An indigenous voice in the Kirkenes Declaration

Lars-Anders Baer, former president of the Swedish Sami Parliament, has arrived in Kirkenes, Norway for the Barents Summit. Photo: Andrea Hill.

KIRKENES: When the new Kirkenes Declaration is presented on Tuesday, Sami Council President Aile Javo won’t be in attendance. She doesn’t use the word “boycott,” but her message is still clear.


“We don’t see any point in participating when there’s no positive outcomes for the indigenous peoples in the Barents region,” Javo says.

She would not elaborate on her decision because the text of the declaration will not be made public until Tuesday morning.

But Javo’s views are not shared by all. In fact, many Sami leaders are praising the soon-to-be announced declaration as good news for the indigenous people of the Barents region.

“It’s not going to be a revolution, but it’s going to confirm the countries’ commitment to include indigenous peoples in all levels of cooperation,” says Lars-Anders Baer, former president of the Swedish Sami Council.

He does admit he sees Javo’s point. After all, the Sami lack the funds and personnel to take part in all levels of negotiation even if they are granted that permission and the declaration is largely toothless since it is not a binding agreement signed by government officials.

“It could be much better and more obliging than it is, but still it is a step in the right direction,” he says.

The declaration is being presented Tuesday at the Barents Summit in Kirkenes, Norway where top government officials are celebrating two decades of economic, environmental and cultural cooperation amongst nations of the Barents-Euro Arctic Region. The document builds upon the original Kirkenes Declaration, which was signed in January 1993 to “contribute substantially to stability and progress in the area and in Europe as a whole” in the aftermath of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union.

Baer, who helped draft the new declaration, says the document recognizes that the Barents’ indigenous people now hold more political clout than they did 20 years ago and so it talks about them having a greater say in all levels of negotiation, particularly when it comes to natural resource development.

“Usually the Sami are grouped under the headline of culture, but one of the key issues for the whole cooperation is business cooperation and use of natural resources up in the north,” he says.

Baer says the northern Scandinavian lands used by the Sami for reindeer herding are the “Klondike of Europe” and are increasingly being eyed by mining companies who are eager to extract minerals, including iron, copper and gold. As these industries establish a foothold in the Arctic, Baer says it’s imperative that indigenous groups get a say in how land is developed - something that will be touched upon in the new declaration.

The issue of indigenous say in resource development is also important for Egil Olli, President of Norway’s Sami Parliament.

“These areas are rich of resources and many parties are eager to get those resources,” he says through an interpreter. “That only means that indigenous people must be even more included in decision making concerning our homeland.”

Like Baer, Olli says he is optimistic the new declaration will be prove advantageous for the region’s indigenous people.

“This declaration is going to be better than the declaration 20 years ago,” he says. “It’s clear that if the cooperation in the north is going to be successful, it’s crucial that indigenous people are included in all levels of decision making.”

The 1993 declaration included a commitment to strengthen the region’s indigenous communities and said the interests of indigenous people would be taken into account when Barents projects were undertaken. It also created a Working Group for Indigenous Issues that brought together Sami from Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden to advise the Barents Council on actions affecting their communities.

The new declaration will be presented Tuesday morning by the prime ministers of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Russia, the foreign affairs ministers of Denmark and Sweden and the vice president of the European Commission.