Sweden: Open pit mine will endanger indigenous lands and the environment – UN experts

Geneva, February 10, 2022.-  UN human rights experts* today urged Sweden not to issue a licence for an iron-ore mine in the Gaìllok region, home of the indigenous Saìmi people, saying the open-pit mine will generate vast amounts of pollution and toxic waste, and endanger the protected ecosystem including reindeer migration.

The proposed project by the British company Beowulf Mining and their fully-owned Swedish subsidiary Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB is close to the World Heritage Site of Laponia in the northernmost part of the country.

“We are very concerned by the lack of good-faith consultations and the failure to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the Saìmi, and over the significant and irreversible risks that the Gaìllok project poses to Saìmi lands, resources, culture and livelihoods,” said the experts.

An open pit mine will generate large amounts of dust containing heavy metals, and the deposit of toxic waste in tailing ponds will impact the environment and water sources, they said. Intense daily transport of iron concentrate by rail and road will directly affect the Saìmi and their livelihood and culture as the traditional migration routes of reindeer will be cut off. Impact on the reindeer herding practice would jeopardise the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing of the nearby Laponia area.

The existence and development of reindeer herding is a fundamental condition for the survival of the Saìmi culture. Reindeer herding – which, by Swedish law, is a right, guaranteed to the Saìmi people – remains a primary source of livelihood in the area.

“There has been insufficient assessment and recognition of the environmental damage the mine will cause,” the experts said, adding that the government has assumed international legal obligations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment.

International expert bodies have repeatedly raised concerns with the Swedish Government over the failure to respect the international standards and rights of indigenous peoples in domestic legislation, notably the Minerals Act and the Environmental Code.

“This has serious consequences on the Saìmi as mining concessions have been issued without consultations with, or the consent of, affected communities,” the UN experts said. “Historically, the balancing of interests set out in the Environmental Code has weighed in favour of economic gain and the lobby of extractive companies.”

After years of debate and negotiations, on 27 January 2022, Sweden enacted a national law on consultation, which requires the Government and State administrative authorities to consult representatives of the Saìmi people before making decisions on matters that may be of particular importance to the Saìmi.

“While the law is not yet in force, 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,” the experts said. “A decision not to approve the Gaìllok project can demonstrate a watershed shift from past injustices.

“Indigenous peoples and their knowledge are vital for sustainable environmental management of natural resources and biodiversity conservation, both of which are essential elements for combating climate change and fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals on climate action and the conservation of biodiversity.”

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