'First, they took the religion. Now they want to build a railroad'
Will a railway across Europe’s last great wilderness create new jobs – or destroy the Sami people’s ancient way of life? Another Anglo-American disaster in the making.
Jussa Seurujärvi, 22, momentarily stops helping his father, 51, and sister, 16, pull up fishing nets from holes in the ice to take in the long, slow Arctic sunrise, which glows with pastel strokes of yellows, purples and pinks. His brow furrows slightly and he says with a gentle determination: “I want to continue living from this land just as my ancestors have done for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is a way of life for us – it is not just a job.”
His father quickly dispatches five prized white fish and a slimy looking burbot ensnared in the net. Almost every part will be used by the family, with even the burbot’s muddy-green scales destined for his mother’s handicrafts. “The Sami way has always been that you take what you need – you don’t take any more,” says Seurujärvi.
This is the scared heart of the Sami homeland in the upper reaches of Finnish Lapland. It is a largely pristine landscape of forests, marshes, scree-covered fells and deep, clean lakes. Often described as Europe’s last great wilderness, it is also home to lynxes, brown bears, wolverines and golden eagles. Thousands of tourists come every year to enjoy the unspoiled nature and marvel at wonders such as the northern lights; more than 100,000 foreign visitors, including 22,000 British tourists, passed through the region’s capital, Rovaniemi, in December 2017.
Yet climate scientists and locals warn the region is under threat like never before from powerful global political and economic forces keen to exploit its plentiful natural resources and open up lucrative Arctic shipping routes to Asia. The Sami – who have inhabited these harsh northern latitudes since the last ice age and are the only indigenous people in the EU – fear that proposals to build a €2.9bn railway to the EU’s first Arctic port, in Norway, will provide mining and logging companies with the infrastructure they need to venture ever further into the wilder, untouched parts of Lapland.
The three municipalities of northern Lapland promote the project to global investors as a way of developing the region’s ore fields and timber industry, as well as exploiting oil and gas reserves in the Barents Sea, which contain 5‑13% of the world’s untapped oil and 20-30% of the world’s untapped gas. They claim it could one day carry millions of tonnes of goods to Europe from container ships taking advantage of melting sea ice in the Northeast Passage.
Although government officials working on the proposed route have this month raised concerns about the scheme’s finances, Finland’s transport minister, Anne Berner, insists it remains a strategic goal for the Nordic country. “Most railway projects are not financially valid or solid in their initial plans. The Arctic rail is still a part of the strategic long-term plan of connecting Finland to other parts of the world, including central Europe,” she says.
As the sun begins its descent below the tree line at 3pm, Seurujärvi takes grass on his ski-mobile to feed 25 or so local reindeer he has gathered in the snow-draped forests near his home. “When we have enough reindeer, we will have a round-up and other herders will come and take theirs and we will keep ours,” he explains, pointing out the different markings on their backs.
Reindeer are revered in Sami culture because for thousands of years these perfectly adapted Arctic survivors have provided families with meat and milk; hides for clothing, shoes and tents; bones and antlers for tools, handicrafts and weapons; and sinews for sewing. This is reflected in the language: there are thought to be about 1,000 Sami words devoted to reindeer appearance, behaviour and habits. Or as Seurujärvi puts it: “Without the reindeer, the Sami people wouldn’t be.”
Yet the government’s preferred route for the railway – which was formally announced in March last year – would pass between 5km and 10km from Seurujärvi’s home, cutting in two the land used by his herd and six others in the reindeer cooperative on the north side of Lake Inari. Seurujärvi fears this would spell the end for the reindeer herding practised by the Sami, in which the semi-domesticated animals are allowed to graze freely, consuming more than 400 different types of plants. “Everybody would lose their jobs if the railway comes. Our land would be divided – it would be like a new border,” he says. “Reindeer follow migration paths through forests. If they can’t, there will not be enough food to feed them all.”
If the railway is unfenced, accidents with trains speeding at up to 220km/h could decimate herds, especially when they are drawn into open spaces to escape clouds of mosquitoes that rise from marshes in the summer months.
Seurujärvi first heard about the plans on social media last year. “I saw it on Facebook – I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
It is not just reindeer herders on remote farms who were the last to hear about major infrastructure projects in their homeland. In the icy black of the early evening, Sami parliament president Tiina Sanila-Aikio is heating up reindeer soup in her home on the outskirts of Inari village, which serves as the centre of cultural and political life for the 10,500 registered Sami in Finland. Sanila-Aikio is a former rock musician and language teacher who took on the job when the last president resigned in protest at what he saw as moves by the Finnish state to forcibly assimilate the Sami.
She discovered the railway plan while checking her phone in bed in June 2017. “I read it in the media. I didn’t believe it was true. They did not even mention the Sami,” she says between mouthfuls of silky soup, enriched with meaty reindeer bones. The parliament has since been consulted and has made clear its opposition. But the government and municipalities have been developing detailed plans regardless. Sanila-Aikio sees the Finnish authorities’ stance as a continuation of longstanding colonial attitudes towards the Sami, which saw their spiritual beliefs, language and democratic village councils known as Siida suppressed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. “First, they took the religion, then they broke the Siida system, then they took the lands and the language. And now they want to build a railroad,” she says.
