Norway approves disputed Arctic copper mine despite local protest

While the mine will provide new jobs, activists fear it is a threat to the coast and reindeer's natural life cycle.

    Sami reindeer herder Nils Mathis Sara drives his ATV as he follows a herd on Finnmark Plateau in Norway [Reuters/Stoyan Nenov]
    Sami reindeer herder Nils Mathis Sara drives his ATV as he follows a herd on Finnmark Plateau in Norway [Reuters/Stoyan Nenov]

    Norway has approved the building of a copper mine near Europe's northernmost point despite years of opposition from indigenous Sami herders and fishermen.

    "The mining project will strengthen the industrial base in the north," Industry Minister Torbjorn Roe Isaksen of the centre-right coalition government said in a statement.

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    "It will contribute positively to the local community, with new jobs and skills", it said.

    The copper mine is set to open in Kvalsund, a village of painted wooden houses on the Repparfjord with around 1,000 inhabitants.

    The area contains an estimated 72 million tonnes of copper ore, Norway's largest reserve, according to Nussir ASA, the company which will operate the mine.

    The company is expected to boost the municipality coffers by investing more than $115.8m in the mine. Nussir CEO Vidar Rune Late told Al Jazeera that the project would create nearly 450 new jobs while making only a minimal intrusion into the local way of life.

    However, activists and local reindeer herders are concerned that the digging would damage reindeer summer pastures, and destroy spawning grounds for coastal cod.

    "For hundreds jobs that will exist at best for a few decades, the government is ruining a fjord, reindeer summer pastures and fisheries ... food production for hundreds of years ahead, if not forever," Erik Reinert, former professor of reindeer economics at Saami University College in Norway, told Al Jazeera.

    Reinert said local officials gave a green light to the project in 2012, when the conservative government decided to start so-called "treasure hunting", because of the high price of copper. 

    "The government has invested a lot of prestige in the project, which may explain why it will be developed even if the price has now dropped."

    Threat to reindeer

    While the area may have copper, it is also known for being a key passage for reindeer migrating from the place where they give birth to their summer pastures.

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    Nussir ASA says mining activity will stop during the reindeer spring migration.

    But according to Anders Oskal, Secretary General of the Association of World Reindeer Herders, the mine would have a negative impact on reindeer husbandry even when inactive.

    "The infrastructure of the mine itself is a threat to reindeer and their migratory routes, particularly the females, as they wouldn’t be able to get close to their usual pasture area," said Oskal.

    Moreover, increased human activity and infrastructure development limit available pasture land for reindeer which could have tragic consequences. "With less pasture land available, reindeer won't eat enough during the summers to resist the winter," Oskal said.

    What about the environment?

    "There is a massive contradiction in Oslo being 2019's European Green Capital, while 1,800km to the north, the government decides to open a mine depositing toxic waste in a local fjord," said Reinert.

    Nussir's CEO claims the environment is a concern for the company too.

    "Due to global warming, there is an ever more urgent necessity for people to electrify the world, and to do that you need copper. That's a fact," said Late, claiming copper causes minor environmental impacts compared with fossil fuels.

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    Average temperatures in the Arctic, where some four million people live, have risen more than two degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, twice as fast as the world's average conditions, according to research by the Intergovernmental Arctic Council.

    Critics say the decision by Norway's government to allow copper mining would encourage the mining industry to exploit the region.

    Virginia Pietromarchi contributed to this report.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies