MAC: Mines and Communities

Sweden's indigenous Sami in fight against miners

Published by MAC on 2013-09-01
Source: Statements, Associated Press, Media Coop

Sweden's indigenous Sami in fight against miners

By Malin Risong and David MacDougall

Associated Press (AP)

29 August 2013

JOKKMOKK, Sweden - On a dirt road passing through sparkling lakes and spruce woods in the wilds of northern Sweden, a woman belonging to Europe's only indigenous people - the Sami - chants a traditional, high-pitched tune.

Since the end of the last Ice Age, the Sami have wandered the vast landscapes of northern Europe, herding reindeer and nurturing a philosophy of harmony with nature. This time, however, the woman's Joik - a Sami chant that involves gliding over notes without lyrics - has a desperate tone to it: Her voice trembles and grows into a scream as four policemen remove her from the road. She had been protesting a British mining company's plans to open an open pit mine on ancient lands.

The woman is one of dozens of Sami and environmental activists who gathered recently on the site, setting up road blocks, burning bonfires and flying the Sami flag, with the aim to block the company from conducting test blasts near the town of Jokkmokk on the Arctic Circle.

The escalating conflict pits the Sami's lifestyle and stunning mountain environment against job creation in an area suffering population decline. The dispute has largely divided the population of Jokkmokk, a town of 5,000 people, into two camps - with Sami and environmentalists on one side and non-Sami locals and entrepreneurs on the other. While the town looks peaceful on the surface, the two camps have hurled venom at each in social media, and some fear the rift could upset the calm in an area where Sami and other Swedes have lived peacefully together for centuries.

"I'm a Sami. And we are standing on Sami ground," said Henrik Blind, who says the mine directly threatens reindeer herding, and likens the project to "colonization."

The Sami people number about 80,000, including 50,000 in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden, 8,000 in Finland and 2,000 in Russia. In Sweden, around 2,500 still make a living from herding reindeer and selling the meat. International organizations recognize the Sami as Europe's only indigenous people because of their unique cultural roots that predate the creation of nation states.

In the past, the Sami wore colorful dresses and hats, lived in tents and wandered or skied with reindeer across vast grazing lands, which cover about a third of Sweden's territory. Nowadays, these people are well integrated into society, and only don traditional clothes for special occasions. They use snowmobiles, quad bikes and even sometimes trucks and helicopters to bring the reindeer to mountains in the summer and return them to the lowlands for winter.

But while the Sami largely lead modern lifestyles, they remain closely tied to traditional beliefs in ways that are kept hidden from outsiders.

"All Sami have a strong connection with nature and the land that their ancestors have been using," said Aile Aikio, curator at the Sami Museum in Inari, Finland. "The place where relatives lived has a strong spiritual connection for Sami people, and a balance in nature is everything to them."

For generations, the Sami were oppressed by the ethnic majority that sought to assimilate them into mainstream culture, banning their language and customs and pressuring them to adopt Christianity over traditional shamanism. Today only about a quarter of all Sami speak the Sami language - but ancient beliefs have been kept secretly alive.

"Traditional beliefs have been living beside Christianity, hidden away, as for a long time practicing traditional religion was a crime," Aikio said.

The mining camp said the amount of land to be used for iron ore mining is so small it would hardly affect reindeer herding.

Fred Boman, CEO of Beowulf Mining's Swedish subsidiary, said the Sami village closest to the mine has a herding area for its 4,500 reindeer of around 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 sq. miles) and the mine would use no more than 20 square kilometers (8 sq. miles). And, he said, mining would create around 250 jobs, as well as opportunities for local businesses.

Kjell Ek, 62, a non-Sami local who is in favor of the mine, said he thinks the mining industry is crucial for the future of the town, which in the past 50 years has seen its population more than halve.

"Stores are empty, houses are empty - if no one comes to this society it will slowly die out," Ek said. "Unfortunately, we can't live on reindeer herding alone."

Sami herder Jonas Vannar, 34, said the reindeer need every patch of their grazing grounds to get enough food. He said truck transportation of reindeer is only used occasionally, to get around obstacles already placed in Sami territory, and whenever possible the Sami herd by foot. And he said movement of materials to and from the mine risks increasing road killings of reindeer; recently, a nearby train line killed as many as 1,200 reindeer in one season.

