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Mining the Boreal North

Resource extraction decisions are not simply about wilderness preservation or development

Nancy Langston


With 19th century industrialism, colonial development of the north’s resources exploded, transforming Sámi relations with reindeer and territory once again. Although a series of earlier court decisions had affirmed Sámi property rights, the Swedish state now saw Sámi communal land ownership as an obstacle to exploitation of boreal resources. To justify stripping the Sámi of their property rights, the Swedish government turned to the contemporary science of racial difference. Eugenicists and social Darwinists argued that the Sámi were an inferior race, unable to make adult decisions, so the Swedes would have to decide what would happen on Sámi lands. Swedish policy toward the Sámi was defended with a racist ideology that claimed to have found “scientific verification” of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest within the human community.

In 1886, Sweden passed the Reindeer Husbandry Act, which reduced Sámi ownership of land and water to mere usufruct rights. The Sámi could no longer own the land; they only retained limited rights to graze, fish and hunt. Those Sámi who did not herd reindeer and instead made their living primarily from fishing lost their land and forest use rights. Only Sámi who met certain ideas of traditional reindeer culture were protected, and only if they remained frozen within static notions of primitiveness.

Sámi communities had traditionally organized themselves along the principle of the siida, which were both territories and governance structures. Rather than individual land ownership, each siida managed its own territory for hunting and fishing. As reindeer migration and herding patterns changed, siida boundaries changed as well. Groups of siidas formed a single Sámi village or samebyar. Individual families owned reindeer, but the complex governance rules within Sámi villages managed pastures and migration routes cooperatively. This was not an open-access commons system; it was a carefully regulated land tenure system that prevented overgrazing in most circumstances. However, like many other traditional land tenure systems, it was vulnerable to political decisions about property that were imposed from outside the region.

In the 1920s, an agreement between the Norwegian and Swedish governments prevented the Sámi in Sweden from grazing their herds over the border into Norway. This, along with mining and timber projects, reduced the pastures available for the Sámi, and overgrazing resulted. The Swedish state believed that overgrazing resulted from the traditional land tenure systems (a “tragedy of the commons”), rather than from undermining those traditional land tenure systems by state policy decisions. The Swedes decided that they needed to rationalize Sámi grazing and ordered massive reduction of herds and herders.

As Sámi lost their property rights, timber harvests increased across Sápmi, further reducing grazing habitat for reindeer. Clear-cutting removed nearly all the older spruce forest, critical habitat for the pendulous lichen that forms important winter food for the reindeer. Modern forestry involved plowing, drainage and soil scarification, which reduced the ground-growing lichens that sustained reindeer during fall and spring. A series of court cases in the 1990s, when forest companies argued that reindeer were damaging replanted trees, further undermined the rights of Sámi to graze their herds in traditional winter forest pastures.

Hydropower development also transformed riparian and aquatic communities across Sápmi. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Sweden turned to intensive hydroelectric development to fuel modernization of the Swedish postwar society. The government envisioned a system whereby each river that fell to the Baltic would be dammed, the power of the flow fully utilized for the nation’s industrial development. The state formed a hydroelectric company, Vattenfall, which set out to rationalize the river systems of the north. Between 1957 and 1961, Vattenfall turned to the Kalix and Torne river system in Sápmi. In what would have been the largest hydro project in Swedish history, the Atlantprojekt, Vattenfall proposed reversing the flow of the rivers, so they would fall westward to the Atlantic Ocean instead of eastward to the Baltic. With an intricate systems of dams, canals and tunnels, half the flow of the rivers would have been diverted into Norway to power an enormous hydroplant. Commercial fishing interests and Sámi reindeer herding villages organized, halting the project. Because of this intervention, the Kalix and Torne river system is one of only four unregulated large rivers remaining in Sweden.

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