People & Power

Under Northern Lights

In northern Scandinavia, locals are taking on mining giants in a bid to save an ancient environment and way of life.

Europe’s far north is a place of spectacular beauty, of mountains and forests, lakes and rivers, illuminated in winter by the ethereal glow of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.

It is also home to an astonishing array of plants and animals which have survived largely thanks to the indigenous people of the area – the Sami.

To this day many Sami follow herds of free-roaming reindeer, maintaining a tradition that has helped preserve their ancient environment into the 21st century.

But in recent years a new species has arrived: the multinational mining company. Keen to exploit the region’s extraordinarily rich mineral deposits, the industry is being welcomed by Scandinavian governments who want to share in the bounty of jobs and income they promise to bring.

But the Sami feel that their way of life and the remarkable natural world they inhabit are being put under threat. So they have been fighting back. 

Filmmaker Glenn Ellis investigates.

A case against mining in northern Scandinavia

At first glance the picturesque town of Jokkmokk, which lies just inside the Arctic Circle, seems to exemplify the ‘Swedish Model’ – that much-vaunted image of Swedish perfection. There are neat clapperboard houses evenly spaced on wide streets and road signs warning drivers of passing moose; the air is clean, there is no litter, and all appears well with the world.

Yet I have come to Europe’s far north to investigate a story which challenges the very notion of the Swedish Model. For here, in one of Europe’s richest countries, renowned for human rights and social justice, an indigenous people find themselves fighting a last ditch battle against the state and a multinational mining company; at stake: their ancestral land and an ancient way of life.

It is a story being repeated across of much of the region, from Norway to Finland, for northern Scandinavia is currently experiencing a raw materials rush, as remarkable in its way as the gold rushes that took place in 19th century America – and the Sami, who inhabit much of this vast territory, are standing in front of it.

I arranged to meet Jonas Vannar, a Sami reindeer herder, high up in the Laponia Mountains, a spectacular wilderness, where the reindeer had just been gathered.

The region is so remote that a helicopter was the only practical means of getting there. As we approached our destination, I saw an extraordinary spectacle: vast herds of of reindeer swarming round the inside of an immense circular corral, which from this height looked like countless dots caught in a whirlpool.

The chopper landed some distance from the corral, but the sound of the charging animals carried for miles. Jonas came out to greet me. “The Sami are closely linked to reindeer herding,” he explained, casually throwing a lasso over his shoulder. “We all have a strong bond with the reindeer; it is the cornerstone of our culture.” Looking around, he added: “The grazing of the reindeer inhibits the birch forest – the reindeer have formed this landscape since time immemorial.”

Laponia is quite a landscape: pristine forests, mountains and rivers, not to mention the world’s fastest moving glacier. Crucially, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the area boasts what is unquestionably the largest and best preserved example of transhumance – the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures. It is also home to many of Europe’s largest mammals, including lynx, wolves, bears and wolverines. 

Like many Sami, Jonas studied at university but chose to return to this rugged landscape to work with the reindeer. “It’s something close to my heart,” he told me. “Our biggest fear is that the mine with its connecting infrastructure would effectively cut off our possibilities of migrating to our winter pastures; and also the mine itself is where we have part of our reindeers in wintertime so we fear that we will not be able to continue reindeer herding in this area.” In other words, according to Jonas, not only does the mine threaten the Sami herders, it also threatens the area’s world heritage status.

From the high vantage point on which we are standing, I look down the valley to the Lilla Lule, a tributary of the mighty Lulea River, one of Sweden’s largest. In the distance, Kallak, the site of the proposed mine, is clearly visible.

Over the summer it had been the scene of a bitter standoff between environmentalists and the police when people had come from all over Scandinavia to try to stop a British company, Beowulf Mining, from test drilling.

A camp was set up, barricades built and towers erected, but by the time I reached the site, the action was over – a combination of police numbers, multiple arrests and private security guards had enabled Beowulf to conduct its operations. The environmentalists, a mixture of self-styled eco-warriors, locals and Sami were busy clearing the site of rubbish, not wishing to leave a mess behind.

I spoke to Mosi, a young man who had spent the summer at the camp.

