You have to slalom in the middle of the woods, on the back of a snowmobile to approach the deposit. On the surface, nothing lets guess the richness of the subsoil, if not this drill, noisy, which probes the ground, explores and tirelessly extracts the rock. ” How’s it going ? Pretty good ! The rock is a bit hard, but that’s ok,” smiles Aki Nivakoski, who pilots the machine for the Arctic Drilling Company. The deposit that arouses so much appetite, so much hope, is there, under our feet, 500 meters deep. ” These drilling companies are very capable of working all year round in these conditions, let’s say… “arctic!” », explains Laura Lauri*,* geologist for the LKAB mining company, 100% owned by the Swedish State*.* At the end of March, temperatures still drop regularly during the day to minus ten degrees. And “the beautiful days are coming” we often joke here.
The largest known deposit in Europe
It was in January that the Swedish mining giant, in the presence of the Minister of Energy, officially announced its discovery. “Rare earths are metals used in many things like wind turbines or electric vehicle batteries,” says Laura Lauri, construction helmet on her head and fluorescent yellow jacket. This deposit is enormous: it is the largest referenced in Europe. And when we know how dependent Europe is on raw materials imported from elsewhere, my opinion is that we should take everything that can be found and used here”.
But the company that already extracts 80% of European iron from the land of Kiruna is not alone here. The region is also the ancestral land of the Sami, the last indigenous people of Europe*. “Reindeer are the animals I live for. I would do anything for them”,* summarizes Niila Inga, who accompanies her animals from the mountains to the pastures, depending on the season. “The Kiruna mine has already taken a lot of land from us. The opening of a new mine in this area could cut off the last migration route of our reindeer between their different pastures. When you look at the history of Kiruna, we have adapted for 130 years already. But there, we are on the edge of the abyss: we cannot do more”. Reindeer who can no longer move to feed, it would be, he says, their certain death. “We have the right to still live our tradition and our culture”.
The Sami sacrificed in the name of the energy transition?
The lands of the Sami, once vast, now look more like a Swiss cheese, a puzzle, with pieces still miraculously hanging in places. The town of Kiruna also encroaches on former grazing areas. Especially since “we are moving” explains Sigried Vestling, Franco-Swedish architect, currently in charge of the transformation of the city. “To extract iron ore, LKAB goes deep underground. This causes land subsidence which is impacting the city. We have to move about a third of the city center”. The construction site is colossal. The town hall has already been moved, a few kilometers away. The Red Church will soon follow. 3000 accommodations in total and all at the expense of LKAB. “The new deposit is located in a place where we have just moved housing, where we have just built. We don’t know yet if it will have an additional impact. Kiruna exists because there is a mine. One does not exist without the other. We accept, as inhabitants, to move so that the activity continues but it is still complicated because it affects his property, his memories. And there are also the Sami, who have their land here. What do we prioritize? The ore and its wealth? Or reindeer, nature and the Sami? ».
In the depths of the earth, in the heart of the iron mine already in operation, Anders Lindberg, communicating from the mining company, says he is well aware of these issues. “We understand that the Sami are worried. But we hope to minimize the impact and compensate for it too. Not by large sums of money but we could put fences near the mine, to prevent the reindeer from entering it and build bridges over the railway tracks, roads for the reindeer to cross “
First iron, then rare earths
Karin Kvarfordt Niia, Sami spokesperson, already sees herself being sacrificed, herself and her culture, in the name of the “green” transition. And this, even if the deposit will first be exploited for its iron, present in much greater quantities than the rare earths. “LKAB is trying to wrap this new mine in green color. They are smart! Everyone must understand that this new mine cannot be green. LKAB first wants to make money from iron ore which requires a lot of energy and CO2 emissions. What are called rare earths are in fact only a secondary product of the mine. Climate change is a fact. We have to do something, reduce our consumption and use these rare earths. But they must first be extracted from the mining waste. In Sweden, there are at least 500,000 tonnes of rare earths in this waste. That would be green”
Dig into the waste, ” we are going to do it “, but “it won’t be enough to cover the needs assures LKAB who still has to obtain permits but who also knows that the European Union is currently seeking to promote projects like his by accelerating and simplifying the procedures for the extraction of so-called strategic raw materials.