A Green Shift? Mining & resistance in Finland, Sweden, Norway & Sápmi

This extract from 'A Green Shift?', a new dispatch from the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network, explores contradictions, crimes and resistance unfolding at Fennoscandia's re-expanding extractive frontier.

Finland, Norway and Sweden have, for many, become synonymous with engineering and technology, high social and environmental standards and world-class regulation.

They are also long-time industrial producers and, to some extent, exporters of a variety of minerals and materials, from stone to metal. Finland hosts the largest nickel and gold mines in Europe, and Sweden the largest iron mine accounting for 80% of EU production.

Images from mining sites across Fennoscandia, including the Kiruna and Taalvivaara mines. Photos: Wikimedia

In the 2010s, these countries began to proclaim themselves as leaders in a new, ’green economy’ and/or ’green transition’. In particular, they have emphasised their leadership in ’sustainable mining.’

In Norway, gas and oil producers claim to be the world’s ‘cleanest’ and ‘most carbon-efficient,’ leading the transition to a low-carbon future- a narrative also used by Finnish oil company St1. The Geological Survey of Finland in 2012 introduced the concept of ‘green mining,’ and in the same year Norway began promoting the idea of the ‘green shift'. In this narrative, the mining industry - operating at world-leading standards- is positioned and promoted as a key player in accomplishing the transition to a post-fossil fuel society.

As in many Western European nations, the number of mines in Fennoscandia decreased towards the end of the previous century. However, from around 2005, this trend began to be reversed.

Finland and Sweden recorded high rates of investment in exploration and project development, a trend observed in Norway slightly later. Production started to increase as well. Mine production in Finland rose from 4,8 million tons of ore in 2005 to more than 95 Mt in 2018 (including waste rock). In Sweden it rose from 50 Mt in 2005 to 86 Mt in 2019.

Norway has followed a different path. No new mines have been opened in this period, however, the Sydvaranger Gruve AS iron ore mine was re-opened from 2009 until bankruptcy in 2015, during which time the nation’s metal production doubled. Norway produced 1,47 Mt of metal ore in 2006 (12 Mt of industrial minerals and stone), while in 2019, the production of metal ore was 2,2 Mt (10,1 Mt of industrial minerals and stone).

Map showing mining activity across Norway and Sapmí in Norway. Produced by YLNM. Sources: see map.

One must also account for specifics in production. In Sweden, mine production has been concentrated on metal ores. Norway has extracted predominantly industrial minerals and stone. Finland can be said to lie in-between these two poles.


The ownership and governance of mines in the region has undergone significant shifts in recent decades, with profound consequences.

A Samí blockade at the Jokkmokk/Gállok mine, owned by UK-based mining multinational Beowulf Mining. Photo: EJ Atlas

Until the 1990s, the largest mines in all three countries were state-owned. Since that time, through the signing of the EEA agreement and legislative changes, Fennoscandian governments have one-by-one decided to open to investment in mining not only to companies from the EEA/EU zone, but to the entire world.

International companies ‒ large, mid-tier and ‘juniors’ - have now entered national markets en masse. Meanwhile, already established mining companies have continued to explore and expand their operations. Each country has different prospecting and exploration permitting regimes and legislation, but permitting for mining has expanded across the board.

At the end of 2019, Sweden had 586 exploration permits covering 2.27% of land (9,250 km2). Norway had 626 active exploration permits. At the end of 2019, compounded reservations, exploration applications and exploration permits in Finland amounted to no less than 11% of the country’s area (37,170 km2), of which 1,869 km2 were under exploration.
Map showing mining activity across Sweden and Swedish Sapmí. Produced by YLNM. Sources: see map.

In each country, there has been a specific combination of policies and legislation to support mining expansion, however, the common trait is the role of the state predominantly as a ‘facilitator’ rather than investor and developer, as was the case historically. Since 2010, all three countries have introduced new Mineral Strategies that are principally geared towards the expansion of mining and making these nations attractive to foreign investors.

In Finland and Sweden mining royalties are almost non-existent and corporate tax is lower than the EU average. The investors’ perception of pro-mining politics, permitting processes, highly skilled labour force and infrastructure, advanced digital and freely available geological data, as well as welcoming taxation, royalty and licensing fees have made Finland and Sweden into some of the most attractive mining investment jurisdictions in the world. Taxation depends on a range of factors, however comparative research shows that “Norwegian tax levels seem to be somewhat higher than in Finland and Sweden, which in turn rank among having the lowest taxes on mining companies in the world in other studies.”

Map showing mining activity across Finland and Finnish Sapmí. Produced by YLNM. Sources: see map.
If mining revenues to the landowners and to the state are very low, the question is: what is motivating these states to support the expansion of extraction?

One of the dominant narratives has been the promise of job creation and boosting local economies. But research on new mine openings looking at demographic and employment trends reveals a far more complex picture than the rather simplified promises of direct and indirect increase in jobs and corresponding regional development.

While acknowledging that it is hard to estimate potential long-term developments of new mining operations, it can be asserted that they tie the locales into boom and bust cycles, as well as other volatilities caused by mining operations, such as environmental accidents.

The narrative of mining to fuel the ‘green transition’ has taken hold and captured the imagination of decision-makers in northern nations. Yet the general expansion of mining in these regions has not really followed this agenda.

In this period, we have observed the development of a significant number of high-value mining projects, particularly gold, but also diamond and even uranium, that cannot meaningfully be said to provide ‘critical raw materials’ for the ‘green transition.’