“The mining industry is one of the most dangerous and toxic industrial things you can imagine,” he said. “Every year, just in Sweden, millions of tonnes of toxic waste leak out into rivers and the sea. All over Sweden this is happening right now.”

I asked Mosi why he and his friends are trying to resist mining companies like Beowulf. “The mineral law is changing,” he explained, adding: “And it’s going to be even easier to open a mine in Sweden. There are corporations drilling for oil and gas and rare earth minerals. If these mines are started on a large scale it will be terrible for the environment and terrible for the people drinking the water that’s polluted, breathing the air that’s polluted. You’ve seen these things all over the world and you know that this is disastrous and yet still they continue, so I think in a way the question we should ask is not why we resist this project, but why are there not more people resisting?”

Many of the young activists who came here were given food and shelter by the residents of villages like Bjorkholmen, just 2km from the proposed mine. If it goes into production, it is said that 140 million tonnes of ore will be extracted right by the village’s water supply.

Ulla Forsberg’s worries are typical. “We have clean water here,” she told me over a cup tea in her quaint summer cottage on the banks of a lake. “We can drink the water from the lake – and there’s not many places in Sweden [where] we can drink water from the lake. All people in Bjorkholmen are sad because they don’t want to have a mine here.” 

The sun is setting on the hour-long drive back to Jokkmokk. It is that time of day cameramen love, when colours are at their richest. The light bestows an almost mystical quality to the forests and rivers we pass and it is easy to see why so many people had converged here to try to save this remarkable landscape.

At my hotel I hear that Sven-Erik Österberg, the county governor, is in town on a rare visit. The government have appointed him arbiter between the Sami and Beowulf. I track him down at the council building where he is deep in discussions with Beowulf officials. But during a short interview he gives a fair and impartial account of the problems he is trying to unravel; on the one hand mining could bring many positive benefits in terms of jobs and money for the local economy, on the other he insists that the interests of the Sami reindeer herders must be protected too.

But when I ask him if he thinks it will be difficult for the Sami to oppose the mine he is unusually frank for a seasoned politician. “There’s a lot of money in the area,” he said, “and of course you know what – money talks.”

I would have liked to put some of the same points to the Beowulf officials in the next room, but my questions would have to wait until I returned to London, where the company’s chairman, Clive Sinclair-Poulton had agreed to an interview.

In the meantime I was due to leave Sweden and head to Finland, a country experiencing a similar mining bonanza and with comparable concerns about the consequences for its ecosystem. Indeed they are probably greater because of an episode last November when 200,000 cubic metres of uranium-rich water leaked from the Talvivaara mine into surrounding rivers and lakes – an incident some experts have dubbed Finland’s worst-ever environmental disaster.

To my surprise the incident (and the negative publicity that followed) had done little to deter foreign mining companies from swarming to the region. In fact, Finland has just been ranked the second-best place to do business by a corporate mining survey. To find out why I headed for the pretty town of Tampere, where a mining trade fair was underway.

Here I met Pekka Pera, Tavlivaara’s CEO, who was eager to downplay the uranium leak. “We’ve had our difficulties, we’ve had the gypsum pond leak and there was a threat that there could be a major impact upon nature but so far we’ve been able to mitigate it.”

I asked him if I can see for myself and he agreed to let me visit the mine later, but was keen I hear his views on his industry’s importance to the European Union.

“In history there has been very strong metal production in Europe,” he said. “And because of this the production chain exists – we have a lot of base metals and smelting units. But what has been lacking in western Europe is our own minerals and sources for minerals – and particularly now for instance uranium. In Europe there are hundreds of nuclear power plants which have to supply their uranium from outside Europe and in this volatile world I think it would be safer to have our own source for nuclear power.”

I find this an interesting observation because, as I understand it, Talvivaara is a nickel mine which currently has no permission to mine uranium.

“We have actually constructed a uranium extraction plant which is completed and waiting for an environmental permit,” Pera explained. “Then we can extract uranium from our process solutions.”

At the Tampere trade fair later that day Pera took part in a panel discussion entitled ‘ Who believes in sustainable mining?’ It had been billed as open to comments from the public, but when a well-known environmentalist tried to address the panel he was thrown out.

