While local elected officials were celebrating with cake, protests poured in over the Conservative state government’s decision on Thursday to finally allow mining operations on a mountain plateau in Finnmark. It’s expected to generate 300 new jobs in the area, but can also disrupt Samis’ reindeer grazing while dumping debris and tailings into the fjord below.
“This must be celebrated,” Terje Wikstrøm, the mayor of Kvalsund, told state broadcaster NRK even though he’s from the opposition Labour Party. Kvalsund is an economically hard-pressed municipality not far from Hammerfest. While the latter has benefited from offshore and gas operations, Kvalsund has struggled for years and warmly welcomes the prospect of so many new jobs.
“They mean a lot for a small community like Kvalsund, and will undoubtedly create new growth in the region,” Wikstrøm believes. Kvalsund has less than 1,000 residents, and even ranked as the worst municipality in Norway in 2016 in terms of delivering services to its residents. Opportunities for economic growth have remained limited.
The government’s decision to allow highly controversial mining operations in the mountains above the Repparfjord “will strengthen the business foundation in the north,” agrees Trade Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen of the Conservatives, and “contribute positively to development, new jobs and new competence.” Plans by mining company Nussir ASA call for extraction of copper and other metals, including possibly gold and silver, that Isaksen also claims are much in demand worldwide.
The plans also involve, however, the dumping of dirt, rock and other tailings from the mining into the nearby Repparfjord, long known for its wild salmon. That’s set off loud protests for years, and the decibel level rose immediately after the government granted its mining concession on Thursday. Not only do the Sami feel that the government has rolled over their rights to the land once again, environmentalists and even the president of the Sami Parliament claim the operation will “kill the fjord” as an important source of fish and other seafood.
By mid-afternoon, protesters numbering more than three times the population of Kvalsund were threatening to chain themselves together and resort to other means of civil disobedience to halt the mining project. Among those encouraging illegal protests to persuade the government to change its mind is Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, the Sami singer and activist who earlier headed the environmental organization Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth) in Finnmark.
“I really believe that it’s my duty and everyone else’s to stand up and oppose this all we can,” claimed Isaksen, who has become a national celebrity after winning Norway’s entertainment competition Stjernekamp (Battle of the Stars) last year and graced the covers of magazines last week. “Even if it means we must break the law, I believe it’s our duty. I’ll chain myself for a year if that’s what it takes to turn around.”
Local officials approved the plan in 2012 and protests were strong then as well, also when it won preliminary green lights from the environmental and trade ministries in 2014 and 2016. Opponents were blasting the government’s latest decision announced Thursday, which comes just a month after Prime Minister Erna Solberg expanded her government coalition. It now holds a majority in Parliament.
Trade Minister Isaksen insists the decision includes restrictions aimed to protect reindeer herding, “especially during the calving period.” He also suggested on national radio Thursday that the mining operation can even boost the so-called “green shift,” by providing metals needed for battery production, for example.
‘Environmental consequences evaluated’
Isaksen also said his ministry had evaluated the environmental consequences of dumping mine tailings into the fjord, which is known for its wild salmon stocks. “We have been reassured that the deposits won’t occur with unacceptable effects on either the environment or the seafood business,” Isaksen said.
Environmentalists and climate-friendly politicians are far from convinced.
“It’s just incredible that a government in 2019 opens up for using the Repparfjord, a national salmon fjord, as a garbage dump for the mining industry,” Lars Haltbrekken, the former leader of Naturvernforbundet (Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth) who’s now an MP for the Socialist Left party, told NRK. His successor at Friends of the Earth was just as upset, with Silje Ask Lundberg called the mining plans “one of the most environmentally unfriendly industrial projects in Norway’s history.”
Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sami Parliament (Sametinget) in Finnmark, called the decision “very disappointing” and said Sametinget will appeal to King Harald at the Council of State.
The mining company that will be in charge of the operation, Nussir ASA, claims it has competence and knowledge of how “storing” the mine tailings in the fjord will affect the fjord’s waters. “We can promise the Kvalsund community that this will be done in a proper manner,” Nussir CEO Øystein Rushfeldt told NRK. He called it “an historic day for Kvalsund” because the new mining operation will provide “incredibly great change for a community that will go from being a place folks moved away from, to a place where many exciting things will happen.”
Kvalsund’s Vice-Mayor Jan Arvid Johansen, who’s a coastal Sami himself, welcomes Nussir’s plans and joined Mayor Wikstrøm in calling Thursday “a day of joy for the residents of Kvalsund, Finnmark and Norway.” He believes Nussir will produce “the cleanest copper on the market,” since it will be extracted in accordance with “the strongest environmental demands that can be found in mining operations.”
Wikstrøm claimed he had “full respect” for the opinions of the mining opponents. “But we live in a democracy and must follow up on legal measures.” He said that when the Sami Parliament fights for Sami interests, “they forget that Kvalsund is a coastal Sami community that also needs development.”
Gaute Eiterjord, national leader of Natug og Ungdom, said protesters were mobilizing quickly, meanwhile, and gearing for what may amount to the biggest protest action involving civil disobedience since those against the damming of the Alta River, to produce power.