Sami want say in Arctic mining

Mats Berg presenting at the Peoples Arctic conference May 13 in Kiruna, Sweden.

Indigenous leaders say mining in the Arctic currently a “race to the bottom situation,” and demand to be part of the conversation.


To Mats Berg, the connection between the environment and the Sami people is, well, natural.

“My history is written in the nature,” the member of the Girjas community of northern Sweden said Monday at the Peoples Arctic  conference in Kiruna, Sweden.

“This is my history book. This tells me stories about my ancestors. And when you take that away from me, what do I become?”

Berg’s comments were part of a presentation on resisting mining that he gave to open the second, and final, day of the conference. The two-day event brought together indigenous leaders from all over the world to talk about issues facing the Arctic, just days before the start of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting.

Right now, the biggest threat to the Sami way of life is mining, Berg said. Northern Sweden is a hotspot for mining - especially iron - and Berg’s community resides just outside the town of Kiruna, which is home to the world’s largest underground iron mine. And there are at least five more sites on his community’s land that have drawn the attention of mining companies, he said.

But that land is already in use—by the herds of reindeer that have sustained the Sami for millennia.

It’s not that the Sami are against mining. “We live in 2013. We’re dependent on minerals, on electricity, on oil,” Berg said. And yet, he said the Sami need to have a voice in the developments.

 “As Sami people, I want the right to say no.”

He added that, if the Sami have more say in the process, they could help negotiate the terms of development, and say yes to certain projects as well.

There needs to be some form of “prior, informed consent” that the Sami must give before new projects can be built on their lands, said Josefina Skerk, chair of the Sami Parliament in Sweden’s youth council. She also said that including the indigenous perspective is key when talking development.

“I think we share ideas about how important nature is to us, and a long term perspective,” she said.

But it’s a perspective that has often been difficult to promote, she said. As soon as the Sami people ask for something, by virtue of them being Sami, Swedish society is less than receptive.

“As soon as we make the Sami culture visible, hate crimes rise,” she said.

Mikkel Myrup, the head of Avataq, an environmental organization in Greenland, said he sees similar issues in his country.

Another problem is that even when national law requires a company to do environmental and social assessments, local communities often remain woefully uninformed of the real impacts of these projects.

That’s because it’s often the company itself that is left to explain the project to the community and “it’s easy for the companies to convince communities that their project will be mostly positive,” he said.

“That’s the situation we’re in now. We’re very much influenced by corporate power,” he said. “We need to get more critical and know that we can have demands. Right now, it’s a race to the bottom situation.”

Berg says he occasionally hears talk of compensating the Sami for the loss of their land, or even moving them to new land. In a world of less and less free space, it’s a suggestion that leaves him incredulous.

“I ask myself, where? On the moon?”