Not long after he took office as Sweden’s commerce minister in December, Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson was asked to explain to the opposition why so many mining firms had to wait so long to receive an answer to their applications to begin drilling. According to one recent industry survey, the long waiting times have been partly to blame for the amount of prospecting being done in Sweden recently falling to a 20-year low.
The most dramatic example of the drawn-out process that mining firms fear they could get caught up in is the application submitted by Beowulf Mining, a British-listed firm that is looking begin mining iron ore in a Sámi area known as Gállok (Kallak, in Swedish). It has been waiting since 2017 to receive a final decision from the ministry Mr Thorwaldsson now heads.
As an iron mine, few would doubt the merits of the Gállok operation; according to material compiled by Beowulf Mining, the ore it would extract is of extremely high quality, and can either be exported or used in Sweden’s steel-making industry. Though its projected lifespan — 14 years — is somewhat short, Beowulf Mining says this is a conservative estimate, and, anyway, the 500 jobs the mine would create, even if they did not last forever, would still provide valuable tax revenue and perhaps in-migration to a part of Sweden where the trend has been in the other direction.
Beowulf Mining argues that mining and tourism can exist side-by-side, and that, because the mine is located outside Laponia, limitations on development there cannot be used to deny it a licence. As far as reindeer herding goes, the firm says dialogue is the way forward.
If its executives find residents not in a talkative mood, it will only have itself to blame; in 2010, the chairman of Beowulf Mining’s board, Clive Sinclair-Poulton, suggested local resistance to the mine would be minimal because so few people lived near by. Mr Sinclair-Poulton’s rhetorical question, “What local people?” (see below), is typical of the firm’s attitude towards the people of the region, residents say, and has been co-opted for use in slogans against it.
The Soc Dems and other pro-mining parties have had an easier time overlooking such gaffes, and it is easy to understand why: some 45,000 Swedes make their living off mining, and mining exports amount to 10% of the country’s total foreign income. Iron ore — either exported raw or in the form steel and steel products — is particularly important, a fact reflected by the inclusion of the ancient symbol for the metal (think of Volvo’s logo) in the coats of arms of a handful of the country’s local authorities.
Conservationists, most recently Greta Thunberg, who attended a rally against the mine on Sunday in connection with Sámi álbmotbeaivi, the Sámi national day (pictured above), would prefer that iron was a thing of Sweden’s past. Instead, they suggest that mining for nickel, lithium and cobalt and other metals used in energy-saving technologies would be a better choice. Demand for steel, though, is not decreasing, and instead of phasing out production, Sweden has begun to throw its support behind efforts to come up with ways to make steel without fossil fuels.
Politics, too, plays a role in Mr Thorwaldsen’s open embrace of mining, which, the industry believes, signals an imminent approval of Beowulf Minings’s application next month. At the end of last year, Miljöpartiet, Sweden’s greens, bolted the governing coalition. The party remains an ally to the government, but is out of the cabinet, and that has left the Soc Dems to call the shots alone. Mr Thorwaldsen has made it clear that this does not mean environmental issues have moved down on the government’s list of priorities. Rather, it is mining that has moved up.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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