‘Irreversible risks’: UN-appointed experts urge Sweden to block mine in Sami land

United Nations experts have urged the Swedish government not to approve a planned iron-ore mine, warning it would pose "irreversible risks" to lands used by the Sami community.

'Irreversible risks': UN-appointed experts urge Sweden to block mine in Sami land
Protests when British mining company Beowulf carried out a test mining project at Gállok in 2013. Photo: NTB

The UN’s top experts on the rights of indigenous people and on human rights and the environment cautioned that the open pit mine being planned in the northern Gállok region would especially impact reindeer herding – the primary source of livelihood in the area.

“We are very concerned by the lack of good-faith consultations and the failure to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the Sami,” Jose Francisco Cali Tzay and David Boyd said in a statement.

The two independent experts, who were appointed by the UN but who do not speak on its behalf, voiced alarm at “the significant and irreversible risks that the Gállok project poses to Sami lands, resources, culture and livelihoods”.

The Swedish government is to decide next month whether to greenlight the controversial project, led by the British firm Beowulf.

But the Sami, an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 of whom live in Sweden, say the plan will prevent reindeer herding, disrupt hunting and fishing, and destroy the environment in their homeland.

Last weekend, Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg demonstrated against the project alongside members of the Sami community.

“We believe that the climate, the environment, clean air, water, reindeer herding, indigenous rights and the future of humanity should be prioritised above the short-term profit of a company,” Thunberg said in a video message.

‘Watershed shift’ needed

In Thursday’s statement, Tzay and Boyd warned the mine would generate large amounts of dust containing heavy metals, and toxic waste that could affect the environment and water sources.

They also highlighted how the daily transport of iron ore by rail and road would cut off the traditional migration routes of reindeer.

“There has been insufficient assessment and recognition of the environmental damage the mine will cause,” the experts said, stressing that the Swedish government under international law had an obligation to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment.

The European Union’s only indigenous population, an estimated 100,000 Sami live across the vast Arctic wilderness of northernmost Finland, Norway and Sweden as well as Russia’s Kola peninsula.

For much of the 20th century, governments denounced the indigenous people and their culture as uncivilised and inferior.

In the last five years, Finland, Norway and Sweden have stepped up moves to atone for past injustices, setting up truth and reconciliation commissions and repatriating stolen Sami artefacts.

But the Sami argue that their rights continue to go unrecognised, pointing to government plans to open up parts of their mineral-rich homeland to mining companies, among other things.

“A decision not to approve the Gallok project can demonstrate a watershed shift from past injustices,” Tzay and Boyd said.

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Swedish museum to return Sami remains to village

Uppsala's university museum is to return a Sami skeleton to ethnic Sami living in Arctic Lapland, following a campaign by the Sami parliament, Amnesty, and the Bishop of Luleå.

Swedish museum to return Sami remains to village

The skeleton came from a Sami from the village of Arjeplog in Sweden’s northernmost Norrbotten county, who was serving a life sentence at Stockholm’s Långholmen prison when he died. The skeleton had been on display at Gustavianum, Uppsala University’s Museum. 

“The government has today decided that Uppsala University should be able to return human remains, in the form of a mounted skeleton, to the Arjeplog Sami association,” the government said in a press release.

“The university’s request has been prompted by a request from the Arjeplog Sami association requesting the repatriation of the remains. Uppsala University has determined that Arjeplog’s Sami association has a legitimate claim on the remains and that the association will be able to ensure a dignified reception.” 

Sweden’s universities and museums have been gradually returning the Sami remains and artefacts collected in the 19th and early 20th century when research institutes such as Uppsala’s State Institute for Race Biology, sought to place Sami below ethnic Swedes through studying eugenics and human genetics. 

Lund University returned Sami remains earlier this year, and in 2019, the remains of more than 25 individuals were returned by Västerbotten Museum to Gammplatsen, an old Sami meeting place on the Umeå River in southern Lapland. 

Mikael Ahlund, chief of the Uppsala University Museum, said that the skeleton was one of “about 20 to 25” that the museum had been given responsibility for in about 2010, when the university’s medical faculty was clearing out its old collections, and had never been put on display. 

He said it was “a bit unclear how these remains were collected and how they were used”. 

“It’s a complex history at the end of the 19th century, with teaching anatomy. They also had a connection to the ideology of the period, the idea of races and the different anatomy of races, so that’s the dark shadow of that period.” 

In a press release last November, Margaretha Andersson, the head of Uppsala’s Museums, said that in 1892, when the man died, there was nothing strange about prisons donating the bodies of dead prisoners to university medical departments.

“In the old days, it was not unusual that the bodies from people who died in prison were passed to the university’s medical and research departments,” she said. 

Ahlund said that the museum had always been willing to return the skeleton to the Sami association, but that there had been bureaucratic hurdles to doing so. 

“What you need to know is that we are Swedish government institution, so we can’t just repatriate them as we would like ourselves, it needs to be a decision from the government, which is what happened today.” 

He said that the skeleton would be delivered to Arjeplog “as soon as possible”. “We expect it to happen early autumn, or something like that.”