Pay Attention! We Live Here! Indigenous Sámi Fight Open Pit Mine in Sweden
Environmental history professor Nancy Langston visited far northern Sweden to study the impact of a proposed open-pit mine on the indigenous Sámi people.
Last year, when Michigan Tech professor Nancy Langston arrived in the mining city of Kiruna in far northern Sweden, it was just after Christmas—high season for tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus among the frozen reindeer pastures.The arctic sun sat just below the horizon for several hours each day, suffusing the snowy boreal forests with an otherworldly light. "It was the coldest I've ever been, but the most beautiful light and forest I'd ever seen," Langston says.
A visitor could be forgiven for assuming that the icy landscape beyond the city would be uninhabited. Indeed, this is how the Swedish tourism industry sells the region—as a pristine, empty landscape beyond the reach of humans. The truth, Langston found, is quite the opposite. The indigenous Sámi people have been living among and herding reindeer in the region for ten thousand years, at times suffering brutal repression from governments based in southern Scandinavia. "The kinds of ideas that they're now selling, of 'Come see this empty world,' denies these humans," Langston says.
This willful ignorance of Sámi land-use traditions becomes particularly convenient whenever new mineral deposits are discovered in Sámi territory. Indeed, Langston, an environmental historian, had been invited to the area to study the effects of an open-pit mine on the Sámi's traditional pastoral way of life. Sámi leaders and others were concerned that the iron mine, planned by the British firm Beowulf Mining, could make reindeer herding impossible.
Langston came to Umeå University in northern Sweden as the 2012–13 King Carl XVI Gustaf Professor of Environmental Science. Each year, universities around Sweden nominate foreign academics they'd like to host for a year, and the King of Sweden, along with his Royal Academy, chooses one lucky honoree. Langston had no idea that the award was coming. "I got an email from the king's secretary, and I kind of thought it was one of those Nigerian scams," Langston says. "I thought, 'Oh yeah, the King of Sweden, gimme a break.' Then my colleague at Umeå called me and said, 'Guess what?'"
Langston had been nominated because of her recent work on similar environmental history questions in Wisconsin, where the Bad River Reservation has been fighting a proposed iron mine on the grounds that it threatens to pollute their wetlands. These renowned wetlands encompass the largest wild rice beds in the world, an important traditional food source of the Ojibwe Indians. In the past, similar mines have led to problems in local watersheds, including the famous Reserve Mining case in the 1970s, when the water supply of Duluth was contaminated. "There are real similarities between that and what's happening now," Langston says. In an effort to lower legal barriers to the project, Wisconsin has relaxed environmental regulations on new iron mines.
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