The man in question was Hannu Hyvonen, one of Finland’s most celebrated environmental filmmakers, who has been charting the Talvivaara saga for some years now and co-founded the Stop Talvivaara campaign. Hannu agreed to take me by boat to see some of the lakes and rivers that he says are at risk before I visit the mine. But first I had an appointment in Helsinki with one of Finland’s top scientists.

Matti Sarnisto, who until recently was secretary-general of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, is scathing about the Talvivaara operation, calling it an environmental catastrophe.

“It has been a disaster from the beginning,” he told me. “The main reason being it is not a real ore body – the metal content is so low, only 0.2 percent of nickel – and this means that huge amounts of rock must be crushed before a required amount of nickel can be produced. And this method (known as bioleaching) means that every year 300,000 tonnes of sulphuric acid is transported to Talvivaara and poured over the crushed rock piles, and this huge amount of acid and other chemicals within the area is not under control. There have been several serious dam failures polluting vast areas. Talvivaara is situated in the high watershed area and so the polluted water goes in two directions: to the west and to the south and so it means that the headwaters of our big water courses are at risk.”

The professor adds that there are only three water systems in Finland and they are all interconnected, making them particularly vulnerable to this kind of contamination. The lakes of Finland actually make up one-third of the country’s territory.

The next day I took up Hannu’s offer and met him 400km north of the capital, Helsinki. To my delight he insisted on being interviewed on a rowing boat. “In earlier times in every village there was a boat maker,” he told me as we clambered into a beautifully proportioned wooden rowing skiff. “Finnish people came to these lakes and rivers from the south and inhabited these areas thousands of years ago – our ancestors had gods for these rivers – Ahti was the god who was giving fish.”

It is a truly magical place, the lake surface reflecting the perfect blue of a cloudless sky, while the shore, lined with autumnal russets, gives a sense of profound tranquility.

“I would say we are like indigenous people of these lakes,” Hannu went on as he pulled us gently out across the water. “But we are not recognised as indigenous people so we don’t have collective rights of these lakes and rivers. This is kind of paradise, but it is also a paradise for mining companies. They are coming and they are taking.”

Hannu believes there is a wider political agenda behind Finland’s mining policy.

“The more serious reason behind the mining boom is uranium,” he said, adding: “In Finland in the stone there is uranium, not so much, but in every place there is enough to open up multi-metal mines where you have nickel, gold and almost always uranium. So it’s not only metal politics but also energy politics that is behind this mining. So that is the kind of future which is planned for our country.”

There are few hotels in this part of Finland, so Hannu had arranged for us to stay with a friend, Raili Eskelinenher, a dairy farmer in the Vieremä region. We arrive exhausted at the remote farmstead at around midnight but our host insisted on a sauna, a Finnish ritual that it is rude to refuse.

We piled into a 4X4 and drove some 20 minutes over moonlit fields down to a hut at the riverbank. A traditional smoke sauna had been prepared earlier, so despite the cold we stripped and were about to enter the hut when our host began a haunting chant, a traditional pre-Christian song of thanks. For me it underlined something important about the Finnish psyche, that here are a people for whom the bond with nature is every bit as profound as that of the Sami.

The following morning Raili took us to a vantage point on her farm overlooking undulating hills, a lake and a village, a vast area where a foreign mining company has just been granted a prospecting permit. “You can see in the distance,” Raili said. “We have our village centre and even a cemetery there, and it is a historically significant area. Many people are shocked at the companies’ arrogance and how they can make mining claims in places that for centuries have been owned by families. People are astonished that this is possible in a country called Finland.”

Her anger is palpable.

We said our goodbyes. Now only 50 miles from Talvivaara, it was with some trepidation that me and my cameraman, Juha, approached the place. We had arranged to meet Olli-Pekka Nissinen, the company’s press spokesman.

We arrived at the complex, passed through various security protocols, listened to a talk on safety, signed a disclaimer so that in the event of a mishap the company cannot be held responsible and were ushered into a room full of hardhats and protective jackets.

Finally we were given our own personal emergency device which included a pop-out oxygen mask and various other gizmos in case we encountered toxic gases during our tour. Last year, a worker died here, the death apparently caused by a lethal concentration of hydrogen sulphide in the air.

