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Reindeer are herded near Laevas, a Swedish mountain village where residents are concerned about the impact of mining on their livelihoods, an indigenous tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years. - photo courtesy of Niila Inga

Mines threaten reindeer herders
Largest iron ore deposit in the world in same region as traditional Swedish culture

Greg Stone
Special to Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 16, 2012

Niila Inga is a Swedish Saami who has reindeer herding in his blood.

"My mother took us children everywhere with the reindeer so that we could be a part of the family's life," he says.

NNSL photo/graphic

Reindeer being herded in Laevas, a tiny Swedish mountain village 145km north of the Arctic Circle. - photo courtesy of Niila Inga

"I've been herding for 12 years now, since I left school. I've taken over after my father, who took over after his father, etc, etc. But I've always been a part of this life since I was a newborn baby. We always follow the reindeer."

Inga comes from Laevas, a tiny mountain village 145 km north of the Arctic Circle. His office, however, is much bigger. Every year, he leads his herd of 20 reindeer across the Swedish tundra, helping them navigate the terrain and protecting them from predators.

"It's a very big area that I work in. Our summer lands are up in the highest mountains near Norway, and then our spring and autumn lands are much lower. The winter lands are down south in the forests. So that's our grazing area."

But Inga's way of life is being threatened. The region he calls home also happens to contain the largest iron ore deposit in the world. Ninety per cent of all iron ore used in Europe comes from there.

For more than 100 years, mining companies have been creeping deeper and deeper into Saami territory. Today, companies from all over the world exploit the rich deposit.

An Australian mining company has proposed two new mines in Laevas and neighboring Girjas, which would destroy the ability of local Saamis to continue herding. If approved, extraction would begin this August.

"The mining that's going on will kill our reindeer herding," said Inga. Existing mines have already created a small bottleneck where the reindeer can cross every year. "And now there is a new proposed project that cuts off our land in two parts. It would be impossible to cross, impossible to move our reindeer from winter lands to summer lands."

Moreover, the new mines would only be in operation for about 20 years. "How can 20 years of mining take priority over thousands of years of Saami culture?"

In total, there are 40 herding families in Laevas and Girjas which would lose their livelihood to a new mine.

The company proposing the new mines is Scandinavian Resources, an Australian company that operates strictly in Scandinavia. Christina Lundmark, the company's general manager, addresses the conflict of interest.

"We are actively trying to find ways for co-operation between mining exploration and reindeer herding and find solutions," said Lundmark. "Before and during our exploration work, we always have meetings with the Saami villages and other stakeholders such as landowners, landlords etc. in the area where we are active."

The Swedish Minerals Act does recognize the rights of indigenous populations and encourages active Saami participation in the planning of mines. Essentially, it requires companies to consult the Saami people before beginning development in Saami territory. But, according to Inga, this doesn't translate into reality.

"They have to talk with the reindeer herders because of the Minerals Act," he said. "Scandinavian Resources listens to what we say, and how we explain how difficult this project will make it for us, but then they say, 'We understand what you say, but we have to do things our way and we are going to start this mine', so they listen but they don't care."

Lundmark says Scandinavian Resources understands the implications of their mines on Saami culture, but plan on continuing with the project. "Saami organizations consider that the Swedish Minerals Act contravenes with the EU Directive on Human Rights," said Lundmark, "and therefore all exploration and mining activity is a breach of these rights."

The Saami have lived in the territory for more than 1,000 years, but their political influence is limited. Land rights have been hotly contested for centuries. Unlike the Inuit in Nunavut, the Saami people in Sweden do not own their traditional land, they just have the right to use it for their ancestral livelihoods.

"We don't have any political power," said Inga. So when new developments threaten Saami culture, it can be difficult for the Saami voice to be heard.

The new mines would not only affect the current reindeer herders. Their impacts would resonate throughout generations.

"My sister's son, who is 18 now and planning to start with the reindeer as soon as he finishes school, he is very angry," said Inga. "He surely wants to start with the reindeer herding and he can't understand how an Australian company can come and destroy his future."

Inga is fighting to stop the proposed mines. In December, he and several fellow herders flew to London to protest at a mining conference there and he has been meeting with government officials and mining executives in Sweden.

And his cause is gaining support. Even a local mining union officially announced its support for the Saami people.

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