By Gabriel Kuhn
September 8th, 2021
On June 23, a coalition of SĂĄmi and environmentalist activists erected a protest camp in Nussir, the projected site of a gigantic copper mine in SĂĄpmi, the traditional homeland of the SĂĄmi people, northern Europeâs indigenous inhabitants. Today, SĂĄpmi is divided by the borders of four nation states: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. None of these countries have censuses for the SĂĄmi population, and reliable numbers are hard to come by. The use of the SĂĄmi language, the electoral roll of the SĂĄmi parliaments (there is one in each country), and self-identification are important criteria. Roughly, we can speak of about 70,000 SĂĄmi in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden, 10,000 in Finland, and about 2,000 in Russia. For historical reasons, the Russian community is the most isolated.
Nussir lies on the âNorwegian sideâ of SĂĄpmi, as it is called, near the town of Hammerfest. Mining has been a controversial issue in SĂĄpmi for years. In Sweden, a strong protest movement emerged in 2013, objecting to the plans of opening an iron ore mine in GĂĄllok. While the project is not off the table yet, the protests have caused the Swedish government to put a halt on it and promise a new investigation. This was a partial victory. The same can be said about the Nussir protests. Due to the protest camp and activists chaining themselves to machinery, work on the site has so far been impossible. More importantly, the company that was supposed to purchase the mineâs output, Aurubis, the worldâs second-largest copper producer, terminated the âmemorandum of understandingâ with Nussir ASA in August 2020 due to concerns about âsocial corporate responsibilityâ. Whether Nussir ASA can find new investors after this prominent withdrawal remains to be seen.
Mining is not the only issue that threatens the SĂĄmiâs control over their traditional lands and their livelihoods, most importantly reindeer herding and fishing. Wind farms are placed in what many still perceive as âuninhabited territoryâ, with the turbines making reindeer herding impossible for a radius of many miles. Hydropower plants are already scattered around SĂĄpmi. The allegedly âuninhabited territoryâ is also used for military exercises, automotive testing, and, increasingly, geoengineering trials. In Finland, a proposed âArctic Railwayâ would cut through traditional reindeer pastures. Along the Deatnu River, which marks the border between Norway and Finland over a stretch of more than 250 kilometers, fishing legislation favors the interests of non-SĂĄmi cabin owners over those of traditional SĂĄmi salmon fishers. In Sweden, clear cuts by the state-owned lumber company Sveaskog threaten the existence of the Forest SĂĄmi and their reindeer herds. All over SĂĄpmi, the crucial question of land ownership remains unresolved, with the governments of Sweden and Finland still refusing to sign the International Labour Organizationâ Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (commonly known as ILO 169), while the Norwegian government does not deliver on the promises of the 2005 Finnmark Act that, formally, transferred land ownership in the province of Finnmark to the majority SĂĄmi population.
It is interesting to note that many of the named development projects are justified by citing âgreen energyâ and âsustainabilityâ. The planned mine in Nussir has been hailed as âthe worldâs first fully electrified mine with zero CO2 emissionsâ. Hydropower and wind power are praised as sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. Railways as environmentally friendly means of transport. Even geoengineering shall, according to its proponents, help secure the future of our planet. The irony that, in SĂĄpmi, a culture that has proven sustainable for thousands of years is threatened in the process seems to pass by these advocates of corporate environmentalism.
In SĂĄpmi, people increasingly speak of a âgreen colonialismâ. In a speech protesting mining projects, Marie Persson Njajta declared in April 2019: âWe have to stop flirting with polluting industries and look at their consequences and their costs. We donât want green colonialism. SĂĄmi land shall not be exploited yet again, neither for wind power nor for metals to produce electric cars.â
It is ludicrous that, in 2021, there exists such an enormous gap between material justice for indigenous peoples and their symbolic integration into nation-states, which often implies cultural exploitation. At the same time, it is inspiring to see a generation of SĂĄmi activists unwilling to accept this cynicism. Without recognizing the needs, knowledge, and guidance of indigenous peoples, social and climate justice movements will meet serious limitations.
Gabriel Kuhn is the author of Liberating SĂĄpmi: Indigenous Resistance in Europeâs Far North.