Professor Reetta Toivanen: Sustainable development also requires listening to indigenous peoples

Representatives of indigenous peoples often feel that researchers are talking past them. Yet, they also have something to contribute to reflection concerning sustainable development.

The measurement went just fine, although the reindeer were a nuisance.

This comment uttered by a colleague stopped Reetta Toivanen, professor of sustainability science (indigenous sustainabilities), in her tracks:

“I wonder who was actually being a nuisance, and to whom. I think the reindeer and their herders had been there considerably longer than the research team.

Indigenous peoples feel that their opinions are of no interest.

However, such an attitude is regrettably common among researchers,” Toivanen says.

“A feeling is spreading widely among indigenous peoples that their opinions are not of interest and that their way of life is not considered valuable.”

Plans for a new Arctic railway are a good example. The proposed route would divide eight individual reindeer owners’ associations into pieces, impacting reindeer management in extensive regions.

Even though the railway seems unlikely to come to fruition, it is already having an effect on young Sámi people. Due to an uncertain future outlook, they are hesitating to choose reindeer management as their profession. According to Toivanen, this is manifesting as anxiety and mental health problems.

It is exactly the youth of indigenous peoples and their choices that interest Toivanen. In addition to the Sámi, she fantasises about someday studying the San people of southern Africa, whose traditional habitats also extend into the territory of several states.

“It would be interesting to compare the solutions found there to the situation of the Sámi people.”

For now, any new research projects have to wait, since Toivanen already has her plate full for the time being. She is heading a youth project of the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland, which aims to investigate how young people themselves care for their wellbeing.

In addition, she is serving as a deputy director of the Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and European Narratives, heading a sub-project on migration. The project is investigating migrants’ experiences of Europe from the perspectives of justice, freedom and security.

“In a way, I have three jobs,” Toivanen laughs.

“But two of them are only fixed-term. Maybe I’ll have a chance to visit Africa later.”

Reetta Toivanen

Professor of sustainability science (indigenous sustainabilities) at HELSUS, the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science at the University of Helsinki.

Born in 1969 in Helsinki

Defended her doctoral dissertation on the effect of international law on identities at the Humboldt University of Berlin in 2000

Research project director at the Humboldt University of Berlin, 2003–2007

Academy of Finland research fellow, 2010–2016

Deputy director of the Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and European Narratives

Leader of the All Youth Want to Rule Their World research project coordinated by the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland

Chair of the Finnish League for Human Rights

Second vice-chair of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance of the Council of Europe

Inaugural Lecture 5th December 2018