English Gradusta asiaa

Sámi´s enactments of the Arctic Railway: sustainable development or environmental injustice?

Lukuaika: 8 min.

Artikkeli perustuu Anna Ottin pro gradu -työhön ”Enactments of the Arctic Railway – A case study of an environmental justice conflict between the Sámi and the Finnish state” Kööpenhaminan yliopistosta.

The article is based on Master’s thesis ”Enactments of the Arctic Railway – A case study of an environmental justice conflict between the Sámi and the Finnish state” by Anna Ott from the University of Copenhagen.

Since the construction of a railway between Rovaniemi and Kirkenes was put on the political agenda in 2017, Sámi have articulated their disapproval with the Arctic Railway. Even though the current government is not pursuing the plan any further, the conflict has not been settled. The Regional Council of Lapland has decided to include the rail line into the regional land-use plan 2040 for Northern Lapland, thereby continuing the planning of the Arctic Railway at provincial level (Yle 2019).

Since the Arctic Railway is still only a possibility with an undetermined future, who has the power to make and define the dominant reality of the Arctic Railway becomes important. Whether the Arctic Railway is constructed or not might significantly depend on how it is publicly perceived. With my master thesis, I set out to help enact Sámi’s reality of the Arctic Railway. I show that while the Finnish state has enacted the Arctic Railway as an opportunity of sustainable development, Sámi have created their own, with Finnish state´s reality conflicting reality.

Routing of the Arctic Railway marked in green. The photo from House of Lapland (2019). The Arctic Railway – Risks and Opportunities. (accessed 28/09/2020).

Arctic Railway as a threat to Sámi´s cultural survival

Based on a relativistic worldview, I acknowledge that there are multiple socially constructed realities, rather than one true reality (cf. Pearce 2015). Utilizing the concept of enactment by Law (2004) that describes the process by which a certain reality is made, I analyzed how the different realities of the Arctic Railway were constructed. I identified that in order to achieve the immediate termination of the project, Sámi have attempted to frame the railway as an existential threat to their cultural identity (cf. Buzan et al. 1998).

According to the interviewed Sámi, the Arctic Railway cutting through seven Sámi reindeer herding districts would make it very difficult if not impossible for Sámi reindeer herders to continue practicing reindeer herding. This would impact the whole Sámi culture, since this traditional Sámi livelihood constitutes Sámi culture to a fundamental part. According to Sámi Ida-Maria Helander, “if you endanger the reindeer herding culture, you also endanger the whole Sámi culture”.

Sámi have seen their cultural survival further endangered by the Arctic Railway moving the frontier of resource extraction further North. While already today, Sámi find themselves in competition over land with other interests (UN Human Rights Council 2016), Sámi have articulated that the industrial activities, the Arctic Railway would facilitate, would further change and reduce the land area on which they depend to practice their traditional livelihoods. Pirita Näkkäläjärvi, member of the Sámi Parliament, expressed the link between traditional Sámi livelihood and Sámi culture: “If the traditional livelihoods of reindeer herding and fishing remain strong, it means that the Sami culture and language will also flourish.” (Benzar 2018, n/a). Research also suggests that indigenous people depend on their land to maintain their cultural distinctiveness (Coulthard 2014, Wolfe 2006).

The construction of the Arctic Railway would undoubtedly dispossess Sámi of access to land – land that has traditionally been used on occupied by Sámi – and thereby take up the historic and colonial trend of dispossessing Sámi in order to facilitate resource extraction (cf. Lehtola 2004).

Arctic Railway as a treat to Sámi´s community ability to function fully

Sámi have further enacted the Arctic Railway as an environmental harmful project that would undermine Sámi’s community ability to function fully. They have created this reality through a variety of claims.

the Sámi have articulated that the Arctic Railway would undermine three capabilities essential to the functioning and flourishing of the Sámi community: an intact environment, the preservation of Sámi traditional livelihoods and culture, and political participation.

On the one hand, Sámi have highlighted that the building of the railway does not entail a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from transportation nor is it a zero-sum-game, but that new infrastructure attracts and promotes new economic activities that have negative impacts on the environment and climate. Sámi have argued that the Arctic Railway would therefore remove Sámi’s ability to practice traditional livelihoods and to reproduce cultural traditions and the relationship with nature. They have expressed that they depend on a healthy environment to preserve their traditional way of life. Former President of the Sámi Parliament Tiina Sanila-Aikio explained: “[w]hen the Arctic Railway comes, Sámi people will extinct because the impacts to the nature are so huge and we have to change our habits and the way to practice our traditional culture” (Blanc 2018, n/a).

On the other hand, Sámi have argued that decision rules have wrongly denied them the possibility to properly participate in the decision-making process concerning the Arctic Railway (cf. Fraser 2010). Section 9 of the Act on the Sámi Parliament obligates the Finnish government to “negotiate with the Sámi Parliament in all far-reaching and important measures which may directly and in a specific way affect the Sámi as an indigenous people (…)” (Ministry of Justice 2003, p. 3). However, according to Sámi, this section does not provide them with the possibility to participate on a par with the Finnish government in decision-making processes over matters concerning Sámi culture, Sámi languages and Sámi homeland. Furthermore, Sámi have criticized that the current national decision-making rules do not obligate the Finnish government to fulfil the right of the Sámi established in international law, related to free, prior and informed consent before undertaking a project affecting Sámi´s rights to land.

In sum, Sámi have articulated that the Arctic Railway would undermine three capabilities essential to the functioning and flourishing of the Sámi community: an intact environment, the preservation of Sámi traditional livelihoods and culture, and political participation (cf. Schlosberg & Carruthers 2010).

