A Visit to Tärnaby in Sápmi

On 11 June 2015, I landed on Hemavan in Sápmi by plane with Leena Huss, professor of Finnish at the Hugo Valentin Centre of Uppsala University. It was my second visit for the second straight year. The plane flew from Arlanda to Hemavan via Vilhelmina with approximately 40 passengers. Those who reached Hemavan were only six including us. The arrival time was over 10:30 p.m. Sigrid Stångberg, former head-master of the Sami school in Tärnaby, came to see us at the rural airport in Hemavan. Under the mid-night sun, she drove us to a hotel in Tärnaby in 30 minutes.

Aerial view (photo by Marie Persson)


Leena Huss gave me an opportunity to accompany her to Tärnaby. She was planning to finalise a joint paper with her research counterpart Sigrid Stångberg on the revitalisation of the South Sami language in Tärnaby. Sigrid has taken the lead in revitalising their own language for decades in cooperation with others. For me, I would like to learn what is going on with respect to a large-scale mining project in Rönnbäck Tärnaby from Marie Persson, Master in System Science and a Sami graphic designer and founder of the network “Stoppa Gruvan i Rönnbäck i Björkvattsdalen Tärnaby” (Stop Rönnbäck Nickel Mining Project in Ume River, Tärnaby). Soon after the mining project became public several years ago, Marie has devoted herself to opposing it at the cost of her peaceful family life. It was in October 2012 in Uppsala at the Supradisciplinary Symposium RE: MINDINGS that her presentation on her activities against the mining project impressed me. Also, it was an unforgettable memory for me that Sigrid enthusiastically complemented Marie’s presentation on the symposium floor. At the moment, opposition to the mining project was connected with linguistic and cultural revitalization in my mind. Since then, I have been interested in Tärnaby.

Through a one-day meeting with Marie Persson, I came to know specific insecurities of the Sami in particular the South Sami caused by the Swedish State’s colonisation of Sápmi. In the 1920s, racial biologists measured Sami bodies to stigmatise the Sami as an inferior people. In the 1930s, the State relocated reindeer herders from the northernmost part of Sweden to the southern part of the reindeer herding area including Tärnaby. The closure of borders with Sweden by Norway and Finland prevented reindeer from moving across the borders, which led to a lack of grazing land in the north of Sweden. In that context, the State categorized the Sami into two groups: reindeer herders or members of the Sameby and non-reindeer herders. The North Sami, who relocated to Tärnaby, were mostly recognised as reindeer herders, while the South Sami, who came first and practiced their culture with fishing, reindeer herding, hunting, small-scale farming, traditional handicraft etc specifically in the Vapsten area, were not. This categorization has led to conflicts in the area.

Furthermore, in the 1950s and 1960s, water regulations for hydropower generation in the Ume River System submerged significant forest areas, fields and meadows, and exterminated the village of Rönnbäck (Öhman, M and M. Persson 2014: 106). As a consequence, “many people had to leave their homes, the memory and loss of which is still painful (Öhman, M and M, Persson 2014: 106)”. In the wake of such exploitation of water and land, further exploitation or the large-scale mining project has emerged. It is most likely to create several risks and long-term consequences. Marie Persson described it in detail as follows:

“The three open-pit sulphide mines would alter the landscape forever, leaving behind waste damps, roads and buildings as well as tailing dams needed to manage the toxic waters from the mining process. Apart from the landscape alteration there will also be noise pollution, vibrations, dust and increased traffic…In addition to the environmental risks being enormous, the planned mine is another severe encroachment on our cultural history. (Öhman, M and M, Persson 2014: 108-109)”

The South Sami in the Vapsten area including Rönnbäck, who have no membership of the Sameby as mentioned before, are excluded from decisions that affect them. The Sami community to which Marie Persson belongs is divided into a small number of proponents and a majority of opponents by the mining project. While driving to home from Rönnbäck with me, she voiced the fear that their struggle for survival has negative impacts on themselves, referring to their high suicidal rate and children’s high risk of mental and physical illness.

