This story is published in collaboration with Scientific American.
In bad winters, when reindeer cannot reach lichen on the ground, reindeer herders in Scandinavia ski into the woods and knock down dead limbs—for Miriam Lanta, it’s fun work, although the reason is not. A single reindeer can consume eight pounds of lichen a day. But tree lichen—knotted fungi and algae, curling to create its own shade—grows as slow as a fraction of a millimeter a year, clotting over decades in dark webs on old arctic trees. And on a dark November night in 2013, in her kitchen in Jokkmokk, Sweden, over coffee with her mother, Helen Swartling, Miriam told me that the year before, herders in her family had entered a forest stand where they harvest lichen to find only stumps and sky.
Without warning someone had cut down the trees, and without the trees, the herd could not survive a bad winter.
What will you do? I asked.
Miriam took a long pause. Then she replied, “Something’s happening in the Sami community. It’s kind of small, like when a tree starts to grow”—her hands summoned a sprout—“you see the signs.”
What was happening was something completely new to the indigenous Sami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. For thousands of years they had followed the weather, waiting for snow to move their herds from summer to winter pastures. But the downed trees were evidence that their way of life was threatened. Open pit mining was coming to the Sami’s herding grounds and with it would come buildings, roads, and railroads, all welcomed by new policies in Sweden and Norway. The development would eradicate forest and tundra and cut migration routes. All of this made worse by climate change.
For thousands of years, the Sami had endured in the harsh Arctic by working together. Protest had never been a part of their culture. But that was about to change.
Antlers clacked on antlers, cartilage snapped, and the breath of three thousand animals rose over the fence. Herders gathered at the center of a small corral. Family and friends watched. A few children sat high on the fence boards of secondary pens that spread from the center. Beyond the corral rose hills, covered in trees and snow. The families had come to separate the summer herd into smaller winter groups for, now, at the end of November 2013, the snow, weeks late, finally lay deep enough for the animals to leave the mountains.
Then the herders were gone, and all watchers could see was fur—grey, brown, and moving. Reindeer ran together, nose to rump, circling the pen continuously counterclockwise. They crowded up to the fence. One knocked its antlers against the boards and then tucked itself back into the flow, eyes rolling in a face delicate from the side but moose-like and broad from the front. One reindeer leapt over another. They slowed. Now the herders could see ear notches that identified ownership, and someone grabbed an animal by the antlers, pulling it through the living stream to an outside paddock. Other men, and a few women, repeated the motion, pairing up two to an animal, one to an antler. The reindeer wrenched and bucked in hand. The herders held fast and kept their heads up to protect their eyes. The corral filled with a thick fog of condensed breath.
Miriam, a small, lean, young woman with strong cheekbones and shoulder-length brown hair, stood on the edge of the ring, in front of her family’s pen, injecting a syringe of vaccine into each animal as herders brought them to her. Her uncle opened and closed the gate. The animals ran to the far end of the pen, past Miriam’s baby son, Esiah, bundled in a pelt on the ground and watched by her partner, Tim. As the skittish reindeer in the central paddock decreased, herders angled into their paths in wings. They set picks, guiding the reindeer, then negotiating passage out of the circle. A child working with an animal lost hold and fell, safely, in the snow. A single herder reeled in the last reindeer by lasso. When the corral was empty, the next round began: animals entered and ran in a circle.
In the early afternoon, sunlight faded, and generator-powered stadium lights kicked on. Now the cloud of human and reindeer breath caught the light and glowed. Sometimes it grew dense and opaque, making it impossible to see past three reindeer, and occasionally the wind whipped it into a column. The dry snow moved like sand in the corral. Miriam’s family stopped to eat a salty stew of reindeer, potatoes, and carrots that Miriam had prepared in Jokkmokk, an hour’s drive downstream. She warmed it, melting the flakes of fat that had formed on top, over a campfire that someone—probably her uncle, or her brother, Jon Mikkel—had started at the top of their pen, above the reindeer. It had been dug a foot or two into the snow, reindeer pelts laid alongside. Two children, a girl and a boy, stretched out on one, next to their father. Other diners balanced on logs, drinking coffee and tea. The camp smelled like pine needles, reindeer meat, and smoke.
When sorting resumed, people passed through a western gate and ran up a slope to a much larger, unlit, paddock. The land was dark blue to the north, beginning to rise to the Scandinavian Mountains, the range that divides Norway and Sweden and the summer home of the herds being split. Reindeer along the top-most fence made little sound. In the darkness, people moved together in a loose chain, softly chirruping and wind-milling their arms wide to urge the last of the reindeer down to the corral. The herders were widely spaced—many arm lengths lay between neighbors. No one person made more noise, or moved more aggressively than the others. They pressed the reindeer into the sorting corral. Miriam’s brother picked up a reindeer calf that had tucked itself sleepily between the fence and ground, rump out, and carefully carried it, legs cockeyed, inside the gates.
