The stove gurgles as Sofia Olsson puts a chunk of wood into the fire, lifts the kettle and offers mugs of tea and grainy camp coffee to the small group reclining on reindeer skins around her. In the taiga forest and frozen marsh outside their snow-covered Swedish military tent, it’s -12C (10.4F). Last night, it was near -20C (-4F). But inside, it’s surprisingly comfortable.
Olsson and her fellow activists Jakob Bowers and Lan Pham have been here in the hamlet of Hukanmaa, in Pajala, Sweden’s most northerly municipality, on and off for more than a year, camping since December. The camp is an outpost of Forest Rebellion, an off-shoot of Swedish Extinction Rebellion, which says it is organising a campaign of “peaceful civil disobedience” with the Sami people against Arctic deforestation.
Some leading names in environmental activism have started to congregate in Swedish Sapmi, the Sami ancestral homeland, an area that stretches over parts of Finland, Norway and Russia. The German ecologist and author Carola Rackete – who made headlines in 2019 when she was arrested for captaining a ship that landed refugees on Lampedusa, Italy, without authorisation after a 17-day standoff – has arrived from her home in Norway.
A 15-minute ski across the frozen marsh, the Greenpeace activist Dima Litvinov has also set up a protest base. Litvinov was one of the “Arctic 30” who came to global fame in 2013 after being seized at gunpoint by Russian special forces and jailed for trying to halt Russian oil drilling in the Arctic.
Greta Thunberg has been up to the region, too, to oppose a planned iron ore mine at Gállok near the town of Jokkmokk. Sweden gave the disputed mine qualified approval in March on the basis that it will enable sustainable steel production and help cut carbon emissions, but Thunberg condemned the decision as “racist” and “colonial” because of its disregard for reindeer migration patterns and the impact it would have on Sami communities. On Twitter, she accused Sweden of “waging a war on nature”.
Defending the land rights of the Sami – semi-nomadic reindeer herders who are the EU’s only remaining Indigenous people – is fast becoming one of the big campaigning issues for activists across Europe, bringing together climate protesters in the Nordic states with veterans of ongoing German coal protests and the Mediterranean refugee crisis.
The Sami rights issue overlaps with the fight against climate inaction but it also threatens to drive a wedge between those green campaigners who believe green industry can provide some of the solutions and those who fear that it will come at the expense of the Arctic environment and the Sami who depend on it.
The number of international activists here is tiny for now, but as the battle to stop the Gállok mine and other green mega-industrial projects begin to be realised, Litvinov and Rackete expect many more will join the Arctic struggle.
Around the campfire this morning the debate is about future strategy. The immediate target of protests is logging in Swedish Sapmi. The group have recently succeeded in stopping the Swedish state-owned forestry company Sveaskog’s timber harvesting machine.
Nobody is celebrating yet, however. “There was some excitement that by putting up this relatively small camp for a day, we forced a reaction at the Sveaskog headquarters,” says Rackete. “But the forestry industry is not going to change its behaviour overnight.”
A consensus is reached about staying put for a month to make sure the company is true to its word, and to run training camps for activists in preparation for the Arctic battles ahead. “We want to give them experience of skiing, snowshoeing and living up here,” Rackete says, “because I really think you will see many more actions up here in the coming years.”
But Rackete, Litvinov and the others are convinced that to truly defend the Sami way of life, they will need to embrace what seems like a paradox and oppose renewable energy projects, including Arctic wind parks, “green steel” and other parts of the so-called green transition intended to help Europe meet its global climate obligations.
“If we have ambitions to really change things, to enable reindeer herding and Sami life to keep going, we’re going to have to mobilise against all sorts of extraction projects,” says Bowers. This, he adds, should include the “green transformation” of Sweden’s far-north, with its industry-leading plans for coal-free steel, its near-completed EV car battery gigafactory and the vast wind power projects needed to power it all.
The green industrial transformation of northern Sweden is central to the nation’s claims to become a climate world leader. In her inauguration speech in November, the prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, hailed the “ramping up of a green industrial revolution”, with “CO2-free steel production, battery factories … tens of thousands of new jobs” and 700bn kronor (£57bn) invested in green industry in Sweden’s Arctic north. “Sweden must show the outside world how the climate transition creates jobs and growth,” she said.
It’s easy to become enthused by the supposed climate benefits. The state company LKAB’s plans to produce hydrogen-reduced iron instead of iron ore pellets for example, promises to cut a Switzerland-sized chunk from Europe’s total carbon emissions by allowing steel plants to close their blast furnaces.
“All of this is like some sort of promise for the future, but it’s destroying what we actually have right now,” Bowers says. “We know that the Sami people have been able to live with their environment. But with these green projects, there’s no proof that it’s actually going to reduce emissions.”
