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Sweden's Minority Lapps Demand Rights

Copenhagen, Feb. 23 (RFE/RL) - Northern Sweden may seem an unlikely place for ethnic tension, but its indigenous population of Lapps is demanding more rights, including the right to self-determination.

Lapps in Sweden want a restoration of their ancient right to breed their stock freely, as well as to hunt without interference within their traditional region.

In 1993, the Swedish state granted itself the prerogative to start issuing hunting licences. The Lapps see this as a direct threat to their existence, as now they have to pay to get one. Traditionally, Lapps have been heavily dependent on nature and its resources. An RFE/RL correspondent in Copenhagen reports that the protests among Lapps have been vocal, and the Ministry of Agriculture promised to resolve the dispute.

Another decision of great importance to the Lapps is expected from a local court at the end of the month. Since they were first colonized by the Swedes in the 17th century, Lapps have had the right to migrate their stock with the change of seasons. But Stockholm has granted property rights to local landlords and timber businesses. While timber businesses have jointly with the Lapps set up rules for stock migration, some private landowners deny the Lapps a right-of-way and have brought the case to court. Observers say that, should the Lapps lose, their lifestyle will be under threat.

The Lapps' century-old occupation has been reindeer breeding. In recent years, they have employed modern technology to raise the stock. It is now common to see Lapps racing around on snow-scooters and using helicopters.

The Lapps (or Sami) are perhaps Europe's smallest ethnic group. They do not have a state of their own, and inhabit the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Currently, there is a total of about 70,000 Lapps in the three countries, the majority of them (about 40,000) in Norway. There is a further 2,000 Lapps in Northern Russia, mainly around Murmansk in the Kola peninsula.

In all the Scandinavian countries, Lapps have a degree of self-autonomy. In Norway, the Oslo government holds yearly consultations with Lapp representatives. Lapps are a majority in three Norwegian provinces. In Sweden, Lapps have their own Parliament, called Sametinget. But, unlike Norway, Sweden has not committed itself to the International Labour Organisation convention guaranteeing indigenous peoples their land rights.

The situation is similar in Finland.

In Russia, the relatively few Lapps have been ignored for decades. Having been disenfranchised by the Communists, Russian Lapps now live in poverty, and alcoholism among them is rife.

The Lapps were strong opponents of the three Scandinavian countries joining the EUropean Union (EU). In fact, it may be due to Lapp votes that Norway decided to stay out. At the time, the Lapps reasoned that their life would be decided upon by an unknown bureaucracy thousands of miles away. They feared EU structural funds might be used to create a motorway infrastructure in the North, which would infringe on their mode of agriculture. But now, in Sweden, observers say the Lapps are starting to see far-away Brussels as a friend and not a foe. The Lapps feel they might be able to influence Stockholm easier by way of the EU.

Politically, Sweden's Lapps are fragmented. Thirty-one seats in their parliament, the Sametinget, are being shared by eleven parties.

It is not only agriculture and reindeer-breeding that the Lapps are concerned about. They want a greater say in decision-making in Stockholm. Mainstream politicians in Sweden appear to be sensitive to Lapp demands. But, as yet, few decisions have been made on issues the Lapp minority feels strongly about.