Lost Voices: How Mining in Scandinavian Arctic Regions has Impacted Sámi Livelihood

By: Avery Desrosiers, Nicole Rice, Selja Ryöppy and Hilja Kurkinen

Photo by Khusen Rustamov on Pixabay

Through the analysis of the Kiruna mine in Northern Sweden and the Nussir mine in Northern Norway, we can understand how Arctic mining affects Sámi people, an Indigenous community living in the Arctic. In addition to the negative effects on traditional livelihoods such as reindeer herding, mining also impacts Sámi culture, rights and identity as a whole, as nature is intertwined in all aspects of Sámi life. Despite the policies put in place to protect their communities and practices, the Sámi have been constantly overlooked and disregarded. This post shares examples from Scandinavia, as well as potential improvement suggestions from Canada.

Threats to reindeer herding – example of Kiruna and Nussir

In Kiruna, Northern Sweden, state-owned LKAB Company founded an ore mine during 1890’s. Today, Kiruna is Sweden’s largest and most central mining region and the mine one of the world’s largest underground iron ore mines. The continuous expansion and exploitation of ore has led to a major risk of subsidence of the ground. In order to continue mining, the city of Kiruna will be relocated – an operation referred to as ‘the Kiruna city transformation’. Both mining and the relocation create pressure on reindeer herding.

For Sami people living in Kiruna, the ore exploitation means loss of reindeer grazing lands as well as forced adaptation to the mining activities. The relocation of the city has highly impacted reindeer herding areas for example by restricting reindeer migration routes near the city. In addition, the surrounding infrastructure such as roads and railroads create even more challenges for herding, since the roads cut through the pastures leading to a sectioning of the grazing lands. The sectioning hinders the possibility of reindeer movement and endangers the reindeer. The sectioning also leads to overgrazing in some areas, which can lead to further degradation in ecosystems and disappearance of lichen.

Another case in Scandinavia, the Nussir copper mine, is located in the Finnmark region of Northern Norway, specifically impacting the Sámi community in the Kvalsund municipality. Similarly to Kiruna, the development of the mine and its surrounding infrastructure places environmental stressors on the reindeer, leading to decreased reproduction and migration through the municipality, thus negatively impacting the ability for Sámi people in this community to engage in reindeer herding.

Identity impact, Sámi resistance and violated laws

The Nussir case provides a good example of how the mine is impacting the wider Sámi identity. Due to the increase of outmigration among the younger Sámi population in the Kvalsund municipality towards neighbouring cities, there is a desire with elder Sámi people to strive to bring forward their cultural history and traditions and not let the Sámi identity dissipate. This explains why elder Sámi reindeer herders are protesting the development of the Nussir mine as it has negative implications on their ability to herd reindeer, which is an important aspect of their traditional livelihood and culture that they want to teach younger generations. The mine clearly impacts Sámi identity as it impairs their ability to practise their traditions and pass them down through generations.

Sámi reindeer herders in the Kvalsund municipality are particularly upset as their voices are not heard after protests, and the extractive mine activities will be taking place on land containing pastures, which they are supposed to have established rights over. The Sámi community is frustrated as the government and global extractive companies have a profit-driven mindset and are looking past the impacts that the mine has on Sámi traditional reindeer livelihood practices, thus affecting their culture.

Photo by Natalia Kollegova on Pixabay

With regulations such as the Finnmark and the Mineral Acts in place in Norway, the Nussir mine should never have been able to begin operations. Still, due to the profitability of this institution, production was deemed necessary. On paper, both of these acts set out to provide protection for Sámi people’s culture and livelihood. The Finnmark Act outlines land management protocols and states that Sámi people have control over their land. The Mineral Act has control over all mining operations in Norway and says that under the Act all Sámi rights are safeguarded.  Additionally, both of these acts disclose that Sámi people have the opportunity to refuse potential mining operations if they foresee irreparable damages as a result of the plausible project. In the initial phases of mining, it was decided that the mining company would have to work collaboratively with the reindeer herders to develop a plan that would allow herding to remain unaffected throughout the duration of mining. After the statement was issued, no further work was done to protect the reindeer herding in the area.

The Nussir mine clearly demonstrates how the laws and legislation which have been put into place to protect Sámi rights are consistently disregarded. It reveals the pattern often seen when businesses and government organisations interact with Indigenous groups: there is minimal effort to collaborate and consider the needs of any other entity other than their own. Profits are of the sole importance and anything that gets in the way of this goal is destroyed. This, and other case studies show that companies do not hesitate to negatively impact local livelihoods if it means they can have greater success in mining results.

Canadian Lessons

To improve the Sámi rights, the policy makers in Scandinavia could look at the recent developments in Canada. In June 2021, the Senate passed a bill which sets to align all regulation with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This bill is likely to trigger regulatory reforms in mining licensing, increasing the potential for conducting assessments in true partnerships, or even led by Indigenous communities. The move suggests that Canada is taking concrete steps towards real reconciliation, something that has long underpinned their constitutional acknowledgment of Indigenous rights. Although all Arctic countries have miles to go before the Indigenous rights and opinions are respected both in regulation and in practice, the Canadian case provides a glimpse of hope that better times may be ahead.


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