The Swedish government has greenlit a controversial iron mine that Indigenous people say threatens their livelihoods. Beowulf Mining, a British company, will now begin an environmental review of its Kallak Mine project and apply to start processing ore. The mine has been strongly opposed by the Indigenous Sami in Sweden, as well as the United Nations. 

The decision comes as Sweden is in the midst of a national reckoning over its treatment of the Sami. In 2020, Sweden established an independent truth commission to study past abuse against the Sami, who have faced generations of rights violations, discrimination, land theft, and cultural eradication. 

The Sami, and other activists, have protested the Kallak (Gállok in the Sami language) mine since Beowulf first began exploring mining activities in 2006. Kallak, which would be located in Jokkmokk municipality in Lapland Province, could produce hundreds of millions of tons of iron ore creating dust that could pollute the air and water in the region, in addition to infrastructure that the Sami say will disrupt their reindeer herding. The company has said the mine will create hundreds of jobs in the region. 

“When conditions for reindeer husbandry in Gállok are eradicated, it means ultimately that also the conditions for maintaining Sami culture in the area are removed,” the Sami Parliament wrote in a statement.

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The Sami have been recognized as Indigenous people in Sweden since 1977, and it’s estimated that up to 40,000 Sami people live in Sweden, many of whom live in Sapmi, traditional Sami lands that cross Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The area is crucial for Sami reindeer herding, an essential part of Sami culture that also contributes to the ecological health and diversity of the region. It’s also home to the World Heritage site of Laponia, which UNESCO recognized as an outstanding example of traditional land use and for its natural beauty. The mine would be less than 40 kilometers from Laponia. 

Although the Swedish government’s decision means that Beowulf can proceed with environmental studies, President of the Sami Parliament Håkan Jonsson released a statement saying he is skeptical that those studies will lead to meaningful environmental protections. 

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In February, the UN joined the Sami in resisting the mine, highlighting the toxic dust the mine will produce and calling on the government to consult with the Sami. “We call on Sweden to construct future good-faith relations with Indigenous peoples at the national level, based on recognition of their cultural heritage and traditional livelihoods,” UN officials wrote in a statement. “A decision not to approve the Gállok project can demonstrate a watershed shift from past injustices.”

Earlier this year, the Swedish government passed legislation requiring consultation with Sami representatives on “issues of special significance to the Sami people,” but the law doesn’t take effect until 2024. Jonsson’s statement says that the decision contradicts the spirit of the law.