According to Swedish law, the Sami people cannot claim ownership of the land where they have lived for nearly 9,000 years, but have the right to use it for herding. The mining dispute has led to renewed calls for the government to adopt changes that recognize Sami ownership rights over the land. Last week a group of Sami representatives met with the Minister for Rural Affairs, Eskil Erlandsson, to discuss their claims.

Boman questioned whether giving ownership rights over such vast lands rich in resources to a small group of people, based on "birthright," would be democratic.

"Should a few reindeer owners have the ownership rights, decide about, and receive incomes from all water power, mines and wind power?," he asked.

Beowulf Mining's mining application is pending a review of a local environmental impact assessment, expected by the end of September.

Erlandsson, the government representative responsible for Sami matters, declined to comment on the dispute. Meanwhile, Sami rights experts say Sweden is shirking its duties with regard to the Sami.

"Legally, Sweden has a long way to go to take full responsibility for the Sami people," said Christina Allard, an associate professor at Lulea University, who is not a Sami. She said Sweden - unlike Norway and many other countries - has yet to sign onto a legally binding international convention protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.

"They simply have the right to use the land."


Malin Rising reported from Stockholm.

Malin Rising and David MacDougall are on Twitter at: and

Swedish government gives Indigenous peoples land to mining company

22 August 2013

Today the Swedish government took a decision which has fundamental significance for all the Sami people in Sweden. In the opinion of the Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications the national interest of mineral extraction is more important than the national interest of reindeer husbandry and other indigenous rights - the right of the Sami people to keep its [their?] culture. This decision was made in connection with the planned large-scale mining at Sami grounds which are used all the year round, at Rönnbäck near Tärnaby in Sápmi, Northern Sweden. The project is carried out by a company risking bankruptcy and which is under investigation for economic crime as well as has halted trading on the Stock Exchange. The government's decision is of great importance since it is the first time the Swedish government has to decide between these two national interests and there are several mining projects planned in swedish Sápmi.

It is with dismay we have taken part of this decision, which shows a total lack of respect for the Sami people and for internationally recognized indigenous rights. It is deeply tragic and humiliating that the possibilities for Sami children to take part of their cultural heritage and to continue to live and have their outcome in their area should be decided at the table of the Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications. It is very provocative that vague descriptions and pure speculations about possible financial advantages for a mining industry should be decisive and outweigh Sami traditional rights. We take a strong position against this act which is building on continuing colonization of the Sami people and of Sápmi. We condemn the decision of the Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications and will research possibilities to continue this process on an international level.

Landspartiet Svenska Samer - a party in the Sami Parliament
Min Geaidnu, Mijá Gäjnno, Mijjen Geajjnoe - a party in the Sami Parliament
Landsförbundet Svenska Samer - Sami National organization
Vadtejen Saemiej Sijte - local Sami organization
Älvräddarna - The River Saviors National organization
Urbergsgruppen - National organization for water, land, Indigenous People and origin
The Network Stop Rönnbäck Nickel Mining Project, Tärnaby

Indigenous Land Threatened By Mine

Sami Traditional Lands Under Attack From Resource Companies

The Sami people, also spelled Sámi or Saami, also known as Lapplanders, are indigenous people whose traditional land includes large parts of far northern Scandinavia and Russia. The Sámi are the only indigenous people of Scandinavia recognized and protected under the international conventions of indigenous peoples, and hence the northernmost indigenous people of Europe. Sami ancestral lands span an area of approximately 388,350 square kilometers. The Sami are nomadic by tradition, and largely live by traditional means like fishing, fur-trapping, and sheep herding, and they are widely known for reingdeer herding, though only around 10% of the Sami work in reindeer herding.

The Swedish government has given a British company called Beowulf Mining permission to begin test-blasting with intent to build an iron ore mine in an area that plays a key role in Sami Reindeer herding, and the government has sent police to protect mining equipment from the locals. contrary to the UN Convention On The Rights Of Indigenous People.