Disasters and injustices

The expansion of mining operations across Fennoscandia has led to a concurrent rise in social, environmental and economic issues and injustices.

Terrafame's Talvivaara mine- site of one of FInland's largest ecological disasters. Photo:

Many ‘junior’ companies with little capital and track record, and sometimes non-transparent (international) ownership structures, have been exploring and operating largely free of meaningful checks-and-balances.

Many small and large mining ventures have ended in bankruptcy (Lappland Goldminers, Sydvaranger, Northland Resources, Talvivaara). Company executives have been charged with corruption and speculation (Amarant Mining), and criminal negligence (Talvivaara). A Finnish public agency expert has been investigated in relation to Dragon Mining’s illegal dumpsite (Orivesi).

Despite the existence of, in theory, strong environmental protections and permitting regulations at a national level- including EU directives such as the EU Water Framework and the EU Habitats Directive- companies have committed environmental violations across the region. Some have even breached their permits over a longer period of time (Northland’s Kaunisvaara, Talvivaara/Terrafame).

Further environmental violations have been documented at Agnico Eagle’s Kittilä mine, Boliden’s Kevitsa mine, Dragon Mining’s Kaapelinkulma and Orivesi mines, Nordic Mining’s Laiva, Pahtavaara, Sotkamo Silver mine, Woxna Graphite’s Kringelgruvan mine.

Mine tailings at Agnico Eagle's Kittilä Mine, Finland. Photo: Svein Lund

The largest mining-related environmental disaster in Sweden took place in 2000 at Boliden’s Aitik mine, where a tailings dam was breached. The environmental consequences of these accidents and violations have added to an existing legacy of mining waste pollution, such as the Finnish state-owned Outokumpu mine’s toxic legacy in North Karelia and lake ecosystem damage in SW Finland. These examples demonstrate the cumulative effects of mining destruction.

The existence of ‘revolving doors’ between state authorities and the mining industry, with the potential for conflict of interest this engenders, came to the fore most dramatically in Talvivaara, a massive zinc-nickel-uranium mine in eastern Finland, extracting a low-grade deposit with a new bioheap leaching technology.

After a series of smaller failures, the mine caused two severe leaks into the surrounding lakes and rivers in 2012/3. The company was eventually bankrupted and later amalgamated, rising from the flames as a new state enterprise even as high-powered executives were charged with environmental crimes. The mine is today promoted as part of the responsible battery supply chain, notwithstanding scientific and activist reports of continued environmental impact, two court cases concerning the waste rock dump and the uranium exploitation permit, and a money laundering probe into the business dealings of the mine’s second-largest owner.

In Sweden, a 2015 report by the Swedish National Audit Office discovered financial liabilities regarding environmental monitoring and post-closure supervision and management of the country's mines. While a new database shows that two tailing storage facilities in Finland and two in Sweden face ‘instability issues.’

Based on this evidence, we can conclude that authorities have struggled to monitor and enforce existing regulations to hold the mining industry to account.

In the case of Norway, the country has also refused to abandon archaic and widely outlawed practices including submarine tailings disposal. It remains one of the few countries which allows for tailings disposal in the sea, with two planned and highly contested mines, as well as one mine reopening, all planning to use this method of waste disposal.


Many of the biggest and most impactful mines in the region have historically been and continue to be located in the homeland of the Indigenous Sámi People - Sapmí.

A boat on the banks of the Utsjoki, in the Finnish part of Sapmí. Photo: Tero Mustonen

Sámi lands – known collectively as Sápmi ‒ today comprise the northern-most parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia.

Historically the Sámi maintained nature-based life ways further south in Fennoscandia, too, but they have been pushed north by expansionist and settlement policies of Fennoscandian states and their predecessors.

The days of direct displacement and assimilation may be over, but unjust policies continue to adversely impact the Sámi and their territories in the context of contemporary nation-states. These unjust policies are often connected to the extractive industries, including mining.

Sámi traditional territories have borne the brunt of mining in the European north since the beginning of the modern colonial expansion, the origins of which can be traced to the opening of the Swedish Crown’s mines in Nasafjäll/ Nássavárri in the first half of the 16th century. Subsequently, some of the largest mines in the region and in Europe have been opened and operated in Sápmi: Swedish state-owned Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB) mines in Malmberget and Kirunavaara; Boliden’s mines in Skelleftefältet and Aitik; Elkem’s Tana, Sydvaranger and Kaunisvaara mines, and many others.

A 1646 map of the Nasafjäll/ Nássavárri silver mines. Image: Wikimedia

These projects have been implemented without Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Sámi villages (siida) and communities. In Sweden, the great majority of mining waste is situated in Sápmi, in Boliden and LKAB’s mining districts. Many operations are ongoing and expanding. At the same time, Sápmi is exposed to a large number of new developments and exploration projects.

In addition to mining, Sámi People and their livelihoods are impacted by other extractive industries, such as industrial forestry, hydropower, wind power and infrastructure development (roads, railways). The combination of these have severely fragmented and limited vital livelihood activities, hunting, fishing, reindeer herding and others. Further to the fragmented landscape, enormous pressure is posed on Sámi villages through fragmented planning processes: different legislations, involved entities, and brings taxing consultation and litigation processes upon the communities.

This intersection of different industrial impacts can be observed most keenly in the cases of Beowulf Mining’s planned Gallok/Kállak mine and the Finnish government’s planned Arctic Railway. