How the Last Indigenous Peoples of Europe Lose Their Holy Land

Mikael Komonen would like to leave as soon as possible to the reindeer. While in his log cabin in Sweden, he talks about the importance of reindeer husbandry to Sami1, the only natives left in Europe, threw a few more logs into the hearth. It’s a freezing February morning. So cold that 48-year-old Khomonen is wearing his hat with a reindeer inside. The thermometer on the wall shows -22°C.

Some reindeer grazing near the hut. They will stay there until the end of March. Then they go to the spring pastures. The Kuhmunens’ reindeer-grazing area is located in Sapmi: an area ten times the size of the Netherlands in northern Sweden, Finland, Norway and a small part of Russia. The Sámi – now about fifty to one hundred thousand people – have lived there since prehistoric times.

Hydroelectric power station on the Lule A River, in the Swedish part of Lapland. A controversial iron mine will be built near this area, 20 km from Jokkmok.

Image source:
Mark Kowalczyk

Iron mine

In the past, the Sami people made a living mainly from fishing and reindeer herding. Herders moved according to the migratory routes of reindeer – sacred animals essential to the identity of the entire community. Reindeer were the main source of food and material for clothing, and served as currency. Today, the Sublime is less dependent on it; Only a small part is engaged in reindeer herding.

A planned iron mine will have severe consequences for the local community and the environment

Kuhmunen warms his hands with a cup of coffee. And he talks about the controversial plans of the British company Beowulf Mining for an iron mine, which may be 130 kilometers from his hometown of Jokkmokk. Sweden is the main producer of iron ore in Europe. This mineral is essential for the production of steel, which is an essential raw material for energy transmission. It is used, for example, to build wind turbines, expand the electricity grid and store energy.

The planned iron mine – like the others – will have dire consequences for the local community and the environment, warned Sami and UN human rights experts. Large amounts of heavy metal dust and other toxic waste can be released, endangering biodiversity and the safety of drinking water. The mine will also be an obstacle for reindeer; The reindeer-herding area of ​​Komonen will also have to make way for it.

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The penultimate home demolished in Malmberget, Sweden. Part of the city has to move due to mining damage.

Image source:
Mark Kowalczyk


The Sami people of Sweden have been slowly losing their sacred areas since the 15th century. Then the Swedish authorities began to colonize an increasing part of Sapmi. Sweden wanted to populate the area so that it would not be claimed by Finland and Norway. In the 17th century, Sweden encouraged farmers to colonize the “wild” north. That picture of SABMI is still alive.

Politicians and the tourism industry remain our cultural landscape fieldmark Call it wild. For example, Sapmi is seen as a place where new ventures can come, and Sami is part of this “wildness,” says My Brit Ohman. She is a senior researcher at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on Racism at Uppsala University. “This reasoning stems from the biological racism of the early 20th century. It was then claimed that the Sami were too primitive to take care of their own land.”

This belief is also still valid. When the Laponia Nature Reserve was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996 due to the presence of the indigenous people2 Population, the Sami called the full administration of that region. But the Swedish government did not allow this. Some politicians saw the natives as the uneducated “other” who would not be able to understand Sweden’s administrative system.


Per Olav Bersen, 55, who lives in the Norwegian town of Tana Bro, does not understand the position of politicians. “We have been living here in an environmentally responsible way for centuries! We ensure that ecosystems remain in balance, and we take only what we need.” In the back of the Bersen house is a spacious refrigerator. It proudly displays fish stocks and grouse and elk meat. “We hardly need to buy anything because we hunt and fish and collect enough.”

Sami hunts in such a way that the moose population, grazers and fish can recover. For example, Norwegian Sami fishermen apply traditional ecological knowledge to maintain biodiversity in places where fish lay their eggs (spawning grounds). For example, they use nets that do not catch large fish, as they easily multiply. The Sami also handles plants in a sustainable way; For example, they limit the number of plants harvested at one time in a given area.

UN reports confirm that nature is disappearing less quickly in areas where indigenous people live. Although these regions cover only 22 percent of the Earth’s surface, they are home to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The Sami people protect ecosystems not only through political actions, such as petitioning or negotiating with governments and corporations, but also with reindeer herding. Grazing animals fertilize the grasslands, thus increasing its richness and diversity.