Later, past two in the morning, Miriam ate ramen in her Jokkmokk flat. Work at the corral had lasted twelve hours, most of it at night, under a half moon, at minus four degrees Fahrenheit. Her brother slept in a cabin at the corral to round up remaining reindeer the next day.
Miriam is Sami and Swedish with deep ties to Norway. She attended the University of Tromso, a small, vibrant city in Northern Norway, known for theater, electronic music, and proximity to mountains and sea. Miriam’s partner and child are Norwegian, and her grandmother herded reindeer on the Norwegian coast before cross-nation migration routes ended when Sweden recognized Norway as a separate country in 1905. Her mother, who is British, and her father are separated, but both live in Jokkmokk. Her brother, who attended university in Sweden, herds full time with their father. Miriam is charming and warm. Easy to smile and graceful, she practices yoga and Nordic ski races. Miriam and Tim live and work in Kautokeino, a town of three thousand in the interior of Norway’s northernmost county, two hundred miles northwest of Jokkmokk, the cultural center of Norwegian reindeer herding. On a day’s notice, with their son and dog, they drove six hours south to Jokkmokk to help sort Miriam’s family’s herd.
When they arrived late the night before, Miriam, Tim, and Esiah stopped first at the house of Miriam’s father. After greeting Miriam and Esiah, and unfolding the newspaper to an article about local representatives meeting with a mining company, he pulled a plate of salty, smoked reindeer fat from his fridge. Everyone took a piece, tearing the strips smaller before eating. Esiah chewed slowly. Miriam’s father reclined, legs stretched out in the window seat of his neat, warm house.
A proposed mine in Jokkmokk would bisect Miriam’s family’s herding grounds, Jahkagasska Tjiellde, or “between the rivers.” It was planned for a bottleneck valley between winter and summer ranges. The Sami needed the land to move their herds between mountains and forest, Miriam explained. Every year her family’s animals moved from the glaciated northwestern mountains, where the sun over a lake can make it look like the ocean and a cloud-covered hill can create its own light, down to the spruce and pine forests of Jokkmokk.
Even for Miriam, who straddled many worlds, office and land, Sami and non-Sami, Swedish and Norwegian, the mining proposal was difficult to comprehend. “I feel like this is not for real—it’s too big a catastrophe.”
This existential threat posed a question: “Why don’t you go fight for the reindeer?”
Nine years ago, Norway and Sweden began to court mining. Norway’s 2010 minerals act was written to attract international investment with minimal taxation: half of a percent. In comparison, the country taxed oil at seventy-eight percent. After the act passed, Norway began mapping its northern minerals. Similarly, Sweden’s 2014 minerals policy taxes mineral sales at one fifth of a percentage point.
Norway wanted mining to prepare for the eventual end of oil and gas extraction. Oil production supports a large portion of the country’s economy—profits from Equinor (formerly named Statoil), the majority-state owned oil company, go to the government pension fund. But access and extraction of what oil remains was becoming increasingly difficult. Over the last decade, oil production’s contribution to GDP dropped from twenty-five to fourteen percent. The seventy percent drop in oil prices from 2014 to 2016 caused Norwegian economic growth to nearly halt. For the first time, the government dipped into spending the pension fund itself, not just its accrued interest. Even though a new deep water field has been discovered and the country’s output is expected to increase from 1.3 million barrels a day to 1.8 million by 2021, there is so much petroleum expected to be available worldwide that prices may fall. Norway’s interest in mining, particularly in the north, is part of the government’s stated goal to diversify its economy. The governing Conservative party, led by Prime Minister Erna Solberg, wrote the changed minerals policy, which approved dumping mine tailings in a southern fjord against environmental protests. The country, said the prime minister, needed jobs, and their minerals could provide them.
Arctic Scandinavia is capped by coastal mountains that turn southwest as the handle of a ladle, forming the spine between Norway and Sweden. At the top, mountains made of heated and deformed volcanic ash and sandstone cover pockets of copper. Southwards, the coast yields to low stands of dwarf birch and willow, sphagnum bogs of arctic cotton grass, pitcher plants, blueberries, lingonberries, and cloudberries. Among its exposed ridgelines in the summer, are clouds of mosquitos thick enough to drink an animal to death. This land is made of igneous rock fissured with gold. Further south, towards Sweden’s Baltic coast, thick spruce and pine rise over granite and magma-deposited iron. Copper, gold, and iron all lie under plants and reindeer.
Mining these deposits would require wastewater pools, tailing deposits, electrical wiring, pipelines, roads, railroads, hydropower centers, and wind farms. It would also necessitate acquiring the very land where the Sami’s reindeer migrated and grazed.
