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Mining of Europe’s largest rare earth deposit could make life ‘impossible’ for Sámi communities

origin 1A reindeer herder walks through the snow as the sun sets near Kiruna, Sweden. ©AP Photo/Malin Moberg

In January, the Swedish state mining company LKAB discovered more than 1 million tons of rare earth minerals Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden.

These rare earth minerals are key components in everything from electric vehicle batteries to cell phones to wind turbines. And the discovery of this deposit – just 30 kilometers from the Arctic Circle – has sparked a series of celebratory headlines.

Many see the new found resources as a way to end Europe’s dependence on Russia and China for rare earth minerals needed to fuel the green transition.

But it’s a different story for the indigenous Sámi people who live near the site.

Local Sámi communities are already affected by an existing Kiruna iron ore mine and fear that the discovery of a new deposit will threaten their traditional migration routes.

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What impact has mining already had in Kiruna?

The Sámi people are spread across four European countries: Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Their languages ​​and cultures are deeply connected to their reindeer herds, land and way of life.

“Sámi culture is based on a traditional way of land use that took place long before Norway became Norway or Sweden SwedenKarin Kvarfordt Niia, a spokeswoman for Gabna Sameby, one of the local reindeer communities, told RockedBuzz via Euronews Green.

“It’s a way of using land that is by definition green because we actually let the animals graze and find food in their own environment.”

His Samebys begin their year in May in the mountains near the Norwegian border. Then in August, the reindeer they start moving east and they follow them.

origin 1Reindeer roam the forest near a weather station near Kiruna.AP Photo/Malin Moberg

To access the winter pastures they have used for hundreds of years, shepherds have to move from one part of Kiruna to another.

“It was important ground for us and now this. We have a city and a huge mine,” Karin says.

THE my and the city they left the Gabna Sameby with only a small strip of land, a few kilometers wide, for their reindeer herd to migrate. Infrastructures for industry traverse their historical paths, with railways and roads criss-crossing the land.

“We are extremely affected by the mine, LKAB has already cut our different migration routes, and then the mine has caused damage to the lakes so we are not able to fish there,” explains Karin.

“It’s not just a question of our reindeer, it’s a question of our way of life, our culture and the possibility of keeping our language alive.”

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Why is the discovery of rare earth minerals celebrated?

The discovery of rare-earth minerals means that the state-owned mining operation, home to the world’s largest underground iron ore mine, is set to expand.

LKAB CEO Jan Mostrom described the discovery as “good news” not only for the company, the Kiruna region and the Swedish people, but also for Europe and the climate.

“It could become a building block for the production of the critical raw materials that are absolutely crucial to enabling the green transition”, he said in a statement.

origin 1The iron ore mine of the Swedish state mining company LKAB in Sweden’s northernmost city, Kiruna.Jonathan NACKSTRAND/AFP

Rare earth minerals are not currently mined in the EU and the bloc’s industries are heavily dependent on imports from other countries such as China and Russia. Not surprisingly, then, that this discovery and others like it have cheered those seeking to reduce reliance on external sources, particularly in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

The company also promised mining without fossil fuels as part of the EU’s green transition.

According to Swedish Minister of Energy, Business and Industry Ebba Busch, “the EU’s self-sufficiency and independence from Russia and China will start in the mine.”

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More mining could cut rangelands in half

Karin says the promise of European independence from Russia and China puts the Indigenous population in a difficult position.

The Sámi people are experiencing firsthand the consequences of climate change and fully understand the need to mitigate its effects.

“In January, LKAB suddenly floated the idea of ​​a new mine, which they believe will save Europe. They would also have cut our land, our Sameby, in two, because it would have been impossible for us to graze our Sámi lands.”

He believes that industry is trying to exploit the green transition for profit, at least in this part of Sweden. Karin says there must be other ways to obtain rare earth minerals, such as reprocessing the 130-year-old waste that accumulates around the iron ore mine.

“What is green and what will stop climate change?” she asks.

“Is it to mine more iron and possibly find more rare earths? Or is it to focus on not polluting more earth, destroying more fragile ecosystems what do you find in the mountains in this part of the EU?”