Almost every Sami family can tell you stories of children taken to boarding schools and beaten if they spoke Sami after the second world war. Or relatives from the same generation stripped naked and measured by officials trying to establish their racial inferiority. Although much has changed since those dark days – the Sami now have an elected parliament, and language and culture rights enshrined in the Finnish constitution – they do not have ultimate control of their lands and waters. Finland, unlike Norway, has not ratified the UN Independent Labour Organization’s convention of indigenous people, which would give the Sami a greater say over their homeland. Nor has the Finnish state apologised for the treatment of the Sami, which both Norway and Sweden did in the 1990s.
Sanila-Aikio says the parliament would not be able to stop corporations using the railway to get even more raw materials out of the Sami homeland. “Our previous president used to say that the only thing we can really decide is the date of our meetings,” she notes, with a sardonic smile. At present, only logging and gold panning take place in the Sami homeland. Last year, 4,250 hectares of forest were earmarked for felling and 253 gold extraction permits were in place, including 15 new ones for heavy digging machinery. Sanila-Aikio says this is only the start: “We don’t have any mines yet. But they are very close – there are mines all around the Sami area in Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden.” She calls this process a “slow colonisation”, under which their lands are divided by the railway and handed over to outside industries. “This means the end of the Sami people, because there are no possibilities to practise traditional livelihoods,” she says, her eyes starting to fill with tears. “Then the Sami are extinct.”
There are also fears the project will endanger Lapland’s delicate ecosystems, which are crucial to the fight against runaway climate change. Finnish climate scientist Tero Mustonen – who has been studying the Arctic region of the Nordic countries for more than 20 years – says ecologically pristine parts of northern Lapland will be completely transformed by the railway. “These areas are providing us with climate security. They are the lungs of Europe and the carbon sinks for the future,” he says on the phone from a climate conference.
Mustonen, a lead author for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says Finland must decide if the promised GDP growth is worth the risk: “What are the economic benefits of those shipping containers compared to the benefits that rivers and marsh mires have provided to us over millennia in terms of climate security?” The peat-rich soil in Lapland’s wetlands traps vast amounts of carbon, preventing it from contributing to climate change, while rivers act as a conveyor belt, bringing nutrients and carbon between the sea and inland lakes.
Mustonen has produced the only study so far examining the ecological impact of the railway for the Sami parliament. He found engineers would have to quarry for rocks every 4km along the northern stretch of the 465km route to shore up the rails and service road, as well as diverting thousands of brooks, lakes, rivers and streams. “The railroad itself will be roughly 15m across,” he says. “But creating a network of service roads and quarries will leave a crater at least 100m wide across an area that has no infrastructure.”
Though Mustonen cannot predict exactly how much industry will follow, he points out that mining companies are already scouring Lapland for new deposits. “It is a bonanza. It is California 1848. It is a gold rush,” he says. “We offer stability and western-style services, in the same sort of poorly regulated legal framework as Congo or Russia. The taxation is minimal and the mining authorities are in favour of giving these lands to these companies.” Finland, which has given over an estimated 13% of its entire land mass to mining activities, was last year ranked as the best place to invest by mining and exploration companies.
Despite these warnings, there appears to be plenty of support for the railway in southern Lapland, perhaps because some locals believe it will bring more industrial jobs to an area that in the past has suffered from high unemployment. The small town of Sodankylä, which is on the proposed route, is experiencing a mining boom, with a 6.7% unemployment rate – the lowest in Lapland.
An hour or so outside the town’s busy centre lies the biggest mine in Finland: Kevitsa. This vast open-cast pit – which is owned by the Swedish mining firm Boliden – employs 480, mainly local, people, along with 250 contractors. In an almost impenetrable blizzard of snow, giant yellow trucks trundle up and down a spiral of steep dirt roads towards the bottom of the blast-scarred pit 400 metres below ground level. Every year the trucks remove 45m tonnes of waste rock and ore. The extracted copper, nickel and gold is then sold on European metal markets, with some of the rarer metals ending up in China.
In a control room overlooking the pit, two workers are taking a break before more rock is blasted away. Truck driver Heidi Salumäe says the mine has been good for the area. “Sodankylä is livelier now,” she says. “There are more people in town. There are customers in shops.” Salumäe, whose husband and brother also work here, says the town was struggling before the mine opened in 2012. “Youngsters were forced to go after they finished school, mostly to southern Finland. Businesses were closing. Without the mine coming, this place would have died,” she says.
Digger operator Antti Kunnari, whose two brothers also work at the mine, is supportive of the railway project. “It would be good. Kevitsa won’t be the last mine in this area. The railway will help with logistics,” he says.
