Yot’s just after sunrise near Jokkmokk, a small town north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, and Gun Aira, a reindeer herder, and her family are gathering the animals for the long trip to the mountains. Following the reindeer’s spring migration through hundreds of thousands of snow-covered forests, to their calving area close to the Norwegian border, is a centuries-old tradition.
But today, the reindeer, capable of one of the longest land migrations on Earth, will travel the 150 miles (250km) to their calving grounds by road, in the back of a big lorry.
Aira, who recalls skiing alongside the reindeer in her youth, says moving them by foot is now impossible here, due to a habitat diminished by development.
“A lot has changed” says Aira, from the Sirges Sami community, the largest of 51 semi-nomadic herding groups in Sweden. “The landscape is much more fragmented.”
In Sweden’s Arctic north, the Sami (or Sámi), one of Europe’s most distinct Indigenous communities, are facing the loss of their culture, livelihood and identity, they say, due to a failure to respect their rights.
Forestry and large-scale hydropower – 80% of which is on Sami land – has shrunk winter grazing areas. Sixty years of logging and clearing has meant forests rich in lichen, traditional grazing for reindeer, have declined by 71% in Sweden.
The herders’ biggest challenge now, Aira says, is to “get enough food for the reindeer, to find grazing areas that are connected. It is almost impossible to feed them from nature only.”
The climate crisis in the Arctic, which is warming three times faster than the rest of the world, is also disrupting grazing. In warmer winters, melting snow turns to ice on the ground, which traps lichen underneath, further cutting off the reindeer’s food supply. In winter, Aira has to supply food for the reindeer, a species that has survived in this harsh landscape since the ice age.
“People don’t seem to understand – we are changing our nature,” says Aira, whose two grown-up children are part-time herders. “How long can we keep doing this?”
Fewer than 10% of Swedish Samis are herders, but they are considered the custodians of Sami identity, culture and way of life. Without the reindeer and the land on which they depend, but do not own, the Sami people would not exist, Aira says.
“During the war, we supplied food for Sweden,” she says. “Now, they are in danger of losing a people – the only nature-people they have.”
An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Sami live in Sápmi, formerly known as Lappland, which spans parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia.
Sweden is renowned for its gender equality, extensive social safety net and progressive stance on the climate crisis. It has invested hundreds of billions of kronor in its northernmost counties, Norrbotten and Västerbotten, where Hybrit, a fossil-free steel initiative, and H2 Green Steel, two coal-free power plants, a gigafactory for electric vehicle batteries, and a host of windfarms to power them, are planned.
But a growing backlash against the country’s green transition and its effect on the Sami people is shining a spotlight on its failure to uphold Sami rights.
In March, the environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg denounced as “racist and colonial” Sweden’s decision to grant a permit to a British company, Beowulf Mining, for an opencast iron-ore mine in Gállok, because of its impact on Sami people.
UN rapporteurs have condemned its failure to obtain the prior and informed consent of the Swedish Sami, over the irreversible threat it poses to their lands, livelihoods and culture.
In December 2020, the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination (CERD) concluded that Swedish law discriminated against the Sami. A legal opinion held that legislation did not enable free and informed consent for the Sami in the permit-granting process for mining concessions.
Unlike Norway, Sweden has not ratified the 1989 indigenous and tribal people’s convention, which would uphold Sami rights. It only formally recognized the Sami language in 2000.
Jenny Wik Karlsson, senior legal adviser for the Swedish Sami Association, and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation are considering legal action against the government’s decision to grant a permit at Gállok.
“It is not over,” Karlsson says. The first option is a formal complaint to the supreme court of administration, to examine whether the government has fulfilled its legal obligations. Then the case might be taken to the environmental court.
The case is “symbolic”, says Karlsson. “It gives a clear view in how they are looking at Sami rights. If the government don’t say no in this case, when it is a non-critical metal and they had the opportunity to say no, it is a green light for other mines as well.”
Half an hour’s drive from Jokkmokk, Mikael Kuhmunen, president of the Sirges Sami, points across a snowy lake to the proposed site of the Gállok pit.
“I’m far from the mine, but like ripples in the water, it will affect me,” Kuhmenen says. “Everything is worse than we expect. If reindeer are migrating and see something that scares them, they turn around and go back.
“They talk about the green transition. But the reindeer, and we, are paying the price.”
In March, researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute, who examined three mines in northern Sweden, concluded that predicted impacts on Sami communities were “grossly underestimated” and continued after a mine’s closure.
Beowulf Mining argued the pit would benefit Sweden’s green transition, by ensuring a domestic source of iron for coal-free steel. The mine was in the public interest, the government said, and permission included “far-reaching conditions” to counteract disturbances to reindeer husbandry, and commitments to pay for lorries for migrating animals, compensate herders, restore the land afterwards and consult with those most affected, the Sirges and Jåhkågasska tjiellde Sami herders.
Kuhmunen has little faith in the process. “I saw a movie with Bruce Lee, where he talked about water being shapeless,” he says. “You put it in a cup, it takes the shape of the cup. We are like water – we are expected to adapt ourselves. But no one listens to us: it’s like pouring water on a goose.”
The 100km drive north from Jokkmokk to Gällivare is a blur of green and white. Forests give way to frozen lakes and rivers and back to forests again. The road winds past several big hydropower plants, with their mass of steel pylons, before skirting Muddus national park, with its ravines, waterfalls and centuries-old forest, home to brown bear, lynx and wolverine. The park is part of a UNESCO world heritage site.
This stunning landscape is part of why people from Sweden’s more populous south move here, but work in the mines and associated industries is another big pull.
Nine out of 12 mines in Sweden’s north are located on Sami land, including the largest iron-ore mine in the world, in Kiruna, and one of the EU’s largest copper mines, at Aitik, outside Gällivare. In February, the supreme court gave the Aitik mine the green light to expand, despite opposition from herders and environmentalists, with a new, 1km-long pit.
“There will be a new industrial landscape which will affect us,” says Roger Israelsson, 65, of the Ratakivare Sami community outside Gällivare. “The expansion has had to compensate for the loss of land.”
Israelsson estimates that 60% of his community have given up herding since he was young.
His daughter, Susanna, 30, says: “People see the land here as wilderness, as uninhabited. But they are Sami lands. We are taught that we are borrowing our lands from our children.”
The promise of new jobs the green transition will bring has polarized communities.
Lotta Finstorp, governor of the county administrative board of Norrbotten, Sweden’s northernmost county, says: “Green ambassadors from all over the world are queuing to come here. Not so long ago, nearly everyone knew someone who had to move south to get a job.
“We need 100,000 more inhabitants in Norrbotten and Västerbotten for the green industries. If not, we will fail.”
Asked if the decision to grant a permit for Gállok may have affected Sweden’s reputation internationally, she says: “Gállok was hugely polarizing. Perhaps it has given pause for thought.”
At a new housing complex in Gällivare, built by LKAB, an international mining company, residents say they are well looked after by the firm.
Mairi Johansson, 45, whose boyfriend worked at LKAB, used to live in nearby Malmberget, before a large sinkhole developed. The company moved her and other residents to Gällivare last year.
“I’m happy with the mining industry,” Johansson says. “If there was no mine, there would be no Gällivare. I’m a lot safer here in this new place. I was afraid of falling into that hole, it was a risk zone. When they had explosions, my walls would shake.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism