My message to Norway: Stop the mine or don’t mind the Sámi 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 view the megaproject focusing on the Sámi voices and how it all looks from the perspective of reconciliation.

There’s something I must admit. When researching the Sámi reconciliation processes, there’s always a risk of doing the work in the academic ivory tower, disconnected from my people. But when I face the topics of reconciliation together with my fellow Sámi, they always point out something that we should all think about.

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 Sámi

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 Sámi were protesting the initiative since the proposed line would pass the reindeer grazing lands.

I heard many Finnish Sámi arguing how conflicting it is when the state on one hand runs the process of truth and reconciliation about the assimilation of the Sámi and on the other hand simultaneously advances projects that are catastrophic for their 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 2019, 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, called 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 Sámi fear: land grabbing.

Beaska Niillas with the Norwegian Sámi Association sees the project as a pilot experiment for further land grabbing. In the Barents Observer (14.04.2019) he stated:

“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 analysed 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 added:

“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 Sámi would put it: Will the short-term benefits outweigh the long-term losses?

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

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

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

The Government’s statement confirmed:

“The department [of Climate and environment] has not reached consensus with the Sámi 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 Sámi 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 Sámi 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 Sámi 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 Sámi 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 Sámi, are dependent on electric infrastructure and technology enabled by mining products.

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

She said:

“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 stated:

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 nothing but conflicting.

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”. As a researcher I must ask: What else could continued reconciliation mean than ethically, economically and environmentally sustainable reconciliation?

By allowing the country’s biggest contemporary mining project to happen in Finnmark shows the Janus face of the state of Norway toward the Indigenous people. The mining severely damages the credibility of any attempt to reconcile with the Sámi. How come?

Because I have a gut feeling and it tells me:

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

So have they taught me.