1st Oct 2023

Arctic Swedish mine poses threat to indigenous Sami

  • Sami culture and language is intricately linked to reindeer herding (Photo: Wikipedia)
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The indigenous reindeer-herding Sami people in northern Sweden say they are facing an existential threat from an iron-ore mine billed as a pivotal shift towards the EU's green transition.

Coupled with mass tourism, the some 120 Sami people herding reindeer through the Gabna Sameby district in northern Sweden are seeing their thousand year-old traditions erode as the state-owned LKAB iron ore mine near the town of Kiruna continues to expand.

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Both the European Commission and the Swedish EU presidency have described the mine, and its recent discovery of rare earth minerals (in addition to the equivalent of a quarter of Europe's phosphorus needs), in glowing terms. It is the world's largest underground iron-ore mine, reaching some 1,300 metres in depth.

But for the Sami that live in the Gabna Sameby district, a large stretch of land that runs to the mountainous Norwegian border in the west, the industrialisation of a once pristine environment is having a devastating impact on the wildlife and its reindeer.

Among them is 36-year old Sami reindeer herder Tomas Kuhmunen, who spoke to EUobserver earlier this week.

"It's everything I am. It's what I've brought into this world, caring for the reindeer, caring for future generations," he said.

For Kuhmunen, the LKAB mine, as well as mass tourism, is posing an existential threat, noting a dramatic shift in the landscape over the decades.

This includes the mass felling of trees in the late 1950s, that have since been replaced by monocultures, he said.

Rare earth minerals

Today, the LKAB mine is expanding and forcing some 6,000 inhabitants of the nearby Kiruna town to move three kilometres east.

LKAB had also last week announced the discovery of rare earth oxides deposits, a critical raw material needed to produce everything from car batteries to windmills.

But whereas LKAB promises a fossil-free extraction of said minerals as part of the EU's green transition, the Sami remain wary of its wider impact.

"They [LKAB] don't see the whole landscape in the same manner that we do when we're herding our reindeers. And that is of course a major problem," said Kuhmunen.

"They see this as an island, in a vast ocean of nothingness. They see it as a fragmented," he said.

The main source of food for reindeer in the winter is lichen.

But Kuhmunen says biodiversity loss has led to a lichen decline by 70 percent over the past 70 years in some areas.

The LKAB mine and Kiruna act as a bottleneck for the reindeer, forcing them to pass nearby in the early morning hours when there is little sound to reach the pastures to graze in the east.

Reindeer up until 1948 trekked through Kiruna in a path Kuhmunen described as a bloodline access to pastures.

That path has been closed due to the mine and other infrastructure, including an airstrip, he said.

As the mine and town expands, it further squeezes an already narrow strip of the district for the reindeer to herd and graze.

"If I were to put an 'area of effect' surrounding the mine it would be 10km due to sound, seismic activity and dust fall," he said.

The herders are unable to bypass the bottleneck because the two neighbouring districts won't allow them to graze on their land.

The issue is further complicated by a Kiruna sewage treatment facility that is pumping out warm water into a nearby creek. It means the creek doesn't freeze over in winter, making it difficult for the herds to pass.

Tourism companies specialising in snowmobiles and dog sledding add further complications, said Kuhmunen.

He said a quota of 6,500 reindeer won't be met this year due to the cumulative effects of tourism, infrastructure and the mine.

"We lose a couple of 100 reindeer to the railroad each year and to infrastructure," he said.

Kuhmunen said the worries has taken a toll on mental health, on relationships with families, the community and friendships between neighbouring districts.

'The source of all evil'

Similar comments were made by Karin Kvarfordt Niia, spokesperson for the Gabna Sameby.

"LKAB is the source to all evil," she said.

"That's why we have Kiruna city, and that's why we have roads, that's why Kiruna had to move. It's easy to go here and visit and then the tourists expanded," she said.

Niia, who has three small children, said it is possible they won't be able to herd reindeer in the future.

The Sami parliament, composed of 31 members, may start looking for answers from the European institutions in Brussels.

"We want to be a partner with the Swedish government and we also want to establish a platform, a Sami parliament platform in Brussels," said Stefan Mikaelsson, its deputy chair of the board at the parliament.

For its part, a spokesperson for LKAB was quoted in the Swedish press as saying they are in talks with the Sami to find solutions.

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