Big find of raw materials: Mining forces Kiruna to move

Large resource find in Kiruna
Mining forces a Swedish town to relocate

By Kevin Schulte

In the north of Sweden, a whole town is being swallowed up by mining. Kiruna moves house by house. Rare earths are to be raised at the same location, which should make Europe independent of China. However, the residents see their millennia-old culture and way of life threatened.

Every night, the Erzberg in front of Sweden’s northernmost city is blasted a little further. It’s been like this in Kiruna for years. The city of 18,000 is located 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle and is famous for its iron ore mine. It wasn’t the city that came first, it was the mining industry. Swedes have been mining ore from two mountains in the region, Kiirunavaara and Luossavaara, since the 19th century. A settlement grew up around it, and in 1900 it was officially named Kiruna.

135 years later, Kiruna will be history again. At least where the city was founded in 1900. The city is moving a good three kilometers to the east, and the move must be completed by 2035 at the latest.

The city administration decided on the measure in 2007. Since then, whole houses have been brought to the new city and set down there by heavy transport. The 40 shops in total will also be transported from the old to the new city center. If all goes according to plan, Kiruna’s historic church will also move to its new location in 2026.

Because the iron ore mine eats into the city and swallows it up. Buildings get cracks and are no longer safe from collapsing.

Less CO2, more competitiveness?

The Swedish mining company LKAB will not stop its work, but on the contrary will continue to mine ore and will soon start digging a new treasure under the city: earlier this year it was announced that rare earths lie dormant under Kiruna, in the Per Geijer deposit. “It is by far the largest deposit of rare earths in Europe,” says LKAB boss Jan Moström.

The exact extent of the find is still unclear, but it is suspected that LKAB can mine at least one million tons of rare earths below Kiruna and thus meet Europe’s need for the most important building blocks for electric cars, cell phones and wind turbines – i.e. a green economy . Because that’s what rare earths are mainly used for.

The EU currently imports most of its needs from China. So far, 86 percent of the supplies are made available there. Because so far the important raw materials cannot be mined anywhere in Europe. Sweden’s Energy Minister Ebba Busch is therefore asking the “one million dollar question”: Can the European economy reduce its carbon footprint and at the same time strengthen its competitiveness?

Yes, that’s possible, says Busch. But only with new mining, because rare earths are essential for new technologies such as electric cars.

Last indigenous people of Europe

It will be a while before the treasure is found. Mining boss Moström expects it to start in 10 to 15 years. The reason for this is a long approval process and a complicated dismantling process. Know-how that Sweden does not yet have. Energy Minister Busch is nevertheless convinced that there is no alternative to the mining plan for Sweden and the whole of Europe. Because from an economic point of view, Sweden is “literally a gold mine” thanks to the find, according to the deputy prime minister.

However, the people of Kiruna suffer from this. Especially the Sami, the indigenous people of Lapland and the last indigenous people in Europe. It is estimated that around 30,000 of them live in the north of Sweden – some of them still traditionally from reindeer herding today. They fear that the new mining plans could endanger their way of life and their animals. It’s becoming “more and more difficult to continue with reindeer herding,” warns Stefan Mikaellson, deputy chairman of the Sami parliament, in Britain “Guardians”.

Mining group LKAB says that since the first mine opened in Kiruna in 1900, two Sami villages have had to adapt their reindeer herding routes. If rare earths are mined in the region, another village could be added, in addition to the city of Kiruna, of course.

Same already successful in court

But moving may not be enough. If rare earths are actually mined in the Per Geijjer deposit just north of Kiruna in the future, the land around it would be divided in two, criticize the Sami. The reindeer would thereby lose their last passage to the pastures. Reindeer husbandry, as practiced for centuries, would no longer be possible.

LKAB sees it differently. The mining company wants to build wildlife bridges so that animals can safely cross the region around the mine. He sells the deposit as an opportunity to go green in the fight against climate change, which also affects the Sami population. Probably more than many other Swedes.

The Sami still want to resist the expansion of mining. Climate change should not be stopped “on the terms of industry,” they say. It is very likely that the indigenous people of Lapland will continue to protest loudly against mining. And possibly go to court. The seeds have already been successful there several times in the past. For example, in 2021, when the Supreme Court in Norway declared two wind farms in the region illegal.

Otherwise house after house from Kiruna will keep moving and Per Geijer’s mine will get bigger and bigger. For the sake of the environment, some say. Mainly because of the industry, others say.

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