Thu, Feb 28, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The battle to save
Europe’s last great wilderness

A railway through Lapland could create new jobs, or destroy the Sami people’s ancient way of life

By Tom Wall  /  The Guardian

Although Mustonen cannot predict how much industry is likely to follow, he said that mining companies are already scouring Lapland for new deposits.

“It is a bonanza. It is California 1848. It is a gold rush,” he said.

“We offer stability and Western-style services, in the same sort of poorly regulated legal framework as Congo or Russia,” Mustonen said. “The taxation is minimal and the mining authorities are in favor of giving these lands to these companies.”

Finland, which has given an estimated 13 percent 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 could bring more industrial jobs to an area that in the past has suffered from high unemployment.

The small town of Sodankyla, which is on the proposed route, is experiencing a mining boom, with a 6.7 percent unemployment rate — the lowest in Lapland.

An hour or so outside the town’s busy center 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, as well as 250 contractors.

In an almost impenetrable blizzard of snow, giant yellow trucks could be seen trunding up and down a spiral of steep dirt roads toward the bottom of the blast-scarred pit 400m below ground level.

Every year, the trucks remove 45m tonnes of waste rock and ore. The extracted copper, nickel and gold is sold on European metal markets, with some of the rarer metals ending up in China.

In a control room overlooking the pit, two workers were taking a break before more rock was blasted away.

Truck driver Heidi Salumae said the mine has been good for the area.

“Sodankyla is livelier now,” she said. “There are more people in town. There are customers in shops.”

Salumae, whose husband and brother also work there, said 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 said.

Digger operator Antti Kunnari, whose two brothers also work at the mine, was 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 said.

In the site office, which looks like an Ikea showroom, Kevitsa general manager Peter Bergman said that 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 said. “We are expanding from 7.5 million tonnes to 9.5 million tonnes of ore a year to meet future demand for electrification and automation.”

He denied that 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 said. “The permit process is really slow. From a find to a mine is about 10 or 15 years.”

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