Reindeer herds in danger as Australia's mining boom comes to Sweden

Date of publication: 
2 January 2014

Lars Jon Allas, whose family has herded for generations, says mine dust kills the lichen reindeer eat in winter

The town of Kiruna in far north Sweden is home to the largest underground iron mine in the world. Piles of mined earth dwarf the town and smoke churning from the processing plant at the mine’s entrance creates the impression of an active volcano.

Lars Jon Allas and his reindeer herd spend their winters in the pastures just outside Kiruna. Allas, whose family has herded reindeer for countless generations, says mine dust can carry kilometres and kills the lichen reindeer eat during winter.

Allas is apprehensive about the mining boom taking place in Sweden: “We have mining exploration everywhere, it’s frightening.” Now an Australian company is planning a mining complex just south of Kiruna and Allas’s Sami community is determined to stop it.

Hannans Reward Ltd, a Perth-based company, is planning a collection of open-pit mines just a few kilometres from Kiruna, mining iron, copper and gold. The project is in the advanced exploratory stages, the company hoping environmental impact assessments and final resource testing will be completed in 2014. If so it will apply for exploitation concessions and environmental permits that will allow it to begin mining.

The proposed mine sites stretch kilometres across the forested landscape. Mattias Åhrén, a law professor from Tromsø University and member of the Sami council, says the Hannans’ mines will make reindeer herding in the area impossible. “The site is so huge it cuts the Sami communities in half. It’s directly on the reindeer migration path.”

Åhrén says the mines would destroy autumn and spring pastures and reindeer would not be able to pass. He says it is particularly damaging because the mine sites are in the area used by reindeer cows to give birth.

Sami communities are also concerned impacts spread far beyond the mine’s edges. Mines require extensive infrastructure and produce large amounts of waste, stored nearby in enormous tailing ponds that often contain toxins. “If this goes ahead those communities will no longer be able to pursue reindeer herding, not in the traditional way,” says Åhrén.

Reindeer herding is considered by many to be the basis of Sami culture. Once it is gone, Åhrén fears their ancient culture would soon follow. “Traditional cultures depend on the land use, the livelihoods,” Åhrén explains. “When that disappears you become a museum culture, you are frozen in time.”

The Sami communities are not going down without a fight. At Hannans’ 2011 and 2012 AGMs the local reindeer herders sent envoys to warn Hannans they would lodge a complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (Cerd). But at Hannans’ AGM on 21 November 2013 the company reiterated its commitment to the project, stating they plan to mine and process one billion tonnes of ore in the Kiruna area.

Hannans may not have it all its own way. A very similar mining controversy is playing out in Rönnbäcken, 300 kilometres south-west of Kiruna, that could have major ramifications for all mining operations in traditional Sami areas. A nickel mining project has just been halted by UN intervention in circumstances that mirror those of Hannans’ Kiruna project.

In 2012, the Swedish mining inspectorate granted Nickel Mountain, a Swedish company, exploitation concessions for three sites. The decision was immediately appealed by local reindeer herders on grounds that damage to pastures and migration routes would make reindeer herding in the area impossible. In August 2013, the Swedish government dismissed their appeals. The herders then took their complaint to the Cerd.

Åhrén also represents the reindeer herders of Rönnbäcken: “We are arguing that Sami communities have established property rights through traditional use, giving them the right to say no.” Sweden has so far refused to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, that gives indigenous people legal rights over their traditional land.

Late in 2013, the Cerd asked the Swedish government to suspend all mining activity at the Rönnbäcken sites while the complaint was investigated. It is now awaiting the government’s response, due in January 2014, before releasing its findings.

Fredric Bratt, Nickel Mountain director, said his company was in dialogue with local reindeer herders and want to mine alongside them. However he said their consent was not necessary, and as the Cerd only had an advisory role the decision on mining was ultimately down to the Swedish government.

Åhrén hopes Sweden would abide by a finding from the UN committee and does not think there is any other way. “It’s very difficult to convince the Swedish majority that reindeer herding is more important than mining, because people treasure money and themselves first. That’s why we have human rights, because you can’t rely on majority rule in these kinds of decisions.”

But increasingly Sami have been engaging in politics, with protests held in the north and Stockholm. This summer activists from across Scandinavia joined Sami and other locals to blockade the British company Beowulf’s Kallak mine project in the centre of northern Sweden.

Blockade organisers said the project will damage local forests, waterways and reindeer pastures.

The blockade lasted over two months, despite being repeatedly torn down by police and Beowulf security personnel, before police finally dispersed protesters in late August. The police were accused of brutality after a wooden tower came down with two activists still in it. Protesters, both Sami and non-Sami, were detained for resisting arrest and trespass.

Hannans, who declined to comment, will have to prepare for continued resistance from a minority people fighting for survival.