More and more foreign prospecting and mining companies are coming to Sweden – attracted by the country’s largely untapped mineral and ore deposits and by the ease of doing business here.
But what effect is that having on the country’s indigenous population who still herd reindeers across vast areas of the north?
I’ve travelled to Malå in the middle of Swedish Lappland to meet Jan Rannerud, the chairman of the local Sami reindeer herding community. He gestures to a mounting pile of paperwork that is keeping him away from his herd in their winter grazing area closer to the coast.
“It not so much mining that is the problem but all the prospecting applications,” he explained, adding that on average there are almost five new prospecting proposals per week in the community’s 7000 square kilometre area.
And once the prospecting is under way it can pose a threat to the animals:
“They use cables during the drilling which the reindeer get caught up on. We’ve been losing a few animals each year because of this and we can’t always keep track of the injuries.”
The Malå Sami reindeer community has over a hundred full time herders and more than 6000 reindeer. They are legally entitled to graze their animals within a fixed area – but Rannerud says it is becoming harder to plan where to keep the herds – not only due because of prospecting but also due to the heavy traffic from forestry, and wind farm construction sites.
The situation in Malå is not unusual – nor is it new. There have been conflicts for decades in northern Sweden over large natural resource projects, mainly forestry, hydro-electricity and mining.
But a recent boom in prospecting, coupled with a government drive to expand wind power, is leaving many reindeer herders out of pocket.
Tobias Jonsson is the head of Gran Sameby, a huge Sami area straddling the Norwegian border. His herding community has been locked in a conflict for several years with a Canadian mining company, carrying out test drills in the area.
He says the Sami’s legal right to graze their animals on their traditional lands is being eroded.
“The prospecting companies are costing us big money from lost grazing land and we haven’t seen a cent in compensation,” he told Radio Sweden.
“I’m worried that there is a plan to put us out of business so that there won’t be any Sami herder left to object to the prospecting.”
Rebecca Lawrence, an Australian-born researcher and former advisor to the Sami Parliament, says that it’s far easier and cheaper for prospecting and mining companies from Canada and Australia to invest in Swedish mining interests, compared to at home, where there are stricter rules governing the rights of indigenous people.
“The Swedish government even advertises that ‘here we have very low royalties’,” she says.
“In Australia the traditional owners have rights to claim royalties but in Sweden there no broad sense of how compensation works when we make land grabs for indigenous land.”
Åsa Persson, head of the state mining authority which issues prospecting permits, says Sweden has “reasonable” checks on applications for prospecting.
“And we have to bear in mind,” she said “that prospecting is not very invasive”.
Nonetheless, there are indications that the mining industry here recognises a need for change.
“I think foreign companies do not always know how Sweden works and in some cases they don’t do their homework,” explains Håkan-Tarras Wahlberg, head of Swedish Geological, a Stockholm based prospecting and mining consultancy.
He has been commissioned by the national industry association to draw up new guidelines for consultation with local communities and Sami herders.
“There may also be a lack of knowledge and understanding of Sami reindeer herding communities, among Swedish companies – and even a lack of clarity about their rights and how they should be addressed.”