UK mining company Beowulf holds its AGM tomorrow, 22 June, in London. The company has recently been granted a mining concession in Sápmi (indigenous Sami territory) in Sweden against the express wishes of the Sami people and against the explicit recommendation of United Nations Special Rapporteurs. Amnesty International has provided the following briefing. For LMN coverage of the history of this struggle, click here.
Briefing from Amnesty International, 15 June 2022
- The Swedish government decided on March 22 to grant a mining exploitation concession for iron ore in Gállok, Norrbotten, Sweden to the company Beowulf Mining,
- It would be located on Sami land, cutting off a key migratory route for reindeer in the heartland of Sápmi, where reindeer herding has been conducted since time immemorial,
- No free, prior and informed consent was obtained,
- Sámi reindeer herding communities, the Sámi parliament, the Swedish Sámi Reindeer Herding Association, several Swedish agencies, UNESCO, and UN Human Rights bodies have all strongly warned against the decision,
- The company will next apply for an environmental permit; this process (given that an affirmative decision will be appealed, possibly in several instances) will likely take years.
More in depth:
Prior to the decision:
The British company Beowulf Mining and their fully-owned Swedish subsidiary Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB were, for years, pursuing a mining exploitation concession for iron ore at Gállok, located between Randijaur and Björkholmen in the Municipality of Jokkmokk, county of Norrbotten, to the south of the Laponia World Heritage site in northern Sweden. The application for concession came before the Swedish government in 2017, until a decision was finally taken on March 22, 2022 (see below).
The Sámi communities and organization were opposed to the project since it first was declared, raising serious concerns about the failure to consult and seek the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous community. In addition, the County Administration Board, the National Heritage Board as well as the Swedish Environmental Agency and the Sámi Parliament all voiced strong concerns regarding both the environmental risks and cultural harms deriving from an exploitation in Kallak/Gállok.
Laponia is a combined natural and cultural heritage site where the Sámi traditional reindeer herding is vital to the universal outstanding values of the World Heritage Site. Reindeer herding has been conducted in the areas since time immemorial and the Sámi must be given conditions that enable the traditional way of life, including for the coming generations. The proposed mine site is located in an area where it effectively cuts off the traditional migratory routes used by the reindeer, blocking the traditional seasonal migration of the reindeers from and towards the mountain. The Sámi communities fear that the development will endanger the survival of their culture and therefore their identity as a people.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site Committee has concluded that the impact on site is considered to be large to very large and that the analysis of the environmental impact is incomplete. The International Council on monuments and sites (ICOMOS) also noted that no impact analysis following the guidelines set forward by the ICMOC had been conducted.
On 3 February 2022, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment issued a public statement and addressed the Swedish government through a communication. See link below. In their communication, the Special Rapporteurs urged the government to halt the alleged violations of the rights of the Sámi until the matter had been further investigated. However, the government announced that the consideration would continue and would not be affected by the communication from the Special Rapporteurs.
This raised serious concerns about Sweden’s willingness to prevent human rights violations against the Sámi people and to address, in good faith, concerns raised by UN human rights mechanisms.
On 22 March 2022, the Swedish government announced its decision to grant an iron ore mining exploitation concession to Beowulf Mining and their fully-owned Swedish subsidiary Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB.
The government came to its conclusion to grant a concession after balancing the interest of mining – with employment and development opportunities as their primary rationale – and the interest of reindeer herding. In weighing the interests against one another, the government concluded that, on one hand, the socioeconomic benefits of mining would outweigh the disadvantages for reindeer herding and environmental harm and, on the other hand, with certain conditions laid out, the approved concession “would not lead to elimination of opportunities for affected Sámi villages to engage in reindeer herding.”
