A dirt road leads deep into thick forest of pine and spruce some twenty-five miles west of the small town of Jokkmokk in Norrbotten County in Sweden’s far north. Beard lichen – an indicator of the pure air quality – hangs thickly from the branches while Siberian and Eurasian jays dart between the trees harboring a bounty of berries.
Turning left at a sign for Kallak, the sound of heavy machinery operating suddenly cuts through the stillness of the forest. Walking on, I find a dozen test pits stripped bare of vegetation and ready for dynamiting. Sitting in the middle of a pit, a reindeer stares back at me oblivious to the rich deposits of iron ore in the bedrock underneath.
Up here, in a remote corner of Sweden above the Arctic Circle, a battle line has been drawn over the proposed Kallak iron mine that has sharply divided opinion, pitting environmentalists and the region’s indigenous population – the Sami, who number around twenty thousand in Sweden – against those in favour of mining as a means of boosting jobs and revenue.
The Sami community is adamant that if the mine goes ahead, it will endanger their livelihoods.
Keen to cash in on the region’s resource wealth is the British-based mineral exploration company Beowulf Mining, which, through its Swedish subsidiary Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB, has applied for an exploitation concession for the Kallak North iron ore deposit. Noted as an Area of National Interest by the Swedish Geological Survey, the company after test sampling announced an indicated resource base of 118.5 million tonnes – one of the largest deposits in Sweden not yet to have been exploited.
With a population in long-term decline and a dearth of steady employment opportunities, mining is seen by some to be a lifeline to northern inland communities such as Jokkmokk with a population of around five thousand. Others are skeptical that the mine will deliver the promised jobs and benefits while fearing the ecological risks of contamination and waste. It is a debate that has split the community in two. It is, however, the minority Sami population, the original custodians of this land, that stand the most to lose.
The Sami have inhabited the northerly reaches of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula in Russia (a place they call Sápmi) for thousands of years, living off the land and its resources as pastoralists and hunters. While the Sami today live in modern houses and have other jobs, for many Sami in Jokkmokk reindeer herding remains a cornerstone of their culture, identity, and economy.
The proposed mine not only lies on an important spring and autumn grazing ground for the Sami’s reindeer, but it would also need to upgraded road and rail infrastructure to get the iron to the Swedish port of Luleå and the Norwegian town of Narvik on the Atlantic coast. The Sami community is adamant that if the mine goes ahead, it will endanger their livelihoods.
“It could be devastating,” says reindeer herder Jonas Vannar and vice-chairman of Sirges Sameby, one of the three Sami reindeer herding communities affected by the mine. “In reindeer herding it is crucial for the reindeer to be able to migrate,” he explains. “We’ve seen the negative impact in other places where there are mines … and this area is precisely between the winter and summer pastures, [a railway for the mine] will cut off the migration routes.”
Read the rest of the article in the December issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly