Reindeer in Sweden. Photo: Marcus Löfvenberg / Unsplash .

This report presents a study of the consequences of the mine in Kaunisvaara, based on the experiences of the Muonio Reindeer Herding District. This mine was opened in 2012 by Northland Resources and is now operated by Kaunis Iron. To date, little research has been carried out about the impacts of mining on Sámi land use, including reindeer herding. This is, to our knowledge, the first empirical study of how a Sámi reindeer herding district in Sweden has sought to curtail the negative impacts of mining by negotiating an agreement directly with the company.

The study was conducted from 2019 to 2020 in collaboration with Muonio Reindeer Herding District, the Swedish Sámi Association (Sámiid Riikasearvi), and the Stockholm Environment Institute. Data generation consisted primarily of interviews, workshops, document analysis, and GIS mapping. In this report, we focus on the Muonio Reindeer Herding District and do not address the impacts of the mine on other districts or on those Sámi not engaged in reindeer herding.

The results demonstrate that the mine has had extensive impacts, including land dispossession, disturbance of reindeer herds, obstruction of reindeer migration routes, changes to reindeer’s annual migratory patterns, and degradation of pastures. The health and fitness of reindeer has also been negatively affected, which has reduced the weight of reindeer at slaughter, resulting in economic losses. Furthermore, the mine has provoked psychological stress, threats of violence from other local inhabitants, held back Sámi youth from committing to a future in reindeer herding, and reduced the use of traditional Sámi knowledge. The study also shows how the Muonio Reindeer Herding District was marginalized during the process of licensing the mine, both by state institutions and companies.

The most important insight is that the consequences experienced by Muonio Reindeer Herding District by far exceed the limited impacts that were envisaged when the mine received its permits. Moreover, large parts of the operation have never seen any impact assessment or been approved by any government authority; the environmental permit is silent about how the impacts should be regulated; and Kaunis Iron has, to date, not made any commitment to compensate for the damages incurred. In other words, since the mine was opened in 2012, Muonio Reindeer Herding District has not received any compensation for the many impacts and economic losses it has experienced. To be sure, some of the impacts can never be meaningfully compensated for financially, including the psychological and cultural impacts. Still, this report shows that many of the impacts indeed ought to trigger economic compensation, should Muonio Reindeer Herding District opt to make a claim on Kaunis Iron.

In a wider perspective, this study is special in that it offers a view into the dilemmas that Muonio Reindeer Herding District has faced in its attempts, so far failed, to negotiate agreements – first with Northland Resources and later with Kaunis Iron. The district engaged in these negotiations in the perceived absence of viable alternatives; a decision that felt forced on them due to the weaknesses in Swedish legislation with respect to Sámi rights. As such, the study points to how the weak legal protection for Sámi rights, and reindeer herding specifically, undermines the rule of law in the mining sector when Sámi reindeer herding districts do not trust the courts or government authorities, nor have the required resources or competencies to defend their rights.

The decisions leading up to the opening of the mine also indicate hidden connections between politics, licensing, and the mining industry – connections that are worrying from a democratic perspective. For instance, there are several question marks over the robustness of the decision-making process in the Finnish-Swedish Transboundary River Commission, including over the potential influence of local politicians in Norrbotten. The licensing process marginalized the reindeer herding district, which has by now lost some of its most valued grazing lands, and without financial compensation. Today, Muonio Reindeer Herding District is faced with Kaunis Iron’s plans to further expand the mine and, as before, it does so without any guarantee that its rights will be protected.