The aim of this essay is to show how international law relates to the interaction of indigenous peoples and animals across international borders. While colonial borders have affected the lives of herding communities in Africa and while there are cross-border indigenous activities in different parts of Latin America, the situation in Northern Europe is particularly noteworthy. This is because cross-border activities are possible there not simply because effective border controls are difficult to ensure in such remote areas but mainly because several of the relevant states have the long-term political will to allow for cross-border activities. Particular attention will be given to the situation of the indigenous Sámi people. Their homeland, Sápmi, is governed by Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The borders between Norway, Sweden, and Finland have been open since the Nordic Passport Union of 1952, significantly predating the Schengen Agreement of 1985, which allows for unhindered travel in large parts of Europe, including these countries.
Finland and Sweden are members of the European Union, while Norway is part of the European Free Trade Area and of the Schengen Agreement; Russia imposes visa requirements on citizens of the three other states. With such limitations, the Russian part of Sápmi is effectively cut off from the Western parts. While the borders between Finland, Norway, and Sweden have long been open for many purposes, this openness does not fully take into account the needs of the indigenous Sámi people, who consider themselves to be one people and consider the Sápmi homeland as a whole.
Today, only part of their ancestral homeland is recognized as Sámi home areas in the legal sense of the term and the Sámi are a minority in their own regions virtually throughout Sápmi. The transnational characteristic of the Sámi people serves to illustrate some of the challenges faced by indigenous peoples with traditional activities such as animal herding as a result of borders imposed on them by the nation states that govern their homelands, yet in which they usually constitute only a small minority.