Skip to content

Mining plans creates intractable conflicts

Published: 17 March 2017

Plans to establish new mines divide local communities and the means for local actors to infuence the Swedish permitting process are limited. This is shown in new research on contested mine establishments in Rönnbäcken (Storuman), Kallak (Jokkmokk) and Rakkuri (Kiruna) – projects which all generated protest and significant media attention.

In a new report, researchers in political science and history at Luleå University of Technology and Umeå University have examined when and why conflicts over mining establishment arise and how these can be managed.

– The legal possibilities to influence the permitting process are limited and most of the local actors feel that they entered the process too late and in too few instances, and that the quality of consultation was inadequate. Actors opposed to mine establishment are not confident that their views will be heard in the official process will use other available instruments to delay and influence the process, for example activism or judicial appeals, says Karin Beland Lindahl, researcher at Luleå University of Technology.

Concern more issues than just the mine

Karin Beland Lindahl and her colleagues in Luleå and Umeå have used participatory research meetings, focus groups, interviews, questionnaires and analysis of policy documents to study conflicts over mining establishment, especially in the mountain region. In the three cases studied in Storuman, Jokkmokk and Kiruna the differencecs in opinion run deep and have their roots in fundamental values that involve more issues than just the mine.

– One important issue is how different actors perceive the place where mining is to take place and how they understand sustainable development. The likelihood of inducing strongly anti- or pro-mining actors to alter their positions fundamentally is probably low. Those who are in between are more open minded and dialogue may well influence their positions, she says.

Besides Sámi reideerherding communities and other Sámi organisations, those who are sceptical to mine establishment typically include environmental- and outdoor recreational interests as well as some village associations. Expectations of more jobs and local growth appear to be the most important driving forces of the positive attitudes. However, just because you happen to live in a mining town, you do not necessarily have to be in favor of new mine establishments.

– In Kiruna, where people are most favorable to mining in general, their specific attitudes to the  establishment of a possible mine in Rakkuri are more negative than the specific attitudes of people in Jokkmokk and Storuman. We believe it’s  because the labor market and population development is relatively favourable in Kiruna and that the localisation in Raakuri is expected to have negative impacts  on reindeer husbandry  and outdoor recreation, she says.

Participation and influence  is crucial

The mining industry is dependent on affected local communities’ acceptance of their operations. Increasing local actors' participation and influence in the permitting process can improve legitimacy and the conditions for making decisions in a democratic way, according to the researchers. Anna Zachrisson, researcher in political science at Umeå University, does not believe that conflicts can be avoided completely, but lack of participation and ambiguity risk exacerbating rather than handling them. Dialogue and consultation is unlikely to resolve the conflicts, but such efforts are important anyway. 

– There is little guidance on how and when the authorities are supposed to consult with local actors. Varying implementation of the regulations is perceived as unfair. In the report we have recommended the legislators to investigate what can be done to increase local participation in the permitting process, says Anna Zachrisson. 

More case studies are needed

Historical conflicts over Sámi rights to land and water continue to shape actors' attitudes to current mine establishments. According to the researchers, the rights issues will continue to give rise to natural resource conflicts as long as they are disputed. But all mining establishments do not cause conflict.

- More knowledge is needed about when, where and why natural resource conflicts occur and how they can be handled. We would need to look at additional and other types of cases to increase our understanding, says Karin Beland Lindahl.

In media