Bowers falls back on an argument one might expect to hear from a fossil fuels advocate. “If you look at wind power, studies have shown an increase in emissions, because of all the mining and transport infrastructure.”
From the point of view of Henrik Andersson, a Sami reindeer herder, green industrial projects are worse even than the Malmberget iron ore mine, which started on Sami summer herding grounds back in 1735 and then, after a rail link was built in 1888, grew into one of biggest mines in the world.
Andersson, from the Gällivare reindeer herding district, contacted Extinction Rebellion two years ago, bringing activists up from southern Sweden and talking with them through the night in his remote cabin (and surprising the vegans among them with servings of reindeer stew and blood sausage).
Andersson and his community are on the frontline of the climate crisis. Sapmi recorded a temperature of 33.6C (92.5F) last July, its hottest for more than a century. Yet, at a reindeer corral outside – one could almost say inside – the city of Luleå, it’s also evident how some of the “green” infrastructure projects that are intended as solutions to climate breakdown are also making the herding lifestyle harder by taking away grazing land.
The weather this year has led him and neighbouring herders to graze their deer on the most southerly tips of their territories: the ice-bound islands just outside the city. Today’s corral is taking place right by the airport, a short drive from the city’s main retail park. “Because of industrialisation and deforestation, we have no other land to go to,” he says as we drive to inspect the deer. “So we need to take this last part, that is close to the big cities.” The decision has paid off. “Really nice reindeer, healthy and fat,” he says approvingly as we stand in a swirling mass of deer, grunting and jangling with bells.
Of the five areas where his reindeer go to calve, three, he says, are threatened by planned wind parks. “The reindeer will for sure not stay there when they have their calves, because that is when they are most afraid,” he says, citing a study from a Swedish agricultural university. It found that reindeer tend to keep at least 5km away from a wind turbine. They mistake shadows from the blades for passing eagles, he claims.
“This is land where my family have been since the iron age, and now, a windfarm with a life of about 25 to 30 years can force me from land where my ancestor put a name to all the mountains, to every river, and every creek.”
“Industry is industry, whether it’s green or not. It’s the same,” he tells me, once he has finished scanning the markings on the deers’ ears to ascertain that none are his. “The ordinary industry took some land, but the green industry wants to take even more, and we have no more land to spare. We have already passed the limit.”
Sweden’s green steel projects, he says, will need to be fed by new iron ore mines, such as Gállok ; all the so-called green industrial projects will require a massive increase in production of renewable electricity, meaning ever more wind turbines.
Märta Stenevi, one of the two leaders of Sweden’s Green party, acknowledges Sweden’s “shameful history of structural racism and discrimination of the Sami people”, but she believes a new “consultation law for issues which affect the Sami people”, which her party campaigned for and which came into force this March, can help solve the problem.
“Sweden’s green transition can take place together with the Sami and not at their expense,” she says. “It has to be done in close dialogue with the Sami so that locations can be found where it has the absolute least impact on nature, on the environment and on the Sami way of life.”
As the short spring day comes to an end, the young herders take a break to cook salted suovas – reindeer meat – over a fire and chatter about their night out in Luleå.
When I relay Stenevi’s thoughts to Henrik Andersson, he snorts. “Wherever you put windmills, we lose grazing land, so whatever they say, there cannot be any cooperation. There can maybe be small parks on the edge of a mine or far out to sea, but not these big machines, that is impossible.”
Crucially, the new law does not grant the Sami any veto rights, so Andersson doubts it will do much to help him in his battles against forest clearcuts and windfarms. “We need to have a veto,” he says. “To be able to say no.”
That the Forest Rebellion activists have set up their tent a 15-minute ski away from the Greenpeace house reflects a somewhat uneasy relationship between the campaigners even if they are united on the plight of the Sami. The charismatic Litvinov, with his stream of enthralling war stories from 33 years with Greenpeace, calls the Forest Rebellion group “the anarchists”, ridiculing them for their endless meetings, obsession with consensus and supposed lack of any clear strategy.
They in turn seem wary of being pulled entirely into his orbit. “You don’t like me!” he says in mock exasperation, throwing his hands in the air, when asking them why they don’t come to the house more. “No Dima,” Olsson shoots back. “You don’t like us.” Even so, a few days later, Litvinov hands the house over to the activists.
They all agree that “green industry” is a contradiction in terms. “They want us to believe that the same industry that put us into the environmental crisis is going to get us out of it,” Litvinov says, as we watch the reindeer herders.
“As long as we’re continuing to be stuck in a system of continuous growth and continuous economic extraction of resources, we’re still going to be going down.”
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