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

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 Kittila, and Anglo American, which has its headquarters in London, is carrying out exploratory drilling in an EU-protected nature reserve in Viiankiaapa just outside Sodankyla.

Anglo project manager, Jukka Jokela, was 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,” he said.

If Anglo-American receives 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,” Jokela said.

Not all the residents are reassured. Riikka Karppinen, now in her 20s, has been campaigning against the project since she was 15, even meeting ministers in Helsinki.

She grew up in a village near Viiankiaapa and spent her childhood fishing and picking cloudberries in the reserve.

“I have a lot of happy memories,” she said. “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 Sodankyla in 2017, has formed a formidable alliance with Timo Helle, a local retired biologist opposed to the project.

They dismissed 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,” Karppinen said.

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.

However, the region’s politicians have weightier matters on their minds: how to deliver the Arctic railway project over the next 30 years.

Lapland County Governor Mika Riipi had a brief break in his schedule of meetings and trips abroad.

He is away so often he does not even have his own room in the regional council’s offices, which overlook the glinting white cityscape of snow-covered housing blocks, theaters and libraries.

Riipi, who is in charge of the development of the region, said he had 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 said. “They have this philosophy of the Arctic Silk Road.”

The rest of the 2.9 billion euro bill could be met by the EU, with contributions from the Finnish and Norwegian governments, Riipi said.

He said that the project’s success depends on the speed of sea ice melting, as well as geopolitical instability affecting the Suez Canal, which is 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 utilize them — of course climate change is one of those,” Riipi said.

Indeed, the project is predicated on rising global temperatures.

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