This report presents a study of the consequences of the now-closed Boliden mine on the area of Stihken, based on the experiences of Vilhelmina Södra Reindeer Herding District. This mine was operated by Boliden from 1976 until 1988. To date, little is known about the impacts of mining on Sámi land use, including reindeer herding. This is, to our knowledge, the first empirical study of the longterm impacts of the mining industry and the efficacy of rehabilitation, as experienced by an affected reindeer herding district in Sweden.
The study was conducted in 2019 and 2020 in a collaboration involving Vilhelmina Södra Reindeer Herding District, Sámiid Riikasearvi (Swedish Sámi Association) and Stockholm Environment Institute. Data was generated through interviews, workshops, document analysis and GIS mapping. This report focuses on Vilhelmina Södra Reindeer Herding district and does 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 had substantial consequences. During its operation, the mine caused direct as well as indirect land dispossession, including disturbances from the mining activities and associated transport, dust on vegetation, obstruction of the reindeer’s migration routes and loss of animals that fled into neighbouring reindeer herding districts, including in Norway. Today, the main impacts result from the road that was constructed in previously roadless territory and disturbances to the reindeer caused by tourism. These disturbances mean that the reindeer have reduced access to pasture and poorer health, and that the herders must bear greater workloads and costs, as well as experiencing risks to their safety when travelling in the landscape affected by mining. Furthermore, the mine has led to a loss of Sámi cultural heritage and psychological stress and has also held back Sámi youth from committing to a future in reindeer herding.
These results help correct a common misunderstanding in both political and public debate about mining: namely, that it can coexist with reindeer herding without significant impacts. The results also contribute to an understanding of who it is that holds relevant knowledge that underpins risk assessments of mining. As long ago as the 1960s, herders accurately identified the risks that we now observe have become reality, while the attempts of state representatives tended to miss the mark.
For instance, the experts recruited by the state presumed that reindeer would only be disturbed within an area 500 m from the mine and 100 m from the road. This is in stark contrast to the actual disturbances that Vilhelmina Södra Reindeer Herding District has experienced, namely with an area 10 km from the mine and 1.5 km from the road.
These issues have their roots in insufficient protection for Sámi rights within Swedish legislation. They also owe to the ambiguous role of the state in navigating its conflicts of interest between a duty to protect Sámi rights and an interest in promoting socio-economic objectives. The failure of the state to take responsibility for the issues experienced by Vilhelmina Södra demonstrates that the colonial exploitation of natural resources in Sápmi is far from a historical problem – it is happening right now. For instance, the state has made no effort to review whether the limited financial compensation offered during in the 1960s and 1970s corresponds to the actual damages suffered by the reindeer herding district.
There are several ways that the problems in the area could be alleviated. For instance, the government could task the Swedish Geological Survey to fully clean up after its prospecting activities, and the municipality and the County Administrative Board could act to mitigate the impacts of tourism and recreational activities. Yet the main argument arising from this study is about the need for a comprehensive strategy from the state to review and provide redress for the many impacts from Boliden’s mine, including the effects of the associated road. Recent legal developments on Sámi rights should offer ample opportunity for the state to review its responsibility for the damages wrought on Stihken.