Finland, along with Sweden and Denmark, the two other EU states in the Arctic, lack oil and gas. It’s therefore easy for Finland and the EU—unlike Norway and Russia, both heavily dependent on fossil fuels—to oppose hydrocarbon development in the Arctic and call for an energy transition. Yet many in Lapland, including some Sámi, have raised concerns.
Finland is the European Union’s easternmost and northernmost member state. Its remoteness might make the country seem far removed from politics in Brussels. Helsinki, after all, is twice as far from the EU capital as it is from Moscow. But in the Arctic, Finland is a power player for the EU. The country’s support for the new EU Arctic Policy, released last month, was made clear this week at Arctic Spirit, Finland’s main conference on the region held every two years since 2013.
In Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, over 200 delegates gathered in-person, with more online, to discuss Arctic issues from a Finnish perspective. Finnish government officials presented a strong case for the EU Arctic Policy, which calls for “a greener, peaceful and prosperous Arctic.” Nina Brander, Senior Specialist for the Finland Prime Minister’s Office, stressed that extracting Arctic fossil fuels would go against the EU Arctic Policy and put the Paris target of limiting global warming to 2°C out of reach. Finland’s own Strategy for Arctic Policy explains, “In Finland’s view, the opening up of new fossil reserves in Arctic conditions is incompatible with attaining the targets of the Paris Agreement and associated with economic uncertainties and risks.”
Finland, along with Sweden and Denmark, the two other EU states with territory in the Arctic, lack oil and gas reserves. It is therefore easy for Finland and the EU—unlike Norway and Russia, both heavily dependent on fossil fuel extraction—to oppose hydrocarbon development in the Arctic.
In contrast, Finland has ample mineral reserves, including iron, nickel, and zinc. Most deposits are located in the north. The country’s Arctic policy advocates for “sustainable mining,” a phrase which might invite some head-scratching. Green energy could also prove lucrative to the Finnish economy: the policy discusses growing needs for expertise in building “Arctic wind farms” both on- and offshore, to which Finland could contribute. Similar to mining, most wind power development in the country is occurring in the north, generating electricity to largely help power the more populated, urbanized south.
In Lapland, not everybody is onboard with the green transition. Mining and wind power require large amounts of land, disturbing traditional activities like reindeer herding. Huge amounts of earth have to be excavated to dig out minerals or erect a 100-meter tall windmill. Underscoring the threats posed specifically by wind power to Sámi lands, Dr. Anne Ollila, Director of the Reindeer Herder’s Association, declared at Arctic Spirit, “This is green colonialism.” And at an academic conference organized by an EU-funded research project, JUSTNORTH, held one day prior to Arctic Spirit in Rovaniemi, researcher Anna Badyina spoke of how the ongoing energy transition could create “stranded communities” if they are not equipped with the skills or infrastructure to participate in green sectors.
Tourism and agriculture, two other key sectors in northern Finland, also face challenges from new industrial developments. Few northern-lights hunters desire to see the aurora blocked out by a huge pile of tailings or a 100-meter tall wind turbine. And nary a farmer would wish to have transmission lines cut across their rows of potatoes as they speed electricity down to Helsinki.
Still, the debates over the future of development in northern Finland are far from clear-cut. Sámi reindeer herders use hydrocarbons to power their motorized vehicles, while local farmers can profit from selling some of their land to a wind turbine company. Reflecting the need to consider development issues more holistically, Tuomas Aslak Juuso, President of the Sámi Parliament in Finland (Sámediggi), expressed:
“I am afraid that we have another year of crisis ahead of us because of the upcoming winter. I hope the state is supporting Sami reindeer herding to survive these changing conditions. It is obvious that Sami people are at the frontline of challenges facing climate change and trying to find more sustainable ways to conduct our livelihoods.
However at the same time, we use snowmobiles and ATVs on a daily basis. We work in challenging conditions, and it is a matter of security, that we can trust on the tools that we are using. Currently our vehicles still use fossil fuels, and the prices are getting higher all the time, impacting the income from our livelihood negatively. As the Finnish government is focusing on people-to-people actions, I hope Indigenous Peoples’ needs are taken into account in a more sufficient way.”
In Finland, the state and Sámi are therefore not inimically opposed. At the conference, Juuso thanked the Finnish government for working with the Sámi in Finland on the crafting of the country’s Arctic Strategy and on its chairmanship of the Barents-Euro Arctic Council, which promotes cooperation between Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, along with Iceland, Denmark, and the European Commission. One Finnish government official noted the forthcoming establishment of the Sámi Climate Council, which the country’s draft climate law, circulated this summer, should bring into existence (alongside enshrining carbon neutrality by 2035 into law). The council is intended to help identify and spotlight Sámi issues in regard to climate change.
Beyond the lofty policy talk, Arctic Spirit highlighted issues of regional importance to Finland and the Barents region. During a roundtable discussion, when asked about how to respond to the recent rush of interest in the Arctic, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto actually seemed to seek to cool down some of the overheated rhetoric. He suggested, “People living in the Barents region should put some discipline into this Arctic interest and show what it’s actually like to live in the Arctic. Being in the drivers seat in your own region is very important, because interest is now coming from China, from India. But who are the Arctic people themselves, and in the Barents region particularly?”
Indeed, in that spirit, the conference in Rovaniemi endeavored to highlight local and regional issues in northern Finland and the Barents Region. The conference had a strong focus on Sámi issues, youth, and cross-border mobility. Sergey Kungurtsev, Chair of the Barents Regional Committee and official within the Department of Regional Policy of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, spoke of the need to promote accessibility and cross-border mobility. The Barents Regional Council, which oversees the committee, formally supports the introduction of a visa-free regime in the Barents region.
Judging by the speeches made at Arctic Spirit, it may seem as if the borders in the Barents region are dissolving. Foreign Minister Haavisto recounted: “I remember driving from Finland to Norway with my Sámi friends and I said, ‘Well, now we’re in Norway.’ But my Sámi friends said, ‘No, it’s the same Sámi land.’
Yet as Arctic Spirit was underway, two students resident in Russia participating in the Calotte Academy, a week-long program run by the University of Lapland that travels by bus to locations across the Barents Region, were turned away from the Norwegian border on account of having been vaccinated with Sputnik V. Norway only recognizes vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency, which continues to exclude the Russian vaccine.
For all the talk of cross-border mobility and exchanges, the politicization of COVID has erected real if invisible walls. During the earlier stages of the pandemic, the closing of national borders tore Sámi families straddling Norway and Sweden in half. The two countries made an exception allowing reindeer herders to cross without quarantining, but Sámi working in other sectors, or those just traveling for personal reasons, did not enjoy this privilege.
In recent months, borders have become easier to cross for people residing within the European Economic Area and those inoculated with the right vaccine. With case numbers ticking up across Europe, however, the question on everyone’s mind at Arctic Spirit was whether such an in-person conference would be feasible again in the near future. For a few days in November, at least, the dream of an event where a a Sámi reindeer herder could chit-chat with a Russian regional official over strong coffee and cake was alive.