They have done this despite the fact that Beowolf mining has repeatedly broken the law in the past and claimed to have consulted with the Sami after discontinuing contact almost entirely in 2011, when they were caught drilling in an area after their permits had expired and hadn't been renewed.

At a major Sami protest in Jokmokk, Sweden, where Sami activists blocking a major road in an area near the proposed mine, an activist doused himself in gasoline and threatened to light himself on fire, he was taken to a doctor and around 50 others were arrested.

Protests were also held at Beowolf's Shareholder's meeting, and the Sami positions were outlined in a press release around that event on July 4th, 2013 from the Sami Council:

Press Release July 4th, 2013

Today the Saami communites of Sirges and Jåhkågasska attend Beowulf Plc AGM in London in order to reiterate that they do not accept the company's exploration and mining activities in Gállok (Kallak), in Jokkmokk, Sweden; an area of great importance for both the Sami communities' reindeer herding (see below for AGM Statement).

Reindeer husbandry plays a central role in the Sami way of life and is a prerequisite for Sami communities' and their members' spiritual and cultural identity. Reindeer herding has been undertaken in Sweden since time immemorial. Today the Sami way of life is under tremendous pressure from land exploitation in the Sami homelands.

- Beowulf Mining's planned mine and associated infrastructure threatens to devastate the conditions for reindeer herding in the area, says Jonas Vannar, Sirges Saami community.
- This project endangers our entire existence and we will notify Beowulf's shareholders of this, continues Vannar.
- In view of the importance of this issue for the affected Saami communities, the company's arrogant attitude is a particularly distressing. We currently have absolutely no confidence in this company, concludes Vannar.

Any mine in Gállok would also constitute a breach against Sirges and Jåhkågasskas members' human rights. By way of their traditional land use, the Saami communities have earned property rights to the area that gives them the right to say no to mining operations. In light of the mine's huge negative impact on the communities, the project would also violate a number of other human rights, such as the right to culture and to health. The Swedish government has an obligation to ensure that each developer operating in reindeer herding areas respects these rights.

- It's better for the company to abandon this project immediately in order to avoid additional costs and stress among the reindeer herders, says Mattias Åhrén, Head Lawyer, Human Rights Unit, Saami Council. We will assist the Saami communities to raise this case at the international level, unless the mining plans are scrapped, Åhrén concludes.

For further information, please contact:

Jonas Vannar: +46703986587 Nilla Märak: +46730543326


Statement from Saami Communities Sirges and Jåhkågasska at Beowulf Annual General Meeting, London

July 4th, 2013

Question 1.

Reindeer herding is integral to the Saami peoples' cultural and spiritual identity. It has been practiced by Saami people since time immemorial, but the Saami way of life is currently under enormous pressure from extractive industrial activities in Saami areas. Beowulf's planned mining operations in the Kallak area would threaten the grazing lands of tens of thousands of reindeer. Given the devastating impacts Beowulf Mining's proposed mining activities would have on our Saami communities of Sirges and Jåhkågasska, we will never consent to the projects. Rather, we will do everything possible to protect our lands and livelihoods for future generations. The profits Beowulf is planning to make will be short-term only, but the devastation for the Saami people and their environment will be permanent.


Question 2.

The Kallak project faces many problems given its remote location. The road is in very poor condition and it is at least 40 kilometers to the nearest railway. Extending the railway to the mine site would cost several hundred million pounds, not to mention that this is a complicated and drawn-out planning process in Sweden.

The Kallak project also faces problems as it threatens the cultural integrity of the Laponia Area, a UNESCO World Heritage site, because Saami reindeer herding is critical to Laponia's cultural values. In such case, the World Heritage Committee may delist Laponia as a World Heritage Site, and this is something the Swedish state does not want to see happen.


Question 3.

Beowulf has recently abandoned its planned mining in Ruovdevarre because of the lack of necessary infrastructure and the area's importance for the local community and other land-uses.


Question 4.

Beowulf has repeatedly broken the Swedish Mining Act. Exploration work plans have been ‘lost', terrain driving restrictions have been ignored and the environmental act doesn't seem to mean anything to your company. Beowulf has applied for a mining concession but the EIA report, reindeer herding analysis report and transport report are so far from complete that all affected parties have rejected the reports.


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