Sweden’s Indigenous Peoples Don’t Support New Rare Earth Mine

Aaron Foyer
Sami Indigenous People
Courtesy of Slow Tours Europe

Getting mine approval for the giant rare earth mineral (REM) discovery in Sweden won’t be as easy as putting together the latest MALM dresser from IKEA. The mineral deposit was discovered in the heartland of Europe’s only Indigenous peoples – the Sámi – which puts the development at risk.

Background: Before Rudolph was but a twinkle in Santa’s eye, a semi-nomadic Indigenous Peoples of northern Europe known as the Sámi have been herding reindeer for centuries. They are considered Europe’s only Indigenous people and occupy northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

  • The exact arrival date of the Sámi is unknown, but they’re thought to have occupied the region for thousands of years and have been practicing reindeer herding since the 1600s.

The Sámi are no strangers to mining

The Kiruna mine, an iron ore deposit that has been producing for over 100 years and accounts for 80 percent of Europe’s iron ore production, is right in the heart of their territory.

The development: Earlier this month, the government-owned Swedish mining company LKAB announced the discovery of over 1 million tonnes of rare earth oxides just to the north of the Kiruna mine.

In one sense, the timing couldn’t be better: key energy transition technologies, like electric vehicles and wind turbines, need REMs as vital inputs.

  • Unfortunately, Europe currently imports 98 percent of its REMs from China, and last year reminded European lawmakers not to put too much faith in frenemies who supply key energy supplies.

The Sámi are not thrilled: Repeated concerns have been raised about their lands being sacrificed for mines and windmills, something that has occurred in both Sweden and Norway.

  • The United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted in 2007, would seem to support the ownership rights and cultural traditions of the Sámi.
  • At the same time and just down the hall, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is urging rapid action on climate change… which requires the REMs buried below the traditional lands of the Sámi.

Big picture: In the heat of the western culture wars, the Swedish REM mineral discovery has the interesting dynamic of pitting two tenets of the same side against itself. In ESG terms, this puts two of the most important and sensitive issues in the ESG movement head to head: the social declaration of rights of Indigenous Peoples and access to key minerals required for the energy transition.

We’re not going to weigh in on this one to avoid being cancelled…