For thousands of years, the Sami have lived on the Scandinavian peninsula, always surviving on reindeer—the animal that at one time was important to most of Europe. During the last ice age, humans survived in continental Europe by eating reindeer. The prehistoric artists of the Lascaux cave paintings in France, some of the world’s first known artists, painted and ate reindeer 17,000 years ago. The makers of the oldest discovered musical instruments used reindeer hide. The lunar calendar was developed by people who hunted reindeer during their annual migration.
Although Norwegians settled on the coast as early as 350 A.D., they didn’t intrude on the Sami until the Middle Ages. And even then, they didn’t interact much because most of the Sami lived in the interior. That did not change until the 19th century.
The top third of Scandinavia, where Norway and Sweden meet Finland and Russia, comprises the northern half of the land of the Sami, called Sapmi. Sapmi stretches south through another third of the Norwegian and Swedish peninsula and east through Russia’s Kola Peninsula, encompassing an area larger than Sweden itself. Known as Europe’s only indigenous people, by ancestry Sami people number approximately one hundred thousand, and across Norway and Sweden roughly eight thousand Sami own half a million reindeer. For those who live close to the reindeer, herding is at the center of life. Working in family herding units called siidas in Norway and samebies in Sweden, they follow their animals, make clothing, tools, and meals out of reindeer.
When cured, reindeer meat is a striking purple. Almost nutty, it is lean like venison, often served with gravy, tart lingonberry preserves, and golden, mashed rutabaga. The heart is smoked, the tongue cured, and the brain cooked into a cake. In Kautokeino, a shop sells reindeer shawarma.
A Sami child receives a first reindeer at baptism as well as his or her own distinctive ear notch pattern.
Sami millennials are only a generation removed from the last people who were born and lived completely on the land. For more than a century, Norway tried to demand they assimilate. Sami children were forcibly sent to boarding schools, educated in Norwegian, and not allowed to speak Sami. Although King Harald V has since formally apologized, and although the government has paid reparations, this policy did great damage.
As the government took the Sami’s land and gave it to Norwegians, it began restricting the size and movement of herds and who could own the animals. Norwegian reindeer owners had to be able to speak Sami, and had to have a parent or grandparent who was a herder. Reindeer meat by law must be processed by licensed slaughterhouses run by competing beef farmers, who leave the reindeer outside, losing weight, and then are slow to distribute or market the meat, depressing the value the Sami receive.
Yet, the Sami endured. In time, they formed their own parliament, their own university, and their children learn their language in school. But even as the Norwegian government placed the Sami under its protection, the changes brought by assimilation altered the Sami’s way of life. For instance, the government requirement that Sami children attend school in town in the winter meant that mothers stayed in town as the men remained with the herd.
The first proposed mine to intrude on the Sami’s world was along the coast, where reindeer calves are born in the summer in Kvalsund, Norway. The mining company wanted to extract copper and deposit tailings in the fjord.
Then came another proposed mine, this one for gold in the highlands, which had long been a winter pasture and migration route. The third mine, Gallok, would dig for 250 million tons of iron ore if the projections were correct. That area—along forty miles of connected lakes where Miriam’s family sorted their herd, is shared by Sami and Swedes, by people who herd and those who do not—as well as elk, bear, and reindeer. This name, “Gallok” became synonymous with fighting mines in both Sweden and Norway.
Gallok began with a small question. At a meeting with investors in London in late 2011, Clive Sinclair-Poulton, then chairman of Beowulf Mining, the British company that wanted to mine Gallok, rhetorically considered what the local people thought of the project. He presented an image of treetops across a large distance and asked “What local people?” Posted online, the video was found by a Sami and shared across Sapmi. The presentation provoked outrage in Jokkmokk.
“You can see that this not a wilderness,” said Henrik Blind, a member of a reindeer herding unit that neighbors Miriam’s. Blind is also a Green Party representative on the Jokkmokk municipal board. He pointed to herding huts across the north as evidence that it was a living landscape. In his mid-thirties, Blind sorted animals in the corral with Miriam. During the week, he worked in the office of the Sami Swedish schools.
“The people, we who live close to the local nature, we know this area best and know all the history that comes from generations of living here,” he told me. “Funny stories, sad stories, and the knowledge of how you can live here. It’s our story. The reason why I am existing is because of the reindeer.”
Jokkmokk is home to roughly five thousand people. Though it is, as Blind puts it, a “small-time town” it encompasses more land than New Jersey. Beowulf’s open pit iron mine would stretch across three reindeer herding ranges of roughly forty thousand animals, including Miriam Lanta’s and Henrik Blind’s. Herders realized they would then have to move the animals by car, train or boat.
When the residents of Jokkmokk heard the Sinclair-Poulton’s recording they did something altogether new: they organized a protest. They chose the town’s winter market, which sells sealskins and antler-handled knives. Across a wall of snow, the protestors hung sixty photographs of neighbors looking directly into the camera. Below the pictures, they wrote in large letters, “WHAT LOCAL PEOPLE?”
