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Sami reindeer herder. Photo: Duchbaby/flickr.com

The Sami people and the windmills

15 March, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

In Spanish literature, windmills lead us to Don Quixote, the crazy adventurer who mistook them for huge enemies and decided to engage them in a courageous fight with his spear and shield. Or also, they generate bucolic images of a rural past and even, coming to the present, the search to change the energy matrix based on fossil fuels for another supported by renewable sources.

But currently, windmills are a source of conflict in many parts of the world, because their installation can generate negative consequences for individuals and for entire collectives.

A few weeks ago, the struggle of the Sami indigenous people in Norway regained prominence, who opposes the development of windmills that negatively impact one of the main traditions and sources of livelihood of this people: reindeer herding.

The case has a long history.

In 2010, the Norwegian Directorate of Water Resources and Energy issued licenses for the Roan and Storheia wind farms, among others. These wind farms are located within the Fosen grazing district (530 kilometers north of Oslo), where Sør-Fosen sijte and Nord-Fosen siida practice reindeer herding. The shepherds claimed that such construction interfered with their right to enjoy their own culture, but the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy rejected this claim in 2013. Although the matter was judicialized, the company was allowed to start construction and the wind farms were ready in 2020, being one of the largest onshore wind energy projects in Europe.

In October 2021, the Supreme Court of Norway ruled that the development of wind energy would have a significant adverse effect on the possibility of reindeer herders practicing their culture, if satisfactory reparation measures were not applied. [1]

The Supreme Court agreed with the corporate claims that a “green shift” and increased renewable energy production are important factors. However, because there were other less intrusive development alternatives for reindeer herders, which could take these factors into account, this case did not involve a collision between environmental interests and the right of reindeer herders to cultural enjoyment. Therefore, the Court held that, in that context, the granting of the license for the wind farms is not in accordance with law.

Citing several cases analyzed by the UN Human Rights Committee, especially in relation to article 27 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Court maintains that it is essential to consider whether the affected groups have been consulted.[2] It states that the issue of violation “depends on whether the members of the community concerned have had the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process in relation to these measures…”.

It should also be noted that the Committee against All Forms of Racial Discrimination, when analysing the situation in Norway, had already made a statement on this aspect.

In paragraph 186 of the extensive report of that Committee states that,

Measures whose impact amounts to a denial of the right of a community to enjoy its own culture are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) article 27. We are familiar with the Human Rights Committee’s Views —Communication No. 1457/2006, Ángela Poma Poma v. Peru. In this case the Human Rights Committee stated that in their view the admissibility of measures which substantially compromise or interfere with the culturally significant economic activities of a minority or indigenous community would require a free, prior and informed consent of the members of the community.”. [3]

Although the ruling is clear and very well founded, it has one big flaw: it does not pronounce on whether the mills should be removed, destroyed or remain on site. In fact, as members of the Sami people denounce, they are still functioning.

That is why, several years after the start of the case and more than a year and a half after the aforementioned sentence, several Sami young people and other solidarity activists, such as activist Greta Thunberg, resumed protest actions, occupied the offices of Norwegian state institutions and organized a massive demonstration in front of the Royal Palace at the beginning of March 2023.

The Norwegian government issued a note of apology to the Sami People and promised to solve the problem, but in fact, nothing new has happened in this regard yet.


[1] Supreme Court judgment 11 October 2021, HR-2021-1975-S (case no. 20-143891SIV-HRET, case no. 20-143892-SIV-HRET and case no. 20-143893SIV-HRET), https://www.domstol.no/globalassets/upload/hret/decisions-in-english-translation/hr-2021-1975-s.pdf

[2] Article 27: In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.

[3] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Combined twenty-third and twenty-fourth periodic reports submitted by Norway under article 9 of the Convention, due in 2017, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CERD/C/NOR/23-24&Lang=en