The reindeer herders battling an iron ore mine in Sweden


By Stuart Hughes, BBC News, northern Sweden –

Date of publication: 
30 July 2014

There are eight seasons in the Sami calendar. Each coincides with a stage in the life of their reindeer.

In the mountains near the border between Sweden and Norway, at the height of the summer season the Sami call Giessie, the reindeer herders mark the newborn calves that are just beginning to roam this land.

For a few short months, the sun never dips below the horizon.

It is a way of life that the Sami, Europe’s only indigenous people, have followed for thousands of years.

It is now one they say faces an uncertain future.

A British company, Beowulf Mining, has been carrying out test drilling for iron ore in the area.

It says analysis of samples from its proposed Kallak iron ore mine are encouraging – the ore extracted from deep beneath the ground appears to be of a high quality.

Sami reindeer herder Jakob Nygard says the proposed iron ore mine could destroy his livelihood

Kallak is one of the largest known iron ore deposits in Scandinavia that has yet to be exploited. Beowulf is waiting for the Swedish authorities to decide whether to approve its application for a 25-year mining concession.

Eventually, the company hopes to extract up to 10m tonnes of iron ore a year at the mine.

But Sami reindeer herder Jakob Nygard believes the mine, and the infrastructure needed to operate it, could destroy his livelihood.

“They always tell us the mine will just be a small area,” he tells me at his wooden cabin in the isolated settlement of Vaisaluokta, an hour’s boat journey from the nearest paved road.

“If you throw a knife in the heart it is only small cut but the result is death.

“In the summer time we’re with the reindeer up in the mountains but in the winter we need to go down to the forest. The reindeer need to find food in nature so they need a big area to graze.

“We take many things from the reindeer into our culture so I think if reindeer herding dies then our culture also dies.”

Job opportunities

Opinions among the 3,000 people living in the town of Jokkmokk, 40km (25 miles) from Kallak, are polarised.

The town would be one of the main beneficiaries if the mine goes ahead. Beowulf says its project would create 250 direct and over 1,000 indirect jobs.

“The population of Jokkmokk has been declining [at] basically 1% a year over the last 40 years, so the future is mining,” says Clive Sinclair-Poulton, executive chairman of Beowulf Mining.

“The mine will be an enormous economic injection that will bring back viability to the town. Jokkmokk needs jobs to go ahead and grow.

“The vast majority of Sami who are involved in reindeer herding need other jobs as well,” he says.

“We would hope that we can employ them in the mine and give them jobs that will also allow them to go ahead and continue to do reindeer herding.”

The Kallak project has been the focus of angry demonstrations by Sami groups and environmental activists. They have used social media and networks of indigenous rights campaigners around the world to spread their message.

But Stefan Andersson, Jokkmokk’s mayor, does not believe the vocal anti-mining lobby accurately reflects local opinion.

He says mining could help reverse the area’s declining population and give young families a reason to stay.

“My feeling is that the vast majority of the population here is in favour of the mine,” he tells me outside the city hall in the centre of the town.

“Of course there are downsides, but our belief is that it will mostly be a good decision because of the job opportunities and economic benefits it will bring.

“They’ll need nurses, carpenters, welders – there will be all different kinds of job opportunities.”

Global demand

Mineral extraction is an important part of Sweden’s export-dependent economy. The country produces more than 90% of the iron ore in Europe.

Sweden is also an attractive country for foreign companies to invest in. It is politically stable, relatively accessible – and mineral and corporation taxes are low.

Last year, the Swedish government published a new strategy to strengthen its position as a leading mining nation, amid ever-increasing global demand for metals.

It wants to treble the number of working mines within 15 years. Most of the proposed sites are in the north of the country, where ore deposits are plentiful.

Sweden believes that mining can be carried out responsibly and sustainably for future generations. But some observers are more sceptical.

‘Mining before herding’

Journalist Arne Muller is the author of Dirty Billions, a book about the Swedish mining industry.

He believes that when forced to decide between the wishes of mining companies and those of the Sami community, the authorities put profit first.

“There was a very important decision from the Swedish government concerning the planned Ronnbacken nickel mine,” he explains.

“A court said it was impossible to combine reindeer herding with starting the new mine – so the government had to choose.

“It said the mine comes first because a new mine creates several hundred jobs, whereas reindeer herding is a question of 10, 20 or 30 jobs.

“If you make that comparison, the mine will always win,” he says.

Sami campaigners insist they will continue their opposition to the Kallak project, even if Beowulf is given its operating licence.

They plan to pursue other avenues to try to stop the mine, such as appealing to the United Nations. A petition has already been lodged with the UN over the Ronnbacken case.

Beowulf Mining says its operations can co-exist alongside the traditional Sami way of life. It admits the two sides are “estranged,” but says it wants to work with the Sami to address their concerns.

‘Just walk away’

However, Jenny Wik Karlsson, head lawyer for the Swedish Sami Association, believes Beowulf should abandon its plans for Kallak.

Only that, she says, will ensure the survival of Sweden’s Sami and their reindeer herds.

“I would say to Beowulf ‘just walk away,’” she tells me.

“I would ask them to think – can the world afford to lose another unique culture?

“That’s the big question. Is it worth it?”

For more on this story, listen to The World Tonight ( on BBC Radio 4 at 22:00 BST on Wednesday, 30 July


Sweden’s mining sector

Sweden is the EU’s leading iron ore producer, and is a significant producer of copper, zinc, lead, gold and silver. Mining employs 10,000 workers directly, and 35,000 people indirectly in other sectors. Mining exports total $23.4bn (£13.8bn) yearly – over 10% of all Swedish exports. Swedish yearly ore production is expected to reach 120m tonnes by 2020 – 75% more than in 2011.

Sources: Swedish government and SveMin trade association