In September 2013, the Swedish Equality Ombudsman “called the situation for Sami rights in relation to extractive industry ‘alarming’ and urged the government to put an end to all discriminatory practices against the Sami (Civil Rights Defenders 2015: 11)”. At the same time, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expresses its concern that the Swedish government “allows major industrial and other activities affecting Sami, including under the Swedish Mining Act, to proceed in the Sami territories without Sami communities offering their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) (CERD 2013: 6)”. In January 2015, Civil Rights Defenders, Sweden’s international human rights organisation, recommends the Swedish government to legislate FPIC to any exploitation of natural resources in traditional Sami territory as well as to take other legislative measures (Civil Rights Defenders 2015: 12). In addition, the legislation of FPIC is confirmed by the two international human rights instruments: the General Recommendation No. 23 of the CERD, and the General Comment No. 21 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). The Swedish government is obliged to observe these instruments as State Party of international treaties in relation to them.

 (photo by Marie Persson)

From the viewpoint of human security, the mining project threats Sami livelihoods that are linked to culture, economic, food, health and community security, let alone environmental security. Opposition of the Sami led by Marie Persson to the mining project, which aims to ensure their political security, threats their personal security. In general, exploitation of natural resources in indigenous communities seems to cause a conflict between the mining industry and indigenous peoples. Exploitation and opposition of indigenous peoples to exploitation, however, exclusively impose threats on all types of human security of indigenous peoples. According to the UN Commission on Human Security (CHS), “human security seeks to protect people against a broad range of threats to individuals and communities and, further, to empower them to act on their own behalf (CHS 2003: 2)”. The opposition of Marie Persson and her supporters satisfies the above-mentioned definition of human security. In other words, Sami opposition can be perceived as a legitimate action for ensuring their human security. Given the fact that “governments retain the primary role and responsibility for ensuring the survival, livelihood and dignity of their citizens (UN General Assembly 2012: 2)”, the Swedish government is required to put the highest priority on the security of the Sami people over its mineral strategy that plans to drastically increase mineral production in a decade and more without any consent from the Sami people.

In April 2015, Marie Persson points out in her article that “Now we see people requiring a more responsible mineral policy, long-term sustainable local communities and respect for indigenous peoples’ rights (Persson 2015: 2)”. Based on her opinion, our first priority should be to review the mineral policy itself in terms of sustainability, human rights and human security, not to settle a conflict between the mining industry and the Sami in a shortsighted manner. Such a conflict is caused by an inconsistency that the exploitation, on the one hand, creates short-term economic benefits for the majority, while on the other hand, brings violation of human rights and insecurities to the minorities and disregards long-term economic activities, including Sami livelihoods. In essence, human rights, human security and sustainable economy ought to come before job creation based on unsustainable development.

On 14 July, I left Tärnaby with my gratitude for every arrangement of Leena Huss and Sigrid Stångberg for our visit to Tärnaby, and with inflexible determination that I will certainly promote my research of environmental and minority issues to support Marie Persson’s struggle in Tärnaby for decolonisation as part of legitimate aspirations for both self-determination and sustainable development.



Civil Rights Defenders. 2015. Joint submission to the UN Universal Periodical Review of Sweden. (Available at: http://www.civilrightsdefenders.org/files/UPR-Submission-Sweden-CRD-et-al.pdf (accessed 5 July 2015)).

Commission on Human Security (CHS). 2003. Human security now. (Available at: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/91BAEEDBA50C6907C1256D19006A9353-chs-security-may03.pdf (Accessed on 5 July 2015)).

Committee on the Elimination on Racial Discrimination (CERD). 2013. Concluding observations on the combined nineteenth to twenty-first periodic reports of Sweden, adopted by the Committee at its eighty-third session (12–30 August 2013). Available at: https://www.sametinget.se/61538 (accessed 11 July 2015)).

Öhman, M and M, Persson. 2014. Vision for a future at the source of the Ume River, Sweden – The battle against the Rönnbäck Nickel Mining Project. In: Gärdebo, J., M. Öhman and H. Maruyama (eds.). Re: mindings – Co-constituting indigenous / academic / artistic knowledges. Uppsala: The Hugo Valentin Centre Uppsala University.

Persson, M. 2015. The mining struggle in Sápmi and Sweden - the leading mining nation in Europe.

UN General Assembly. 2012. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly. A/RES/66/290. Available at: http://www.un.org/humansecurity/sites/www.un.org.humansecurity/files/hsu%20documents/GA%20Resolutions.pdf (accessed 6 July 2015)).

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Monday, July 13, 2015 - 12:36