Henrik Blind posted the portraits on a web page and the protestors took to social media to press their cause. They were hardly strangers to Facebook and Instagram, having regularly posted photos of the northern lights, weddings, and messages about herding across Sapmi.
Feeling very much alone at first, they began to draw a following of environmental activists from Southern Sweden, who, like the Sami, saw the campaign as about more than just herding.
It can be difficult for Sami to discuss development and their rights to the land because the topics strike directly at what many love dearly. People even tear up, trying to put words to the intensity of their passion. For many herders, the land is like a part of themselves. As a researcher at the Sami University College in Kautokeino explained, “You know the land as you know what you have in your pocket.” The Sami word for word for reindeer grazing conditions, “ealat,” is derived from the word for life, “eallin.” Before 2012, many Sami did not want to think about problems with mining because it was too cataclysmic. A project like Gallok can feel big, sad, and inevitable.
Snow comes to Kautokeino in October and stays until March. In the desert tundra of the valley, there is little precipitation, but what falls, remains, and grows from the ground up. A single snow crystal can grow to a third of a centimeter. Some are obelisks, some stars. Pine needles grow their own ice needles, turning into rimed maces. Trees, bracken, and even roads sparkle in milky light. When people walk through the village in mid-November, every step snaps.
Snow crystals, and the snow pack, constantly change. Plates morph into needles. Six-pronged crystals fuse, forming twelve-branched units, crystalline structures that only grow below minus four Fahrenheit. In Kautokeino, researchers have found eighteen- and even twenty-four-branched snowflakes. They form in twisted series so that microphotographs, which can only focus on one layer, produce impressions of spinning glass pinwheels.
On the ground, flakes alter every day, with the air, wind, and sun. When they round and shrink, the snow pack becomes denser. When ground and air temperatures differ by fifty degrees Fahrenheit, then rounded crystals can sharpen, growing once more. If temperatures run high to melt snow and then dip to freeze again, water moves to the edges of the crystals, and when it re-solidifies, the pack tightens. A melt-freeze, or strong winds pressing crystals together, can produce ice layers in the pack. Each winter constructs a new snow land, dependent on conditions but also on the entire season’s weather, in changes which the Sami name.
Some Sami snow terms are comparable to physical qualities, but they contain landscape and seasonal meaning. Members of Norwegian and Sami scientific institutions argue that Sami knowledge complements scientific data, interpreting otherwise opaque trends. In the north, the most accurate weather forecasting is not meteorological measurement, but people who know what they see. Some Sami have become professors at the universities, cataloguing 318 different kinds of snow, for instance, contributing to a growing body of literature of Sami traditional ecological knowledge. Older, retired reindeer herders record a life’s knowledge of the environment for the professors and argue in peer-reviewed journals for the right to manage their own rangelands. Some of these professors staff research stations in the arctic.
The beginning of winter is busy, and herders can be out in the mountains for weeks. After the first snowfall, the weather warms, and when the second snow drops, the pack begins to accumulate. Herders begin moving with their animals from the summer ranges to the winter ones, dividing them according to siida. Their vans, large enough to carry snowmobiles and dogs, come and go on the two roads that lead into town, headlights shining from miles away in the dark. Daylight is only a pale glow at noon. Snow drifts from the sky for weeks. Reindeer herders are entirely dependent on weather. To cross rivers, herders wait for them to freeze.
The reindeer’s migratory routes run through Arctic Scandinavia as densely as watercourses. Just as during the summer, they go up into the high mountains where winds and cooler temperatures protect them from mosquitoes that can kill calves, so in winter reindeer avoid high winds by moving to lower ground, where the nutrient-rich, water-poor lichen feeds them without chilling them. As snow quality varies with wind and temperature between valleys and woods, reindeer’s access to the lichen also varies. The herders’ ability to follow the animals changes. Snow cover opens up the land, making it easy to cross long, roadless distances on snowmobiles and skis and follow the prints of dispersed animals.
“If you lose control of the herd now, when there is no snow on the ground, you can’t track them,” said Mikkel Nils Sara. He is a former siida leader and herder, now social science researcher at the Sami University College in Kautokeino with a doctorate from UiT Norway’s Arctic University. Dr. Sara said the herders start to talk in the late fall—“‘Hopefully the snow will come soon—isn’t the snow coming soon?’” The reindeer cannot stay in the same location. They must rotate through their range to respond to weather and avoid exhausting forage. They need to negotiate rugged terrain at specific passages. To support the animals, season after season, in conditions that change yearly, herders need varied topography and groundcover. Working in the field, a herder’s decisions are complex and weather-dependent.
“A kilometer is not a kilometer,” the head of a Kautokeino reindeer-herding advocacy NGO told me. He meant that the value of a range does not lie solely in its size, but in the type of forage and shelter it offers each year.