In the bright site office, which looks like an Ikea showroom, Peter Bergman, Kevitsa’s charming Swedish manager, says there are a lot of mining companies prospecting in Lapland. “It is a big boom. There is a lot of exploration in these northern areas,” he says. “We are expanding from 7.5m tonnes to 9.5m tonnes of ore a year to meet future demand for electrification and automation.” He denies there is lax regulation, insisting Finland has tightened up its act since the Talvivaara disaster in 2012, when nickel, uranium and other toxins leaked into a nearby lake in the east of the country. “It has changed the playing field in Finland. There is a lot more control from the authorities,” he says. “The permit process is really slow. From a find to a mine is about 10 or 15 years.”
Alongside the Nordic mining companies, there are Canadian, Australian and British firms rushing to exploit a valuable mineral belt stretching across Lapland. Europe’s largest gold mine, which is owned by Canadian producer Agnico Eagle, is 85km away in Kittilä. Anglo American, which has its HQ in London, is currently carrying out exploratory drilling in an EU-protected nature reserve in Viiankiaapa just outside Sodankylä.
The firm’s Arctic outpost is in an unremarkable building on the edges of Sodankylä. The straight-talking Finnish project manager, Jukka Jokela, is enthusiastic about the quality of the metals, including copper, nickel and cobalt, the firm’s drilling rigs have discovered: “The quality of the deposit is world class. I’ve been in this business for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.” If Anglo-American gets permission from Finnish authorities, it plans to mine underneath the reserve. “Most of the mining will happen at more than 1km depth. We are not going to destroy Viiankiaapa.”
Not all the residents are reassured. Riikka Karppinen has been campaigning against the project since she was 15, even meeting ministers in Helsinki. Now in her 20s, she grew up in a village near Viiankiaapa and spent her childhood fishing for pike and picking cloudberries in the reserve. “I have a lot of happy memories,” she says crunching through the snow-caked mire. “I still come here to ski in the winter and in the summer you can hear so many birds.”
Karppinen, who topped a local election in Sodankylä in 2017, has formed a formidable alliance with Timo Helle, a local retired biologist opposed to the project. They dismiss claims it would leave the habitat unharmed. “There is no way you can have an environmentally friendly mine in a conservation area – it would dry out the mire and the infrastructure would change it,”
More than 100km to the south is the capital of Lapland, Rovaniemi, where thousands of tourists flock to see Santa Claus, drink in ice bars and go on husky sleigh rides. But the region’s politicians have weightier matters on their minds: how to deliver the Arctic railway project over the next 30 years.
Mika Riipi, the hard-working county governor of Lapland, has a brief break in his schedule of meetings and trips abroad. He is away so often he doesn’t even have his own room in the regional council’s offices, which overlook the glinting white cityscape of snow-covered housing blocks, theatres and libraries.
Riipi, who is in charge of the development of the region, says he has been talking to Chinese state companies keen to invest in the project because Finnish trains could carry goods offloaded in Norway onwards to major European markets. “They are quite eager to make these kinds of investments,” he says. “They have this philosophy of the Arctic silk road.” The rest of the €2.9bn bill could be met by the EU, with contributions from the Finnish and Norwegian governments.
Riipi believes the project’s success depends on the speed of sea ice melting, as well as geopolitical instability affecting the Suez Canal, which is currently the main shipping route between Asia and Europe. “This might sound a little controversial, but we have tried to find out those mega trends and then try to think, can we utilise them – of course climate change is one of those,” he says. Indeed, the project is predicated on rising global temperatures. “I personally believe that this Arctic railway won’t be built if climate change is stopped – but in the worst-case scenario then we might be able to build it when the ice melts.”
The regional council does not include any representatives from the Sami parliament, but Riipi insists they do not have anything to fear from the railway. “The Sami culture has survived even though roads have been there. This is another road – except it goes a long way in tunnels,” he says. He adds the council opposes mining in the Sami homeland, although he admits it does not issue the mining permits: “We made a decision at the regional level, we don’t want any mines in the Sami home area.”
Across the street from the regional council offices lies Rovaniemi’s modernist city hall. It was designed by celebrated Finnish architect Alvar Aalto as part of a grand plan to rebuild the city around the contours of a reindeer’s antler, after it was destroyed in the second world war. Heikki Autto, the centre-right chair of the council, also supports the plan. In an airy hall outside the main council chamber, he makes the case that it is an environmentally friendly scheme. “We all want to prevent climate change, but what seems to be inevitable is that the ice is going and this opens up the sea route. It is only one-third the distance of the current route between Europe and Asia and, of course, it is more environmentally sound to use the short cut.”
Autto claims the railway would help the Sami in northern Lapland. “I have a Sami background myself, but the Sami-speaking population in our traditional home area has diminished to the point where if we don’t find new opportunities and business activity it will totally disappear,” he says. He sees no reason not to allow mines in the Sami homeland: “Why not? It has to be discussed with the local community, but it would provide livelihoods for hundreds of people directly and for thousands indirectly.”
Back on the darkening shores of Lake Inari, the political machinations of the regional capital seem very far away. Seurujärvi is warming himself up with a cup of coffee and barley bread in his kitchen. He longs to live a quiet life, but believes he must resist the railway if the next generation is to live off the forests and lakes of his ancestors.
“Reindeer herding has been my only dream,” he says. “I want to give my future children the chance to live in the Sami way.”