Concluding remarks

How Sámi have enacted the Arctic Railway highlights that for Sámi, the underlying problem of the conflict over the Arctic Railway is the continued misrecognition of their rights over land and resources within the Sámi homeland by the Finnish state. Rights over their lands and resources are a prerequisite for the well-being of Sámi and are of fundamental importance for them to be able to continue to exist as a distinct people (UN Human Council 2016). As long as the Finnish government falls short to adequately reflect and safeguard those rights, conflicts between Sámi and the Finnish state over the use of land will continue to resurface.


The cover photo: Sámi and Greenpeace activists together demonstrated against the Arctic Railway in September 2018. Greenpeace International 2018. (accessed on 28/09/2020).


Benzar, Julia (ed.) (2018). All About Lapland. Summer 2018. (accessed on 10/07/2019).

Blanc, Anne-Sophie (2018). The Sámi and their fight against the Arctic Railway. (accessed on 22/11/2018).

Buzan, Barry, Wæver Ole and Jaap de Wilde (1998). Security. A new Framework for Analysis. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Coulthard, Glen Sean (2014). Indigenous Americans: Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fraser, Nancy (2010). Scales of Justice. Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World. New York: Columbia University Press.

Law, John (2004). Enacting Naturecultures: a Note from STS. (accessed on 06/06/2019).

Lehtola, Veli-Pekka (2004). The Sámi People – Traditions in Transition. Fairbanks: Alaska University Press.

Ministry of Justice (2003). Act on the Sámi Parliament. (accessed on 22/07/2019).

Pearce, Lisa D. (2015). Thinking Outside the Q Boxes: Further Motivating a Mixed Research Perspective, pp. 42-56. In: Hesse-Biber, S. and Johnson, R.B. (eds.) (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Multimethod and Mixed Methods Research Inquiry. UK: Oxford University Press.

Schlosberg, David and David Carruthers (2010). Indigenous Struggles, Environmental Justice, and Community Capabilities. Global Environmental Politics 10(4), pp. 12-35. https://doi.org/10.1162/GLEP_a_00029.

UN Human Rights Council (2016). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on the human rights situation of the Sami people in the Sápmi region of Norway, Sweden and Finland. (accessed on 14/032019).

Wolfe, Patrick (2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research 8(4), pp. 387-409. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623520601056240.

Yle (2019). Lapland region zones for controversial Arctic rail line. (accessed on 10/05/2019).

Anna Ott

Anna is currently working at the Finnish Environmental Institute (SYKE) on sustainable transitions in the food system. She has a master´s degree in Global Development from the University of Copenhagen and is passionate about environmental justice and degrowth.

Tero Mustonen

Dr. Tero Mustonen, is the head of the village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland. He has worked as the traditional knowledge coordinator for Eurasia for the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment. Professionally, he works for the award-winning Snowchange Cooperative, which is a non-profit organization. Mustonen is well-known scholar of Arctic biodiversity, climate change and indigenous issues. He lives in the middle of the last old-growth forest in Selkie with his wife, Kaisu, two goats and 6 chickens (one of them is most likely blind) without running water. He is a winter seiner. Mustonen has won several human rights and environmental awards.


Anna Ott in her ”Sámi´s enactments of the Arctic Railway” reviews a number of issues that are embedded in the Arctic Railway plans proposed to be potentially built across Sápmi the Sámi home area in Finland and in Norway. In this short commentary I point some of the issues that Ott has raised – I summarize them into below:

1. Whilst Ott is correct in stressing the non-rights context of Sámi situation in Finland, the research does not really address, why things are as they are. Unlike Norway, the socio-historical question of power and state relations with the Sámi is unique compared to other Nordics. This “deep power”, for over 100 years, could have been better explained as a “business as usual” in the important paper.

2. Norway: Ott could have looked at also how Norway, who has ratified both universal Indigenous rights and Finnmark Commission, is handling the stretch of the railway that is affecting Norwegian Sámi areas on its way to Kirkenes, the end port. This may have yielded interesting gaps and analytical discussions between how a seeming cross-border development project is being seen in FI and NO contexts.

3. Locating the railway plan in Arctic geopolitics: A lot has happened with the railway plans and Ott is correct in identifying the regional zoning plans for 2040s, but what is missing is the private investment interest that developed subsequently (how do we respond to private sector ‘neutral’ projects and their role with the Sámi) and most importantly, linking the railway development with the “Polar Silk Road” foreign policy by China. China is also investing heavily into Lapland today and Finnish government has assumed “business-as-usual” approach with China. This has been coupled, since 2011, with the Finnish foreign policy in the Arctic from “conservation” aim into “sustainable use”. This is very dominantly visible in the relations with China and with the Arctic ice breaker and other initiatives Finland is advancing.

Ott has produced an interesting summary of a crucial issue of Finnish Arctic and the impacts to Sámi are well represented, even though the reindeer cooperative level is missing from the view. I would add to her statements the ecological impacts where I was leading a science team that produced the very first assessment based on the public materials at hand.

The Arctic Railway would alter hundreds of streams, marshmires, and lake water flows, would mean the regional extinction of several salmonid populations and other wild life and would transfer the last large wilderness areas of European North, which today are roadless, into a human-controlled development zone of unprecented scale. Not only we would lose the nature, but also a critical amount of north boreal carbon sinks and safe havens.

Each bird, each tree and each fish has inherent value. When decisions are taken, as Ott points out, the damage could be far larger than expected or visible in the technical “environmental impact assessments”. The psychological strains and impacts to the only Indigenous peoples of Europe, the Sámi, would be naturally equally devastating, accelerating, as in similar cases in the past, suicides, marginalisation, loss of self-esteem and abuses.

Takaisin ylös ↑