Written by Olaf Bersen

Per Olaf Bersen around his home in the Norwegian town of Tana Bro, picking berries, fishing and relaxing.

Image source:
Mark Kowalczyk

hole in the landscape

The Sami have a deep spiritual connection with nature. They spend a lot of time outdoors. “We monitor the environment on a daily basis and note any changes in weather patterns and ecosystems,” Kuhmunen explains. He grew up among animals. “The worst day out with reindeer is so much better than a day without reindeer. I can’t and don’t want anything other than to be around them.”

Thanks to a detailed knowledge of the environment, the Sami live in the unforgiving Arctic. But some herders fear that future generations will no longer be able to breed and slaughter reindeer. Grassland area in Sapmi is shrinking due to industrial logging, hydropower, tourism and new investments in renewable energy.

Today, indigenous peoples’ traditional environmental knowledge is recognized by the United Nations, among others

If the Swedish government issues a permit for the iron mine, the quiet of the area will be disturbed by noise from the construction site and trucks, Kahmonen fears. “The landscape will look like the Aytek copper mine, 120 kilometers away. This is a huge hole in the ground surrounded by a barren, lunar landscape. No more forests where reindeer can hide or where people can relax.”

On March 22, 2022, Beowulf Mining received the go-ahead after a ten-year wait. Since then, Khoumonen has felt nothing but grief. It is estimated that iron reserves will be depleted within fourteen years. But that hole in the middle of our country remains. Why do they have to dig everything out of the ground anyway? What is left for future generations? “

Khoumonen thinks of his two teenage sons and his 21-year-old daughter. His daughter is the president of the Saminuorra youth organization, and his 19-year-old son is studying dodji: traditional Sami handicrafts. He learns how to make his own tools and knives. Part of it he will use himself, part of it he will sell, ”explains Komonen. The Komonen children also learn a lot about nature and reindeer husbandry from their 76-year-old grandfather. The older generation knows a lot about our environment: plants, animals, weather. If they don’t share that knowledge, we will lose it. forever after their death.”

Today, the United Nations, among others, recognizes the traditional environmental knowledge of indigenous peoples around the world as a complement to Western science in supporting sustainable land management. Researchers warn that a great deal of it will be lost with the extinction of indigenous languages ​​and cultures.

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Image source:
Mark Kowalczyk

green colonization

The colonization of sapmi continues, now under the pretext of energy transition, say the Sami and environmentalists. A British daily reported that Sweden is attracting investors with “idle land” and subsidies from the European “Green Deal”. Watchman In November 2021. Sapmi is also rich in raw materials necessary for the energy transition: rare earth metals, lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite. These are required for wind turbines and batteries in electric vehicles, for example.

The Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish governments continue to plan new mines and wind farms, despite protests from the Sami community and environmental activists. Amnesty International criticized Sweden for this in its latest report. And the planned iron mine near Komonen comes on top of other problems: due to massive investment in hydroelectricity since the early 20th century, the Sami people have already lost part of their grazing areas and hunting grounds. Dams disrupt the migration routes of fish. Reindeer and people drown regularly due to the operation of hydroelectric power plants. This is because the water level under the ice is constantly changing. Then the ice becomes unreliable: it can break in this way, “explains the researcher Semitic Ohman.”

Bersen puts on his skis and prepares for his trek: the daily ritual in winter. Even at -30°C, as in a February afternoon. Silence reigns in the city and beyond. At first glance, the scene appears deserted and uninhabited. but that is not all. Reindeer keep appearing on the snowy road towards the Finnish border. They cross and disappear back into the woods. Only now is Sapmi really visible, the sacred land of the only indigenous peoples in Europe. Full of reindeer and small settlements of reindeer herders: hunters and gatherers who do their best to preserve what is not yet lost.

A longer version of this article appeared in Summer 2022 in OneWorld Magazine.

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  1. The author refers to the Sámi when it comes to a population group and to the Sámi when it comes to people from that group. ↩︎
  2. Because of its negative connotations and colonial origins, OneWorld usually avoids using the term “indigenous people”; We usually choose “original”. If the author deliberately wrote the word “indigenous”, we apply it provided that it is capitalized. A capital letter shows respect because it represents a group identity, just as the word “Canadian” is capitalized. Read more about the Aboriginal word here. ↩︎

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