A single event can lock reindeer out of pastures for a full season. In November 2009, rain fell in a herding district in Sweden, partly melting half a meter of snow. Then the pack refroze, forming a crust that blocked reindeer’s access to forage. Tracked by radio collar, the animals moved south from their summer pastures immediately. They covered in a few weeks the same distance they took all winter to cross in a mild year.
This weather dependence makes climate change dangerous to reindeer herding, and, in the Arctic, change is accelerated. By the end of the century, Kautokeino temperatures are projected to rise eight degrees and snow cover to decrease by a month.
“There are many more falls when the snow is coming later. Cold temperatures could make things freeze before the snow comes. Maybe you have cold weather, then rain, then cold weather—then you have ice on the ground.” Meaning geardni, or trouble, for herders.
The herders can deal with climate change, according to Dr. Sara. But they need access to the land to do so.
Determined to prevent Beowulf from test drilling, young activists lived at Gallok through the summer of 2013. They strung bright reindeer lassos across the road to Gallok. They built a free-standing wooden tower in its center, braced with large stumps, downed spruces, and wooden poles and painted a top rail in the primary colors of the Sami flag. Herders and Jokkmokk residents ferried food to them—a side of reindeer, fresh fish—and offered the campers who, at first largely consisted of young people from southern Sweden, places to rest and bathe. Local artists contributed displays.
In August, police arrived to escort equipment through the blockade. Officers cut the lassos and dismantled the tower, knocking a young woman from the top to the ground. Activists and supporters, including Miriam’s mother, Helen, linked their arms in front of the trucks. The police separated and carried them off the road. A woman sang from the arms of officers as they placed her on the roadbank. Released, she sang louder and tried to run back to her place. At that moment, when trucks came through the protest and broke it up, Helen said it made them feel like trash—and that moment also converted her to an environmental activist. Over two months, six police interventions, and twelve arrests, Gallok captured Sweden’s attention.
As Karin Kuoljok, a Jokkmokk herder, said after visiting the campsite almost every day throughout the summer, local herders were not used to activism. When Kuoljok came down out of the mountains in July, she met the activists at Gallok, then she called Sami leaders, and, in two days, they had arranged a protest of five hundred people. People, she said, woke up to the fact that they could do something.
Karin’s eighty-six-year-old father and seventy-seven-year-old mother were in the barricade when it was broken. Her father sat on the road in front of the police, walking stick in his lap. An officer lifted him and moved him off. “He has struggled for the rights all his life.” She said. “I think he was proud of himself. It was symbolic for him to be put away from his land.”
The town and hotel staged an exhibition of protest art by a young Sami artist, Maret Anne Sara. “Old men in their fifties and sixties who don’t know one thing about art came and thanked me,” Maret said.
The protests spread. Henrik Blind documented the Gallok events and posted images to Facebook. That autumn, Blind travelled through Sapmi, rallying support. He visited the Sami University College in Kautokeino and showed footage from the police confrontations.
One month after he visited in December 2013, the Kautokeino town council voted against the next step in their permit process, refusing for the first time to approve a mine.
Two months later, at Jokkmokk’s winter market, hundreds of people marched through the town’s two main streets in a chain of families. Thirty to forty thousand visitors, including many from outside Sweden, had travelled to the market that year, walking through streets lined with booths and warming up in large tents with food and beer. For a few hours, the line of protestors circled the fair—people in wool and fur, with children in strollers or boat-shaped sledges pulled by reindeer. Miriam, Helen, and Esiah marched. Swedish newscasters recorded from the sidewalks. The protestors ended at the town hall, where herders had first spoken against the project and a county-hired negotiator had recently managed a public meeting with mine representatives. A young Sami artist sang a song about Gallok and the marchers listened quietly.
Then a woman shouted out, “Go mines!” Her son, walking ahead, motioned for her to be quiet. The woman told me that the argument over Gallok was so heated in Jokkmokk that she worried that if she spoke out “I will be almost shot.” She grew up traveling with the reindeer in the mountains. But now, she said, she wanted a job for her son. The town is dead, she added. There are no jobs here.
Mine opponents had an answer: local entrepreneurship and recreation were building a new economy. And they worried that a picture of the town’s future without mining had been rendered too dark. A local dog-sledding outfitter who opposed mining blamed the pessimistic story on Jokkmokk’s former mayor. “When he says that the town is dying, people believe that,” he said. “It’s very sad because people lose their hope, their ideals.”
Mines are high-risk, high-reward, and not guaranteed to make a profit or provide long-term jobs. Global prices fluctuate and mining operations respond quickly. Decreased Chinese demand for iron led to a global price fall by nearly eighty percent between 2011 and 2015. Copper prices fell by more than fifty percent, and gold by nearly forty. That drop caused an open pit iron mine, which had provided four hundred jobs in a Norwegian town of a few thousand to the north of Kautokeino, to declare bankruptcy and close. Another mine on the border between Sweden and Finland closed. The mine at the site north of Kautokeino, Biedjovaggi, which operated twice in the 1970s and 80s for a combined twelve years, also closed because of the dropping price of iron ore.
