Europe is desperate to secure critical raw materials for the green energy and digital transitions. But mining must not happen on Sámi land without free, prior and informed consent from the Sámi people, says Karin Nutti Pilflykt.
Growing up in Gällivare/ Váhtjer, a Swedish village in Sápmi, north of the Arctic circle, the threats facing Sámi people were a daily reality. We are Europe’s only Indigenous people, but colonialism means our territory, Sápmi, is split across four countries: Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia.
For outsiders’ commercial gain, our land has been seized, our people displaced, and the reindeer herding that’s been the foundation of our lives for millennia, eroded.
Adjacent to my village is Malmberget, a scene of deep mine iron ore extraction, and a little over 100 kilometres away is Kiruna, the world’s largest underground iron-ore mine. Both are owned by Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB (LKAB), the 100 per cent state-owned Swedish mining company.
Kiruna is one of the nine out of 12 mines in the north of Sweden which are on Sámi land. These mines - as well as the infrastructure accompanying them - have caused pollution, devastated ecosystems, poisoned the lichen that our reindeers survive on, and taken away our reindeer grazing areas.
Now a new danger has emerged.
European Union policymakers want to secure the Critical Raw Materials Member States need for the green energy and digital transitions, and have identified 30 materials as being of vital strategic and economic importance.
Last week, the European Commission published its Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), which aims to “decrease the Union’s growing supply risks by… strengthening Union capacities along all stages of the strategic raw materials value chain, including extraction, processing and recycling.”
By 2030, the text says, EU countries should be extracting enough ores, minerals and concentrates to produce at least 10 per cent of their strategic raw materials by 2030.
In reality, this means that they want to increase mining on our land. But what say will we have in this?
The CRMA says that mining projects “would be implemented sustainably, in particular as regards the monitoring and minimisation of environmental impacts, the use of socially responsible practices, including meaningful engagement with local communities and the use of transparent business practices.”
But this is wide open to interpretation.
By contrast, Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is well-defined and clear - and should be a prerequisite to any activity on our lands.
FPIC is a fundamental right which is recognised by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and which allows us to withhold consent to projects affecting us or our land.
Yet the Swedish government sees it merely as a principle. Given how coveted the natural resources in our land are, this is no surprise.
In January, LKAB announced that it had found Europe’s largest deposit of rare earth elements north of Kiruna. They calculated that the deposit contains at least one million tons of rare earth oxides: minerals used in everything from electric vehicles to wind turbines to mobile phones. As the rush to extract these and other critical raw materials intensifies, the Sámi people are being told that we have to ‘co-exist’ with mining. Yet co-existence always means us moving and changing our traditional way of life: a way of life that has existed alongside nature for a long, long time. We are also told that these operations are sustainable and part of the green energy transition. But how can this transition be sustainable if it destroys our land and violates our Indigenous and human rights?
For example, in 2020 the UN Committee on the elimination of Racial Discrimination condemned Sweden for ignoring Sámi rights by establishing a mine in Rönnebäck. It also called on Sweden to revise its mining legislation to ensure that it respects and complies with the Sámi people’s rights, saying that Swedish law didn’t provide the Sámi reindeer herding community with a real opportunity to have the legality of the mining project tested before the courts.
And earlier this month, the Norwegian government was forced to apologise to Sámi reindeer herders for violating their rights by issuing licences to operate wind farms on the Fosen peninsula, after the Supreme Court ruled in the herders’ favour.
The overwhelming message in these cases – and throughout Sámi history - is that we must have a say in any decisions that fundamentally affect our lives.
As such, our right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to any mining, wind farming or forestry on our land should be sacrosanct.
The EU must also recognise and support this right. A good start would be by enshrining FPIC in the CRMA.
This article was first published in Mongabay.
Karin Nutti Pilflykt works on forest issues for the Sámi Council in the EU. She grew up in a reindeer herding community on the Swedish side of Sápmi and has a master’s in Land Use and Environmental Law.