Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Norway, Sweden in quarrel over cross-border reindeer grazing

Law professor doubts that the Norwegian government unilaterally can regulate Swedish husbandry on the Norwegian side of the border.
October 10, 2017


«The gras is always greener on the other side of the fence,» is a well know cliché. In Norway, Sweden relations, and for reindeer herders in the border area of Norrbotten and Troms, the conflict seems to be in a deadlock.

This summer, Sweden’s Minister for Rural Affairs Sven-Erik Bucht informed the Norwegian Minister of Agriculture and Food, Jon Georg Dale, that his country has no intention to ratify the 2009 convention on cross-border reindeer grazing.

The convention is based on the principles of Norway’s oldest law, the so-called Lap Codicil from 1751 which was an addition to the treaty drawing the borders between the two countries and regulates the basis for reindeer husbandry, allowing herders to make seasonal moves. Reindeer, naturally, don’t care much about state borders, they moves between different pastures depending on seasons. In the summer, the grazing is actually greener in coastal areas, that means on the Norwegian side of the border.

Norway limits numbers of reindeer

Sending a letter back to his Swedish colleague last week, the Norwegian Minister makes it clear that when Sweden doesn’t ratify the convention regulating how many reindeer can cross the border, well then Norway will, unilaterally, establish a law basis limiting how many animals are allowed enter Norwegian grazing areas.

Minister Dale argues that while Norwegian Sami have to reduce their number of reindeer, due to overgrazing, it is unfair that Swedes can send in as many animals as they want. Overgrazing has been a serious problem in both Troms and Finnmark and the government has worked for decades with the reindeer herders to find ways to reduce the numbers of animals and find an ecological sustainable solution.

Limited understanding of Sámi rights

President of Sweden’s Sami Parliament, Per Olof Nutti, adds strong words to the conflict. Interviewed by NRK, Nutti says «it concerns me how little ability the Norwegian politicians have to understand the rights of the Sámi on the Norwegian side.» the President believes Minister Dale «does not have the prerequisites to understand this.»


Photo: Thomas Nilsen

The Swedes want to relaunch negotiations, but the Norwegian Minister of Agriculture says in a press release that there are no needs for further negotiations. «We have for a long time been ready to approve the new convention,» Jon Georg Dale says and adds «it is therefore out of the question to relaunch new negotiations.»

Norway might be wrong

Øyvind Ravna, a law professor at UiT, The Arctic University of Norway is an expert on indigenous peoples law, human rights law and legal history. He says to the Barents Observer that Agriculture Minister Dale does not necessarily have the right to regulate Swedish reindeer husbandry in Norway in the same way as the Norwegian husbandry is regulated.

«As a starting point, I would say no,» Ravna says.

«The Norwegian Agricultural authorities must be aware that there are legal restrictions for such regulations. Firstly, the Minister, or Norway, cannot unilaterally set aside a bilateral treaty,» Øyvind Ravna underscores.

«Secondly,» the professor continues «Norway itself, by unilaterally continuing the Swedish-Norwegian reindeer grazing act of 1971, which Norway did in 2005, specifies that this law has priority over the general reindeer husbandry act, which is used for regulating the husbandry of the Norwegian Sámi in Norway.»

Professor in law Øyvind Ravna. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Ravna argues that the 1972 and 2005 act must be the starting point for the regulation.

«In addition,» Ravna highlights, «the Lapp Codicil, [which] can be considered as a constitution of cross-border reindeer husbandry, enters into force when Norway and Sweden fail to agree on a new reindeer grazing convention.»

Øyvind Ravna underlines that the Lapp Codicil, giving the Sámi right to cross the border between the two countries with reindeer, is anchored in customary law from ancient times.

«Another side, however, is that the Lapp Codicil does not have precise rules for how the pastures should be regulated and distributed between different groups of Sámi herders, which obviously are needed today,» Ravna says.

Peace negotiators

He calls on the two countries authorities to make an effort to reach consensus and find an substantial agreement that work in practice.

«For two counties that both are known as international peace negotiators and conflict solvers, it should not be that difficult to solve a rather limited conflict on some square kilometers of pastures,» Øyvind Ravna says in the end.

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