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Mining the Boreal North

Resource extraction decisions are not simply about wilderness preservation or development

Nancy Langston

Environmental Histories of the Taiga

As the inland ice retreated from Sápmi some 10,000 years ago, reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) followed the edge of the ice as it retreated northward, and the ancestors of the Sámi people came with them. The anthropologist Piers Vitebsky has argued that without reindeer, human cultures could not have thrived in the boreal forest. Without people, reindeer might not have thrived as well.

2013-03MargLangstonFC.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageReindeer are well suited to the taiga’s frigid winters. They can maintain a thermogradient between body core and the environment of up to 100 degrees, in part because of insulation provided by their fur, and in part because of counter-current vascular heat exchange systems in their legs and nasal passages. Cold is little problem; the challenge is finding food. Reindeer migration patterns reduce some, but not all, of their vulnerability to food scarcity.

Sámi herders do not just follow the reindeer. They have negotiated complex relationships with the animals, basing an eight-season migration pattern on the reindeer’s seasonal cycles. From March until April, the pregnant female reindeer began to move out of lowland forests toward mountain pastures. In April to May, calves are born, and the cows choose spring pastures where snow melts early, allowing them to supplement their lichen diet with leaves, grass and herbs. In June, reindeer select riparian vegetation near marshes and brooks, allowing them to quickly regain weight lost during the long winter. From June to July, when parasitic flies become a problem in the lowlands, reindeer move up into high, windy mountain meadows where they can find relief from both insects and heat. When August comes, reindeer build up fat and muscle to prepare for the winter and begin their migration to lower pastures, where the rutting period commences. During the rut, cows continue to accumulate reserves for the winter, while the bulls use much of their stored body fat and muscle weight, which they need to replenish during the brief autumn season. When the snows deepen in early winter, the reindeer migrate back toward lowland forests where they can dig through the snow cover to reach their main winter food source: ground lichens. From December through March, the coldest season, reindeer graze for lichens and berry plants in the coniferous forests. These migration patterns paid little attention to national borders; to find the best forage, reindeer often crossed from summer pastures in Norway into Sweden and Finland winter territories.

Originally hunters of reindeer rather than herders, the Sámi shifted to herding semi-domesticated reindeer after European incursions into their lands reduced their subsistence resources. In the 9th century, Norse chieftains moved onto Sámi lands and began taxing the Sámi. Records from a chieftain called Ottar, who was in the employ of King Alfred the Great of England, give some sense of the annual taxes demanded from the Sámi: “A man of the highest rank has to contribute the skins of fifteen martens and five reindeer and one bear and forty bushels of feathers and a tunic made of bearskin or otterskin and two ships’ cables … made either of whaleskin or of sealskin.” Kevin Crossley-Holland also notes that Ottar mentioned that the Sámi had trained reindeer as decoys to bring the wild herds closer for easier hunting, suggesting that a shift in subsistence practices from hunting to herding reindeer had already begun.

Trappers and traders came to Sápmi to capitalize on the growing European market for furs, selling firearms to the Sámi. The Sámi intensified hunting, depleting the boreal forests of fur-bearing animals and reindeer. As subsistence resources dwindled, the Sámi began to domesticate wild reindeer, and by the 17th century, herding of semi-domesticated reindeer had largely replaced hunting of wild reindeer.

The north, in European eyes, seemed empty of people (even though the Sámi provided essential taxes), and that emptiness justified it becoming Sweden’s colony for resource extraction—first for furs, then for minerals, timber and energy. In 1542, the Swedish king Gustav Vasa proclaimed that “all permanently uninhabited land belongs to God, Us and the Swedish Crown, and nobody else.” In 1635, cabinet minister Carl Bonde wrote to the Swedish statesman Axel Oxenstierna describing silver ore deposits in the north, expressing his belief that the boreal north could become Sweden’s own West Indies. The year before, a Sámi man named Peder Olofsson had mentioned to some Swedes that he had found silver ore in Nasafjäll in Pite Lappmark, close to the Norwegian border. Silver revenues might help fund war expenses that burdened the Swedish state, so in 1635, mining began at the Nasafjäll works.

Transport of ore to smelters and then to markets was vital for mining development. The Swedes believed that the Sámi were too weak and lazy to dig ore but were useful for transporting that ore. Sámi were ordered to use their reindeer to carry ore 60 kilometers between the Nasafjäll mine and the smelting works. The Sámi refused, fearing the work would interfere with reindeer herding cycles. Swedish workers described how they forced the Sámi to comply: “We tied them to a couple of timbers, pushed them down into the rapids a few times and then pulled them up to allow the water to run out of their mouths again, so all the people working in the mine were aware of the situation.” Contemporary accounts speak of the road “lined with bleached reindeer skeletons long after mining finished.” Many Sámi refused what they saw as enslavement and instead fled to Norway, even though the Swedish government sent troops to prevent their escape. Much of their territory near the mine became depopulated.

In 1673, the Swedish king encouraged Swedish citizens from the south to move north and colonize the Sámi area. Few Swedes, however, were interested in moving to a place they saw as remote, barren and inhospitable, even when the king promised relief from military service and taxation. The Swedes who moved into the forest found settled farming nearly impossible in the harsh climate, so they began hunting and fishing on Sámi lands and cutting hay in winter reindeer pastures. The Sámi herding territories and fishing grounds were squeezed by the new immigrants, but when conflicts arose, the Sámis were able to assert their communal property rights in Swedish courts.

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