The twelve conditions the government formulated for the approval of concession include the following. The company must claim and use as limited land areas as possible and it must conduct its mining activities during periods of the year with least negative impact on reindeer herding. It must cover costs that fall on the Sámi villages as a result of their inability to use the traditional migration routes, including costs for transporting reindeer with trucks, and must also establish various protection equipment for the reindeer such as fences and bulwark. The company must on a continuing basis consult with the affected Sámi villages and relevant government agencies. After its activities have been concluded, it shall “ensure that the concession area will be restored so that the land again can be used for reindeer herding.” These conditions were not negotiated with the relevant Sámi communities; no free, prior and informed consent was obtained. The Sámi communities have unanimously rejected these conditions; they insist that no coexistence is possible between reindeer herding and a mine in this particular location and that no conditions can change that fact.
Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the government not once in its assessment referred to the affected Sámi as an Indigenous people, protected as such under the Swedish constitution, with corresponding rights under international human rights instruments. The fact that human rights were at stake, risking to lead to irreparable harm to Sámi Indigenous rights and Sámi cultural life, appears in no aspect to have informed the decision. As such, no distinction was made between the two “interests” that were balanced, despite the fact that reindeer herding cannot be reduced simply to an “interest” among others but is, similar to other forms of Sámi land use, a precondition for Sámi culture, Sámi traditional knowledge, Sámi languages and Sámi ways of life and traditions in the relevant area. The government also completely ignored the communication from the two UN Special Rapporteurs, setting out Sweden’s obligations in this matter under international law. It thus did not address the specific questions asked by the Rapporteurs, in which inter alia they expressed their serious concern over the lack of serious consultation with affected Indigenous communities in this case.
After the decision:
On April 29, the CERD Committee issued its communication to the Swedish government (see link below). It contains harsh criticism, in particular of the lack of consultation with the affected communities and the absence of consideration of international human rights obligations and standards in this regard. The Committee asks the government, among other things, to provide information on “measures adopted to consider suspending or revoking the mining concession that affects the Sami communities in Kallak/Gállok until free, prior and informed consent is granted by these indigenous peoples following the full and adequate discharge of the duty to consult”. It also encourages the Swedish government to seek assistance from the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for technical advice.
The Swedish government has not yet responded to the CERD communication.
On May 20, Amnesty International Sweden together with our partner organization Civil Rights Defenders met with the responsible government minister, the Minister of Trade and Industries, Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, to discuss the decision and the status of indigenous rights in Swedish law and practice. It was a rather constructive meeting; however, the minister insisted on the twelve conditions as a safeguard against human rights abuse and also argued that since the environmental process is still not over it is still uncertain if there will be a mine.
Amnesty has sought a meeting with the minister responsible for Sami Indigenous affairs, the Minister of Culture. We have still not received any answer.
What will happen next:
The affected reindeer herding communities will appeal the government decision by the end of June to the highest administrative court. However, this procedure is formalistic: according to Swedish law no assessment of the factual matter at hand can be undertaken after a government decision of this character but only an assessment of whether there have been procedural flaws. The lawyers of the Sami communities will argue that the fact that international law obligations were so clearly ignored counts as procedural flaws, but it is a long shot. It is in fact very unlikely that the litigation at this stage will lead to a change of decision.
Next step is that the company, Beowulf Mining, will seek an environmental permit for the mine. For that process, an environmental impact assessment must be made. Reindeer herding is protected under the Swedish Environmental Code so reindeer herding interests will be taken into account in this process. However, again, these can be overruled by other “interests”. This process will take a long time; it is unlikely that there will be a final decision (and a potential opening of the mine) for several years.
Joint communication from the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (prior to the decision): https://www.amnesty.se/documents/232/AL_SWE_03.02.2022_2.2022.pdf
The Swedish Sami parliament’s statement to the CERD Committee (prior to the decision): https://www.sametinget.se/165005
The communication from the CERD Committee to the Swedish government (after the decision): https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/SWE/INT_CERD_ALE_SWE_9557_E.pdf
Article from The Guardian (prior to the decision): https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/feb/11/sami-people-said-no-british-firms-plans-open-pit-mine-divide-sweden-greta-thunberg?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other