Mining the Boreal North
Resource extraction decisions are not simply about wilderness preservation or development
A few days after Christmas, I took the train south from Kiruna, a small mining town 200 kilometers above the Arctic Circle in Sweden. All three train cars were filled with Asian tourists drawn to Kiruna by the promises of shiny brochures: “See the Aurora Borealis in the last pristine wilderness in Europe! Come to Sweden’s pure nature!”
I stood at the window and watched the taiga—the boreal forest—slip by through the polar night. The moon rose over stunted spruce and birch trees bent beneath drifts of snow. From inside the warmth of the train, you could imagine the land outside as the frozen Arctic wilderness pictured in the tourist brochures, protected from human influence by bitter cold and distance.
But my partner and I had just spent the week with Sámi hosts on a farm in Puoltsa, a village 27 kilometers from Kiruna along the Kalix River. Even though daytime temperatures rarely rose above –36 degrees Celsius, the landscape that looked so silent from the train buzzed with activity. Wood had to be chopped, guests had to be fetched, reindeer and horses had to be fed supplemental hay, snowmobiles had to be tinkered with. The taiga is anything but pristine wilderness: It is an inhabited landscape where the indigenous Sámi and their reindeer have lived ever since the ice retreated 10,000 years ago. Yet the wilderness perception persists, particularly now when a tourist boom makes it profitable.
Why does a flawed idea of wilderness matter? It renders invisible the Sámi, indigenous people who have lived in what they call Sápmi—northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia—since the retreat of the glaciers.
For centuries, urban governments have used the idea of the taiga as uninhabited and remote to promote colonization of the north for its resources. Open-pit iron mines proposed for Sámi territory in the ore-rich landscape near Kiruna, Sweden, continue to be justified by similar logic. The Kiruna region contains the largest underground iron ore mine in the world; 90 percent of all iron ore mined in Europe comes from here. From the Swedish government’s perspective, mining is inevitable because the world needs iron ore for steel, and the government needs mining profits to fund the social programs integral to Swedish society. But from the Sámi perspective, the proposed mines would make it impossible to continue reindeer herding, ending thousands of years of successful cultural adaptation to the taiga.
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