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Sweden: Open pit mine will endanger indigenous lands and the environment – UN experts

10 February 2022

GENEVA (10 February 2022) - UN human rights experts* today urged Sweden not to issue a licence for an iron-ore mine in the Gállok region, home of the indigenous Sámi people, saying the open-pit mine will generate vast amounts of pollution and toxic waste, and endanger the protected ecosystem including reindeer migration.  

The proposed project by the British company Beowulf Mining and their fully-owned Swedish subsidiary Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB is close to the World Heritage Site of Laponia in the northernmost part of the country. 

“We are very concerned by the lack of good-faith consultations and the failure to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the Sámi, and over the significant and irreversible risks that the Gállok project poses to Sámi lands, resources, culture and livelihoods,” said the experts. 

An open pit mine will generate large amounts of dust containing heavy metals, and the deposit of toxic waste in tailing ponds will impact the environment and water sources, they said. Intense daily transport of iron concentrate by rail and road will directly affect the Sámi and their livelihood and culture as the traditional migration routes of reindeer will be cut off. Impact on the reindeer herding practice would jeopardise the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing of the nearby Laponia area. 

The existence and development of reindeer herding is a fundamental condition for the survival of the Sámi culture. Reindeer herding - which, by Swedish law, is a right, guaranteed to the Sámi people - remains a primary source of livelihood in the area. 

“There has been insufficient assessment and recognition of the environmental damage the mine will cause,” the experts said, adding that the government has assumed international legal obligations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment. 

International expert bodies have repeatedly raised concerns with the Swedish Government over the failure to respect the international standards and rights of indigenous peoples in domestic legislation, notably the Minerals Act and the Environmental Code. 

“This has serious consequences on the Sámi as mining concessions have been issued without consultations with, or the consent of, affected communities,” the UN experts said. “Historically, the balancing of interests set out in the Environmental Code has weighed in favour of economic gain and the lobby of extractive companies.” 

After years of debate and negotiations, on 27 January 2022, Sweden enacted a national law on consultation, which requires the Government and State administrative authorities to consult representatives of the Sámi people before making decisions on matters that may be of particular importance to the Sámi.

“While the law is not yet in force, we call on Sweden to construct future good-faith relations with indigenous peoples at the national level, based on recognition of their cultural heritage and traditional livelihoods,” the experts said. “A decision not to approve the Gállok project can demonstrate a watershed shift from past injustices.

“Indigenous peoples and their knowledge are vital for sustainable environmental management of natural resources and biodiversity conservation, both of which are essential elements for combating climate change and fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals on climate action and the conservation of biodiversity.” 


* The experts: José Francisco Cali Tzay (Guatemala) is the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. He is Maya Kaqchikel from Guatemala, with experience in defending the rights of indigenous peoples, both in Guatemala and at the level of the United Nations and the OAS. He is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Arizona. David R. Boyd (Canada) is the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment. He is an Associate Professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia.  

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what are known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, is the general name for the Council's independent investigative and monitoring mechanisms that deal with specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity. 

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