My message to Norway: Stop the mine or don’t mind the Saami reconciliation either

Photo by Sébastien Goldberg on Unsplash

The Norwegian Government approved construction of a controversial copper mine in Kvalsund, Finnmark. The mine tailings will be dumped in the Repparfjord listed as specially protected to conserve the wild salmon. In this essay I look at the project focusing on the Saami voices and how it all looks from the perspective of reconciliation.

I admit: when researching Saami reconciliation processes, I live in an ivory tower. But when I have conversations about reconciliation with my fellow Saami, they always point out something quite intriguing that is outside of the scope of my academic literature.

They look me in the eyes and forcefully utter: “But you know what? There is no reconciliation without our lands.”

It all comes down to the land, so have they taught me.

Conflicting interests between the states and the Saami

The debate about the land and reconciliation became tangible in Finland when there were active plans to support Arctic railway by the states of Finland and Norway. The Saami were protesting the initiative since the proposed line would pass the reindeer grazing lands.

I heard many Finnish Saami arguing how conflicting it is when the state on one hand runs the process of truth and reconciliation about the assimilation of the Saami and on the other hand simultaneously advances projects that are catastrophic for Saami livelihoods.

This argument in mind I read news from neighboring Norway.

Ask Lundberg: “One of the most environmentally damaging industrial projects in Norwegian history”

In February this year the Norwegian Government allowed Norwegian mining company Nussir to extract copper from underneath a mountain plateau in Kvalsund municipality.

The municipality is located in northern Norway, in the county of Finnmark. The location of the mine is on the shores of Repparfjord.

Silje Ask Lundberg, the head of Friends of the Earth Norway, calls the mining project as “one of the most environmentally damaging industrial projects in Norwegian history”.

Norway allows mining companies to dump solid mine waste called ‘mine tailings’ into the sea. Norway shares the controversial practice with Chile, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Turkey.

According to Naturvernforbundet’s statement (14.02.2019) mine waste dumping threatens the fjord seriously:

“Two million tonnes of heavy metal waste will be dumped every year by the company Nussir – the equivalent of 17 lorry loads every hour – into a fjord given special protection to conserve the salmon population. Populations of cod, pollock, Atlantic herring, haddock, halibut, and flatfish will also be affected.”

Land grabbing as a threat as Arctic continues warming

Organic but troublesome mine tailings is the biggest issue in mining since the tailings has to be dumped somewhere (read more about the process and alternatives here and how Nussir responds to the challenges of the Repparfjord mine site here).

Bethany Augliere writes that as societies move toward green energy technologies, there will be even more demand for minerals.

So, mining isn’t going anywhere and global warming attracts investors to regions like the Arctic. This is exactly what the Saami fear: land grabbing.

As Beaska Niillas with the Norwegian Saami Association states it to the Barents Observer (14.04.2019):

“This is a test pilot project to see if it is possible to destroy indigenous land in the north of Norway. If they manage to open this then it will be open for grab by anyone.”

“The green shift” talk

Norway’s Minister of Trade and Industry Torbjørn Røe Isaksen has taken a rather different stance.

He sees that copper supports the so called green shift, when companies tackle the climate crisis by manufacturing more ecological alternatives, for example, for transportation.

He argued in the statement published by the Norwegian Government (14.02.2019):

“This mining project will strengthen the business in the north. It will contribute to a positive development of the local community, bringing new jobs and expertise.”

Many fear that the cost for those jobs could be very high though.

Molly Lempriere analyses the pros and cons of the mine concluding:

“For the Saami, this is just the most recent example of the Norwegian Government pursing industrialization in the north with little concern for its effect upon the indigenous people.”

She adds:

“The mine will help Norway pursue electrification, helping it to lower its CO2  emissions, as well as bringing investment and employment opportunities to an area where it is greatly needed. But will the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term losses?”

Or, how the Saami put it: Will the short-term benefits outweigh the long-term losses?

The mine site sits within land grazed by 8,000 reindeer

The Saami people are distrustful that the project will truly benefit the region.

By law, the government has to consult with the Saami Parliament before any such project can start in Finnmark region.

The Government’s statement confirms:

“The department [of Climate and environment] has not reached consensus with the Saami Parliament [of Norway] during the consultations.”

A particular point of concern is that the mine site sits within District 22, land used by reindeer herders, and may disrupt the 8,000 reindeer that migrate through the area annually.

The Saami reindeer herders fear that the mine would destroy the land reindeer depend on in the summer months.

“I had hoped the Government would have heard our arguments”

A Saami reindeer herder Nils Mathis Sara said to the Reuters news agency that he feels that the Government does “not take us seriously”.

He elaborated:

“I am shocked by the Government’s decision. I had hoped that the Norwegian Government would have heard our arguments.”

For anybody who is closely following the Saami struggles with environment, Sara’s disappointed conclusion is far too familiar: I had hoped the Government would have heard our arguments.

No matter how strong the Saami arguments are, they tend to become secondary in front of states’ economic interests.

Sustainable employment of the reindeer husbandry becomes secondary to short-term employment provided by the mine

Question about mining industry is tricky since many, including the Saami, are dependent on electric infrastructure and technology enabled by mining products.

Silje Karine Muotka, a Saami Parliament member of Norway, argued poignantly that there should be patience to wait for better technology that is safer for environment.

She says:

“I do recognize that we need materials for new technologies – so we should look for better projects that don’t harm the environment and destroy our culture.”

Christina Henriksen from the Saami Council holds the similar view. She questions why sustainable reindeer husbandry is valuated less than mining industry that offers employment for short-term only.

She asserts:

So the long-lasting, sustainable employment of the reindeer husbandry seems to have to lose to the short-term employment of a mine that will, best case scenario last for maybe ten years.”

The mine damages the credibility of Norway’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Timing of the Government’s approval for Nussir company to extract the copper in Arctic Finnmark, is awkward in any case.

Norway being the first Nordic country established The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2017. Its report is expected to be ready by Autumn 2022.

According to the mandate:

“The commission shall primarily map the consequences of the Norwegianisation policy regarding the opportunities for the Sámi and Kvens/Norwegian Finns to use and practice their own language, culture and traditional trade.”

The aim of the investigation is to have a forward-looking perspective and “lay the foundation of continued reconciliation”.

By allowing the country’s biggest contemporary mining project to happen in Finnmark shows the Janus face of the state of Norway toward their indigenous people. It severely damages the credibility of any attempt to reconciliation with the Saami. Why?

Because I have a hunch and it tells me:

In the end, it all comes down to the land.

So have they taught me.