‘We borrow our lands from our children’: Sámi say they are paying for Sweden to become green | Sweden
IIt’s just after sunrise near Jokkmokk, a small town north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, and Gun Aira, a reindeer herder, and her family gather the animals for the long journey to the mountains. Following the reindeer’s spring migration through hundreds of miles of snow-covered forests, to their calving grounds near the Norwegian border, is a centuries-old tradition.
But today, the reindeer, capable of one of the longest land migrations on earth, will travel the 150 miles (250 km) to their calving grounds by road, in the back of a large truck.
Aira, who remembers skiing with the reindeer in her youth, says it is now impossible to move them on foot here, due to a habitat weakened by development.
“A lot has changed,” says Aira, from the Sirges Sami community, the largest of 51 semi-nomadic herding groups in Sweden. “The landscape is much more fragmented.”
In Sweden’s arctic north, the Sami (or Saami), one of Europe’s most distinctive indigenous communities, are facing the loss of their culture, livelihood and identity, they say, because of a lack of respect for their rights.
Forestry and large-scale hydropower – 80% of which on Sami land – have shrunk winter grazing areas. Sixty years of logging and clearing have meant that forests rich in lichens, traditional grazing grounds for reindeer, have decreased by 71% in Sweden.
The herders’ biggest challenge now, says Aira, is to “get enough food for the reindeer, to find grazing areas that are connected. It is almost impossible to just feed them from the wild.”
The climate crisis in the Arctic, which is warming three times faster than the rest of the world, is also disrupting grazing. During warmer winters, snowmelt turns into ice on the ground, which traps lichens underneath, further cutting off reindeer food. In winter, Aira must provide food for the reindeer, a species that has survived in this harsh landscape since the Ice Age.
“People don’t seem to understand – we’re changing our nature,” says Aira, whose two grown children are part-time guardians. “How long can we keep this up?”
Fewer than 10% of Swedish Sami are shepherds, but they are considered the guardians of Sami identity, culture and way of life. Without the reindeer and the land they depend on, but do not own, the Sami would not exist, says Aira.
– During the war, we delivered food to Sweden, she says. “Now they risk losing a people – the only natural people they have.”
An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Sami live in Sápmi, formerly known as Lapland, which spans parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia.
Sweden is known for its gender equality, its extensive social safety net and its progressive stance on the climate crisis. It has invested hundreds of billions of kroner in its northernmost counties, Norrbotten and Västerbotten, where Hybrit, a fossil-free steel initiative, and H2 Green Steel, two carbon-free power plants, a gigafactory for electric vehicle batteries, and a number of wind turbines to drive them, are planned.
But a growing backlash against the country’s green transition and its effect on the Sami people is shining a spotlight on its failure to uphold Sami rights.
In March, environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg condemned as “racist and colonial” Sweden’s decision to grant a British company, Beowulf Mining, permission for an open-pit mine in Gállok, because of its impact on the Sami.
UN rapporteurs have condemned its failure to obtain the prior and informed consent of the Swedish Sami, because of the irreversible threat it poses to their land, livelihood and culture.
In December 2020, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) concluded that Swedish law discriminated against the Sami. A legal opinion held that the legislation did not enable free and informed consent for the Sami in the licensing process for mining concessions.
Unlike Norway, Sweden did not ratify in 1989 indigenous and tribal peoples convention, which would uphold the rights of the Sami. It formally recognized the Sami language only in 2000.
Jenny Wik Karlsson, senior legal advisor for the Swedish Sami Federation, and the Nature Conservation Society are considering legal action against the government’s decision to grant a permit at Gállok.
– It’s not over, says Karlsson. The first option is a formal complaint to the Supreme Administrative Court to investigate whether the government has fulfilled its legal obligations. Then the matter can be brought up to the environmental court.
The case is “symbolic”, says Karlsson. – It gives a clear picture of how they view the Sami’s rights. If the government doesn’t say no in this case, when it’s a non-critical metal and they had the opportunity to say no, it’s a green light for other mines as well.”
Half an hour’s drive from Jokkmokk, Mikael Kuhmunen, president of Sirges Sami, points across a snowy lake to the proposed site of the Gállok Pit.
“I’m far from the mine, but like ripples in the water, it will affect me,” says Kuhmenen. – Everything is worse than we expect. If reindeer are walking and see something that scares them, they turn around and go back.
“They talk about the green transition. But the reindeer, and we, pay the price.”
In March, researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute, who investigated three mines in northern Sweden, concluded that predicted effects on Sami communities were “grossly underestimated” and continued after a mine was closed.
Beowulf Mining argued that the pit would benefit Sweden’s green transition, by ensuring a domestic source of iron for carbon-free steel. The mine was in the public interest, the government argued, and the permit included “far-reaching conditions” to prevent disruption to reindeer herding and commitments to pay for trucks for migrating animals, compensate herders, restore the land after the fact and consult with those most affected, Sirges and Jåhkågasska tjiellde Sami shepherds.
Kuhmunen has little faith in the process. “I saw a movie with Bruce Lee, where he talked about water being formless,” he says. “If you put it in a cup, it takes the shape of the cup. We are like water – we are expected to conform. But nobody listens to us: it’s like pouring water on a goose.”
The 100-kilometer drive north from Jokkmokk to Gällivare is a blur of green and white. Forests give way to frozen lakes and rivers and back to forests again. The road winds past several large hydroelectric plants, with their mass of steel pylons, before skirting Muddus National Park, with its gorges, waterfalls and centuries-old forests, home to brown bear, lynx and wolverine. The park is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This fantastic scenery is part of why people from Sweden’s more populous south move here, but work in mines and related industries is another big draw.
Nine out of 12 mines in northern Sweden are on Sami land, including the world’s largest iron ore mine, in Kiruna, and one of the EU’s largest copper mines, at Aitik, outside Gällivare. In February, the the supreme court gave the Aitik mine green light to expand, despite opposition from shepherds and environmentalists, with a new, 1 km pit.
– There will be a new industrial landscape that will affect us, says Roger Israelsson, 65, from Ratakivare Sami village outside Gällivare. “The expansion has had to compensate for the loss of land.”
Israelsson estimates that 60% of his community has given up herding since he was young.
His daughter, Susanna, 30, says: “People see the land here as wilderness, as uninhabited. But they are Sami countries. We learn that we borrow our lands from our children.”
The promise of new jobs that the green transition will bring has polarized communities.
Lotta Finstorp, governor of the county administration in Norrbotten, Sweden’s northernmost county, says: “Green ambassadors from all over the world are queuing up to come here. Not so long ago, almost everyone knew someone who had to move south to get a job.
“We need 100,000 more residents in Norrbotten and Västerbotten for the green industries. If not, we will fail.”
When asked if the decision to grant permission for Gállok may have affected Sweden’s reputation internationally, she says: “Gállok was enormously polarizing. Maybe it has given you some thought.”
At a new housing complex in Gällivare, built by LKAB, an international mining company, residents say they are well looked after by the company.
Mairi Johansson, 45, whose boyfriend worked at LKAB, used to live in nearby Malmberget, before a large sinkhole developed. The company moved her and other residents to Gällivare last year.
– I am satisfied with the mining industry, says Johansson. “If there was no mine, there would be no Gällivare. I am much safer here in this new place. I was afraid to fall into that hole, it was a danger zone. When they had explosions, my walls shook.”
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