Meanwhile, Jokkmokk, though a full night’s train journey from Stockholm, is a tourist destination. Laponia, a UNESCO world heritage site sixty miles upstream of Jokkmokk, encompasses four national parks, thousands of miles of protected mountains. The town is home to touring companies. A new Sami writing center connects authors to publishers and a local business incubator, Strukturm, supports entrepreneurs.
One example is herder Karin Kuoljok who with her cousin designed collars with radio signals to track reindeer remotely and hired a CEO who had worked for IBM.
As Blind said, “We are creative, we find ways of living—the politicians should support this.”
Buried rivers, glaciers, and mountains —Svalbard in April is snow and wind. Color remains in the way that light strikes slopes, turning low-lying wet swales heather and hills rose.
If the European Arctic is a human landscape, occupied for millennia and covered with stories, then Svalbard, the wedge-shaped archipelago four hundred miles north of mainland Norway, is the large, empty resource imagined by the Arctic’s early modern explorers. It is almost entirely an economic and geopolitical investment. Subject to waves of industry and abandonment—coal extraction, for the last century—it is an alternate north. Svalbard is a testament to what Sapmi would be without the Sami.
It is also an economy in trouble.
On Svalbard, a Kautokeino drilling company prospected for material that, two years later, wouldn’t be worth the money it costs to extract.
In Spring 2014, a collection of sheds mounted on metal runners formed a small settlement on the edge of a ridge. Arctic Drilling ASA, a company owned by a local man, Roy Karlsen, prospected on a ring of mountains that surrounded a fjord. His team drilled dozens of sites a season, moving methodically through the peaks. Their fifth stop that year, the mountain—Ispallen, or ice step—cut steeply to the water half a mile below. To reach the ridge by snowmobile, a ninety-kilometer drive from Svalbard’s main port of Longyearbyen, Karlsen crossed one fjord, two rivers, six glaciers, countless streams, and followed, for the few last miles, a trail of hundreds of birch poles that he had cut in Kautokeino and flown north. He gunned his snowmobile to climb Ispallen’s steep back and turned sharply, cutting the engine on the ridgeline. Buttressed by repeating rock spurs, from across the fjord, Ispallen and its neighbors look like a cathedral gallery, like half a ribcage.
His company had worked on Svalbard for five winters and springs, prospecting for gold and coal for Store Norsk Spitsbergen, the subsidiary of the majority state-owned mining company Store Norsk. He had just signed a new four-year drilling contract. He employed fourteen workers, including his twenty-year-old son. Like most of his employees, Karlsen was Sami, but his family had not herded in two generations. After attending technical school in Kautokeino, he worked in the North Sea on an oil rig and then at a drilling company in town. One of his first jobs as an adolescent was at the former Kautokeino mine, sharpening drill bits for his uncle. Karlsen had just spent the winter fixing up a cabin with his father-in-law outside the village.
Of Arctic Drilling’s work on Svalbard, he said proudly, “We are the drilling company that’s working the furthest north on ground.”
Steam rose from the flush of cooling water in the drill shed, which ran continuously to keep it from freezing. One of Karlsen’s men banged the drill pipe, which was breaking the extracted rock in regular sections that slid out and were placed into a segmented wooden tray. To reach pockets of coal, the drill passed through about a third of a mile of sandstone, mudstone, and hundreds of yards of permafrost. Broken samples showed clear impressions of sixty-million-year-old leaves, the traces of the one-hundred-and-fifty-mile-wide bed of warm wetlands that became Store Norsk’s coal.
In 2013, Karlsen had purchased two percent of Arctic Gold, the company campaigning for access to Biedjovaggi in Kautokeino as a public move of support. “I have to help them now,” he said. If the project moved ahead, then his company would conduct the site’s prospecting work. He had planned to purchase eighteen percent more when the project received approval from the Kautokeino town council.
I had asked him whether he thought Arctic Gold would sell the project to a larger company, which might not keep promises made by the first, promises like employing locals and cleaning up the site after it closed. He said he did not think that was relevant to his company’s work. He purchased Arctic Gold’s shares because it was a chance to get into the company early. “I believe in the project,” he said, “and I believe we are going to make money. It’s a lot of gold and copper, and we are going to mine it out.”
The group of islands that form the archipelago have supported waves of intense and singular industry for centuries—since 1596, when Dutch Captain William Barents sailed into it by accident. Over the next century and a half, whaling expeditions used the islands as a base, boiling blubber at the shoreline. Walrus hunters harvested the animals for their tusks and by the mid-nineteenth century, both whales and walruses were locally wiped out. Then geologists arrived, in more than one hundred expeditions between 1850 and 1920. Miners followed. An island south of Spitsbergen went through five names in over ten years. Each wave of explorers and workers renamed Svalbard’s features.
