‘Irreversible risks’: UN-appointed experts urge Sweden to block mine in Sami land

United Nations experts have urged the Swedish government not to approve a planned iron-ore mine, warning it would pose "irreversible risks" to lands used by the Sami community.

'Irreversible risks': UN-appointed experts urge Sweden to block mine in Sami land
Protests when British mining company Beowulf carried out a test mining project at Gállok in 2013. Photo: NTB

The UN’s top experts on the rights of indigenous people and on human rights and the environment cautioned that the open pit mine being planned in the northern Gállok region would especially impact reindeer herding – the primary source of livelihood in the area.

“We are very concerned by the lack of good-faith consultations and the failure to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the Sami,” Jose Francisco Cali Tzay and David Boyd said in a statement.

The two independent experts, who were appointed by the UN but who do not speak on its behalf, voiced alarm at “the significant and irreversible risks that the Gállok project poses to Sami lands, resources, culture and livelihoods”.

The Swedish government is to decide next month whether to greenlight the controversial project, led by the British firm Beowulf.

But the Sami, an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 of whom live in Sweden, say the plan will prevent reindeer herding, disrupt hunting and fishing, and destroy the environment in their homeland.

Last weekend, Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg demonstrated against the project alongside members of the Sami community.

“We believe that the climate, the environment, clean air, water, reindeer herding, indigenous rights and the future of humanity should be prioritised above the short-term profit of a company,” Thunberg said in a video message.

‘Watershed shift’ needed

In Thursday’s statement, Tzay and Boyd warned the mine would generate large amounts of dust containing heavy metals, and toxic waste that could affect the environment and water sources.

They also highlighted how the daily transport of iron ore by rail and road would cut off the traditional migration routes of reindeer.

“There has been insufficient assessment and recognition of the environmental damage the mine will cause,” the experts said, stressing that the Swedish government under international law had an obligation to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment.

The European Union’s only indigenous population, an estimated 100,000 Sami live across the vast Arctic wilderness of northernmost Finland, Norway and Sweden as well as Russia’s Kola peninsula.

For much of the 20th century, governments denounced the indigenous people and their culture as uncivilised and inferior.

In the last five years, Finland, Norway and Sweden have stepped up moves to atone for past injustices, setting up truth and reconciliation commissions and repatriating stolen Sami artefacts.

But the Sami argue that their rights continue to go unrecognised, pointing to government plans to open up parts of their mineral-rich homeland to mining companies, among other things.

“A decision not to approve the Gallok project can demonstrate a watershed shift from past injustices,” Tzay and Boyd said.

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What’s at stake in Sweden’s Sami elections?

The results of Sweden's Sami parliamentary elections are expected next week and land rights of the indigenous people are just one of the key issues in question.

What's at stake in Sweden's Sami elections?
The Sami flag; the results of the Sami Parliament elections are expected next week. Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix / TT

On Sunday, many of the country’s Sami cast their votes in the Sami Parliament or Sámediggi (Sametinget in Swedish). The 9,220 Sami people included in the voting list could go to one of the 24 polling stations located around the country, everywhere between Gothenburg in the south to Karesuando in the far north.

The results are expected to be announced on May 25th.

“You feel like a Sami, that identity is strengthened when you step into the polling station,” Lars-Einar Hästner, who cast his vote at the newly established polling station in the Gothenburg, told local radio P4 Göteborg.

Who gets a vote?

The Sami are an indigenous people who inhabit Sápmi, an area comprising (northern) parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. There are an estimated 100,000 Sami people across those countries,  between 20,000 to 35,000 of them living in Sweden.

Blue areas of the map are the area known as Sápmi. Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikicommons 

In order to register, voters needed to be aged over 18, consider themselves Sami, and have to speak or have spoken the Sami language. Voters can also register if their parents or grandparents speak or spoke Sami at home, or if they have a parent included in the voting list.

Of those on the voting register, approximately 45 per cent live in Norrbotten, 22 percent in Västerbotten, eight percent in Stockholm County and six percent in Jämtland County. The others are spread across the rest of the country. 

The turnout this year was good, with 2,135 people voting at their local polling station, compared to 1,964 in the last election in 2017.

Polling stations had to adapt to Covid-19, keeping entrances and exits separate to reduce crowding and supplying voters with face masks, hand sanitiser and plastic gloves. Fika, which is traditionally offered to those who come to cast their vote, had to be cancelled.

Indigenous rights

In 1977, the Swedish parliament first recognised the Sami as an indigenous people in Sweden.

Still, Sweden has faced international criticism for falling short when it comes to safeguarding the rights of the Sami people. The UN have raised the issue several times, recommending that Sweden increase efforts to strengthen support for the Sami language, improve protection for Sami land rights, and afford greater influence for the Sami people in decision-making processes that directly affect them.

Several countries, including Norway and Denmark, have also recommended that Sweden ratify the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention. The 1989 convention emphasises land rights for indigenous peoples and has been ratified by almost all countries with indigenous peoples, but not by Sweden.

Sami Parliament in 2004. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

The Sami Parliament

The Sámediggi in Sweden was inaugurated in 1993,and has its main office in Kiruna, with local offices in Jokkmokk, Tärnaby and Östersund. The 31 members of the Sami Parliament Plenary Assembly are appointed through general elections every fourth year.

As a relatively small minority the Sami, have difficulty gaining representation in Sweden’s regular democratic institutions both at a national and local level. There is no Sami representation in the Swedish parliament and only a handful of Sami are local politicians in Swedish municipalities.

The Sami Parliament is, according to its website, “a blend of a popularly elected parliament and a state administrative agency with limited and legally regulated tasks”, meaning that it receives its mandate from the Swedish government rather than being able to overrule decisions by the parliament or municipal councils for example. 

But the Sami Parliament can still pursue political issues and contribute to changes at the national level.

Its primary task is “to monitor issues concerning the Sami culture in Sweden.”

This includes managing the distribution of state grants and funds from the Sami Foundation (Samefonden) for Sami culture and Sami organizations, the administration for reindeer husbandry, the appointment of the board for the Sami school (Sameskolan) and defining the objectives for the preservation of the Sami language(s).

The Sami Parliament in 2001. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Language and land on the agenda

Throughout primary school, 19-year-old Elin Nejne had to fight to learn Sami, she told the TT newswire. The language issue is one of the most important reasons why she was voting in last weekend’s Sami parliamentary elections. “Many of us are committed to taking back our language”, she said. “To be able to go to the polls feels great.”

“My grandfather is my Sami connection and he belongs to the generation that was deprived of the language. The language requirement [to vote] is difficult for many in my generation who have not spoken Sami at home. I think that should be reformulated.

“When I was younger, I did not even realise that the Sami Parliament existed. Now it feels like it is becoming more and more visible, that everyone can be reached by information, which makes more people feel that it is important to apply to vote,” she said.

But the crucial question dividing the parties into two blocks is whether all Sami should have the right to use the land and water in their home areas.

The political dividing line is above all between those who believe that the Sami villages (samebyar) should control hunting, fishing and reindeer husbandry, and those who believe that all Sami should have the right to take part in hunting and fishing, with reduced influence for the Sami villages. These are not villages in the traditional sense, but financial and administrative unions representing Sami people in different regions.

A total of eight parties were registered for the 2021 election. According to the final debate organised by Sami Radio, whether people who are part of Sami villages should have the exclusive rights to fishing and hunting, just two out of the eight parties said yes. 

In the last election, the Hunting and Fishing Sami party (which is in favour of extended hunting and fishing rights) received the most votes, but failed to form a majority in the Sami Parliament.