Olli turned out to be the perfect host, courteous and polite, but his undeniable charm sat oddly with the sight that greeted us from the high lookout post he took us to: In front of us was a vast hole in the landscape, covering many square miles. In the distance I could see dozens of excavators and dumper trucks. Next to the crater, huge mounds of excavated earth lay stretched out to the horizon, each heap 1.2km long, yet each having only yielded small quantities of nickel.

Beyond these, I could see enormous reservoirs of toxic-looking waste fading into the hazy distance. The scale of Talvivaara is simply breathtaking. It took us hours to drive around it, stopping to film where we could. When we finally returned to the reception building we had to stand on metal grids while our boots were sprayed with jets of water to remove toxic particles before we were allowed inside. The stench of sulphur was overpowering and seemed to cling to our clothes for days. I cannot help but feel sympathy for the villagers who live nearby and must endure this noxious smell all the time. It was with some relief that we got back into the car and drove away.

In Viaankiaapa in the far north of Finland, were we met 19-year-old Riikka Karrpinen, a remarkable girl who has become something of a local celebrity since starting a campaign in 2008 to save the nearby Viiankiaapa Natura 2000 nature reserve.

It is a spectacular marshland, home to 21 endangered birds and nine endangered plant types. Riikka, who describes herself as a Lappish girl with distant Sami ancestors, was raised in a log cabin nearby. “I grew up there and I visited this place many times. When I was 10 years old I used to go there hunting and fishing with my big brother.”

But then, British mining giant, Anglo American (AA), the world’s fourth-largest mining company, arrived. AA has its sights set on Europe’s biggest nickel deposit, much of which lies deep beneath the marshlands of Viiankiappa.

For her part, Riikka is doing everything in her power to stop them getting it. She shared her real life David and Goliath story. ” First of all I tried to get as much information as I could. I was about 14 and after that I started campaigning by meeting ministers and members of parliament. I travelled to Helsinki and told them about Viiankiappa and then the newspapers got interested.”

She took us off on a five mile walk to get a flavour of what is at stake. The delicate beauty of the marshland is hard to convey in words. There are ancient forests, mires, lakes, moose and reindeer. An overall sense of fragility pervades.

“The company has said that they really respect the environment and they will try to do their best and they try to save the special areas in Finland. But why should they build a mine here if they really appreciate nature?” Riikka asked. “I feel that this would be a great opportunity for the company to show that they mean what they say.”

We sat at the side of a lake watching a flotilla of wading birds land in the distance as Riikka told me she has repeatedly asked Anglo American whether or not they intend to mine uranium here in addition to nickel. She said the company have refused to answer her question.

Of course Anglo American is just one out of dozens of multinational mining companies that have come to Lapland. But the scale and speed of their arrival has taken many people by surprise. “I’m very worried that my generation is the generation which is going to carry all those responsibilities for what those companies have done here,” Riikka said. “And of course I’m worried about the nature because if we destroy this area once we cannot get it back anymore. There are two different values: the mining values, and the other values of pure nature and local people which are much more important than the money the company would like to have from Lapland.”

I flew back to London with these thoughts in my mind. I contacted Anglo-American to see if I could get answers to some of Riikka’s questions, but they pulled out of our interview at the last minute. Nevertheless Beowulf’s chairman, Clive Sinclair-Poulton, did keep his word. In a long interview, he insisted that the Sami reindeer herders have nothing to fear and that he would like closer links with the local community.

But when the interview was over, I reflected that one of his other, more forceful, statements seemed to me to be of more significance. It certainly underlined the gaping cultural gulf between the two sides. “What is the potential for growth in reindeer herding?” said Sinclair-Poulton. “Will this go ahead and employ hundreds more people? No, no it won’t. Will mining? Yes it will.”

The anxiety of the Sami and others is that when decisions are being taken in Swedish and Finnish government circles about the future course of mining in Scandinavia’s stunningly beautiful far north, the cold economic logic of such sentiments will prove all too irresistible.


This episode of  People & Power  can be seen from Wednesday, November 20 at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930; Tuesday: 0330. 

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