When Karlsen snowmobiled across the land between Longyearbyen and Ispallen he drove through an area named for generations of mining investors. Mountains named for executives of Store Norsk Spitsbergen. Valleys for topographers and whaling ships, a glacier for a shipmaster’s wife, and a fjord for a Dutch whaling skipper. Longyearbyen honors John Munroe Longyear, the American who financed its first coal mine, in 1904. Svalbard is a place from which things are removed and then named for the people that remove them. In contrast, in Sapmi, mountains are named for reindeer skin, and lakes for stones.
Karlsen left the site as he had come. He followed his birch poles, dropping down the steep back of Ispallen. He crossed the fjord, riding level ice to a blue glacier foot, cut by embedded silt. His tracks crossed wind-propelled dry snow. A polar bear, walking along the far shore, paused and swung its head toward the snowmobile. At Karlsen’s approach, seals threw themselves into the sea through breathing holes in meters of ice that they maintain through the winter. He crossed the shallow tidal inlet of the fjord, where sea ice now only lasts half the year and still can grow ten feet thick. Driving into the hills, he passed a mine barracks and shaft. He moved between punctuations of boulders and miles of slanted snow. Karlsen rose up a glacier, passing along, between and across its curves, subject to flexing lines, soft colors, and ceaseless wind that steals all sense of speed.
But there is no more money in mining on Svalbard. Store Norsk Spitsbergen began operating at a loss in 2013 and, that year, cut eighty jobs. The next year, it cut another one hundred. It closed a mine that had been operated since 1934 and another that had only opened a few years earlier. The only operation remaining open supplies Longyearbyen itself with coal. Norway’s Prime Minister Solberg has said that she does not want to continue subsidizing mines on Svalbard and the archipelago’s government is explicit about needing to build their economy to survive without mining. The coal for which Roy Karlsen prospected will, most likely, never be extracted.
Just before he entered Longyearbyen, Karlsen passed an experimental station for carbon capture and storage. He had a contract to drill that summer for the University Centre in Svalbard, helping researchers attempt to lock carbon dioxide below ground, the last year that the project would operate.
“We have to look at the ways that stories are told,” Mikkel Nils Sara told his students in Sami, addressing a video camera. We have to look at how these narratives reflect opinion, he said.
“Now you have this story that there are too many reindeer,” he went on. This is a trope in Norwegian media. His students were young reindeer herders. “Which way of telling the story wins?” he asked them: the herders’ or their critics’? Onstage in an auditorium at the Sami University College, he was recording the class to be posted on Facebook. His students would view it from out in the fields with their animals in the fresh snow.
Sara walked through Aristotle’s story structure. He taught them about the storyteller’s perspective, narrative frames, and rhetorical tools. Then, for their next class, he told his students to look at media, pick an argument, and analyze it.
To Sara’ mind, reindeer herders needed a new, aggressive, and analytical way of thinking about narrative. He wanted to teach them how to fight negative stories and lies.
“Many of us have the possibility to run away, to go to the herd—” in conversation, he waved a hand out the window, “—and not engage with the other world—but it’s still there.”
To deal with stories that hurt, Maret Anne Sara said, young herders have to change the conversation. “If it’s a good story it will stay with you for years. It will also leave something else—an idea and a new thought,” she said.
We met at the town hotel, just after Maret had been nominated for a Nordic Council Book Award for her first novel, In Between Worlds, the story of two Sami children who fall into a mirror world, the place of the uldda or earth spirits. The children return to tell their families that they need to protect the land, concluding a series of linked teaching stories of a kind Maret said Sami are raised with. The novel has been translated into Swedish, Norwegian, and English and recorded as an audiobook.
Students at the Kautokeino high school asked to be assigned the novel and they told Maret that it was so natural to read.
A friend of Maret’s set down a pint and joined us. Aslak—called “Boom Boom” for the sound his car’s stereo made as he drove around town—was a chef, hunter, and driller, whose uncle and cousin herd reindeer. He worked for Roy Karlsen’s prospecting company, the one that wanted the mine to open.
Maret teased Aslak about his drilling work. “Aren’t you afraid of uldda?”
“No, just the polar bears.” Aslak laughed.
A few young herders came into the bar in full snowmobiling suits. I asked Maret how the winter weather had treated her family’s herd. She and Aslak exclaimed in exasperation, simultaneously, “It was raining today!” There would be geardni, trouble.
“We were sending this letter into the universe.” Henrik Blind said as he and three other Sami quietly dropped a letter to UNESCO, writing with concern about Gallok’s proximity to the world heritage site at Laponia. To his surprise, they received a reply within weeks. UNESCO wrote that the organization had assigned a team to look at the project and that they would communicate with the Swedish government. Blind was delighted.
The work of the protests of 2013 and 2014 had taken effect. Support for the mines continued to erode, marked by regional governments retracting support. For years, Norway and Sweden’s national licensing bodies have held off on approving the two mine applications in their hands.
