals society is looking for are located in Sápmi. Susanna lives in a town where mining is the main industry — an industry that now is growing again. Not only does the mining affect the reindeer migration patterns, but also all animals and species. According to Susanna much of the culture will be lost with the reindeer. It is the basis of Sámi knowledge, language, and how they use, and are taught to use the land. While mining greatly affects biodiversity in the particular region, its negative effects are not just local. “The dust goes with the wind”, as does the sound, changing many of the surrounding areas as well, Susanna said.
“And yet we don’t know the long-term effects mining will have on the coming generations.”
— Susanna Israelsson
Speaking of wind, there are other purportedly more sustainable corporate interests as well. As part of the “green shift” in the energy industry, wind parks are expanding across the Fennoscandian countries. Susanna is critical towards this greenwashing and calls this narrative “absurd”, especially when their expansion depends on simultaneously increasing mining. While the wind industry is sweeping across Sápmi on one hand, on the other, Sámi are met with restrictions on how to use the land, for example including prohibitions on salmon fishing, another important element of Sámi culture.
There are other non-industrial threats that are also packaged as harmless to Sámi culture, Susanna explained. Sámi youth sometimes feel caught between a rock and a hard place. As the universities are far away, choosing between getting a Western university degree or staying within traditional Sámi livelihoods is proving difficult for some. Surrounded by industries infringing on their human, Indigenous, and environmental rights, many Sámi youth feel a sense of duty to educate themselves. Yet, such an education in dominant cultural frameworks comes at the cost of having to spend time away from their land, families and ancestral practices.
“For me it was hard being away from home, when all I wanted was to be with my family and help out with the reindeer.”
— Susanna Israelsson
Susanna is one of these youth who are gathering the tools to be more effective in protecting Sámi homelands and Sámi rights. Currently a university student, Susanna often reflects on the course literature and way of teaching. She questions who has written history and decides what knowledge is right or wrong. How is it that transferring homelands of one culture to another, for instance, is either invisibilized or justified within such frameworks?
While studying, Susanna works within the Arctic and Environmental unit at the Sámi Council. Founded in 1956, it is one of the oldest Indigenous organisations in the world. The Sámi Council is a non-governmental organisation with members from Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia, representing all Sámi civil society.
Susanna and the Arctic and Environmental Unit try to influence the United Nation’s policies on climate change for example, especially as it pertains to the Sámi people and the Arctic. They are wary of “false solutions to climate change”, and the negative effects that such schema can have within Indigenous communities, who are already experiencing and coping with the impacts from climate change. Green initiatives can further contribute to land grabbing and human rights violations. She knows this because she has seen with her very own eyes the harmful effects of greenwashing of the wind industry in Sápmi. However, the Norwegian supreme court ruled this October that a wind park in the area of Fosen was illegally built — a victory for Sápmi.
Susanna said that both present-day policy-making and history often excludes the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. There are many misconceptions about Sámi culture, alongside a lack of knowledge; these misunderstandings and wrongful teachings form the basis of institutionalized and internalized racism. Many people living in Sweden do not know much about the Sámi, she said, as it is not taught in schools. Unfortunately, this unawareness risks further perpetuation of cultural erasure and increased loss of languages, traditions, practices and lands, as it becomes institutionalized over time.
Susanna stresses that there is more than one culture in the world, thus it is necessary to also propose more than one perspective or solution, and that the various peoples within a society must be represented. She told R&R youth, however, that she holds onto hope that things can change for the better in regards to the climate crisis. She talked to the YVC about the importance of working together to enact change, and especially in relation to climate justice. Susanna also expressed gratitude for meeting other engaged youth. For, we, the youth around the world, are the enabling forces and bottom-up movements that can make transformative change.
“More needs to be done. I think we have to change our way of living, and for that we need to have justice. The concept of justice needs to be at the core of everything we do”
— Susanna Israelsson
This is a sentiment that we at Roots & Routes also stands by and works towards. Join us in learning more about Sámi culture and struggles for climate justice, for real solutions to climate change, by checking out the Sámi Council’s website.