In Sweden’s 2014 national elections, the vote for the Green Party in Jokkmokk was the largest in any of Sweden’s municipalities. It grew by half again in 2018. Re-elected to local government, twice nominated to Sweden’s national parliament, Henrik Blind is in the running for the position of national spokesperson for the Green Party. He keeps telling his positive story.
“I feel it’s something, it’s fine now for me and my generation to stand up for the reindeer’s rights.”
In September 2015, the Kautokeino town council voted against the Biedjovaggi proposal with the option of reconsidering the project again in 2019. The people of Kautokeino had looked to the people of Jokkmokk for inspiration. Kautokeino is the winter residence of the herders and where they vote—a fact that surely was not lost on the town council. In the meantime, an environmental group began legally challenging the company’s rights to the area.
In December 2017, Norrbotten County Administrative Board, the governing body of Jokkmokk’s county, retracted its support of Beowulf’s drilling application. The county board stated that the operation’s length will not justify the mine’s use of natural resources, that the best use of the land is reindeer herding—and that the project may negatively affect a UNESCO site, Laponia. The license application, originally submitted four years ago, remains under review by Sweden’s national Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation. Beowulf has operated at a loss for three years. Without breaking ground, the Gallok project was failing.
In early 2017, Beowulf CEO Kurt Budge, who replaced Clive Sinclair-Poulton in 2014, said his frustration was “palpable.” A few months later, he noted, “there is a spotlight on Sweden, specifically looking at how the [Gallok] project is being handled, and how Beowulf, as an investor and public company, is being treated.
“Questions are being asked about Sweden’s permitting processes,” he said, “and pointedly Sweden’s attractiveness as a place to invest and do business.” In March 2018, he submitted a final comment to the supervising ministry and, later that year, completed another round of fundraising.
Henrik Blind, meanwhile, had another question for Beowulf’s investors. “I hope also the stockholders of Beowulf mining think: Is this what their company wants to be part of, that they are destroying the possibilities for indigenous people to live in a traditional way?”
In a time when climate change requires radical and immediate action and may rely on regulation that makes bad actors pay the collective cost of changing resources, rising seas, and damaging weather, it is worth considering: What will legislative responses to climate change look like? Who gets to use what land when? If people working on the land know best how to respond to a cold snap, will they be able to respond? How quickly can we, like the Sami, respond to change?
“The waiting for me is the hardest part of it—that you never get to finish,” Henrik added.
The reindeer herders of coastal Kvalsund also waited. The copper project only required final approval from the Norwegian Directorate of Mineral Management, but it waited a year and a half. In that time, the Sami Parliament voiced its opposition and hired a public relations firm to campaign against the mine. But the Sami Parliament of course, serves only as an advisory agency with no legal or executive power.
Miriam moved back home to Jokkmokk last summer. Her mother, Helen, now serves on Jokkmokk’s government, representing the Green Party with Henrik.
Eight years of work stalled the mines in Sapmi.
But finally, in February 2019, the Kvalsund, Nussir, mine was approved by the federal government, which argued that Norway’s economy needs the project. More protests followed in Oslo and Tromso. Sami lawyers promised an appeal to the United Nations, arguing that the process has not satisfied the requirements of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which requires that indigenous people be consulted about their environment’s preservation.
Roy Karlsen’s work on Svalbard with Arctic drilling, testing for coal, never led to a mine being opened. Instead, Store Norsk closed its operations, except for a small shaft outside of Longyearbyen. Karlsen continues to extract cores of rocks which then inform the interested companies about what lies below and how to access it. Funding was cut for the carbon capture project he was also working on.
Over time, Miriam participated in protests in Stockholm and Jokkmokk and joined the environmental activist organization in Kautokeino. Her mother and son protest with her.
In the north, the weeks before Easter are a holiday. With snow and ice still solid, the land is open. People race snowmobiles on steep slopes, and dip through heath on skis. Schoolchildren skate on a frozen river. Snow remains, but the sun shines for most of the day. In the space of a month, daylight lengthens by six hours. At this time of year, a person can go ice fishing and recline, shirtless, by the hole, suntanning from reflecting light. The time is a precious transition. Soon, white reindeer will turn buff with spring, the molt beginning with a dark ring around the eye. Antlers on males will grow from nubs to full racks in three months. Pregnant females return to the same calving grounds they know and always use—which are now endangered by the Kvalsund mine. Centuries-old mats of branching, ground-growing reindeer lichen emerge from snow. Buds turn birches purple and pines bright green.
The herders watch the birds, the snow buntings and ptarmigans, the ravens and bluethroats. They watch the breakup of the ice and the creeks so cold the water burns. Mostly they watch their animals, how the reindeer jump and move, what they focus on, and where they will go next.
Juliana Hanle was a Fulbright grantee to Norway and is currently an Associate Producer on WINGS, a 3D Giant Screen film about birds in the Great Plains.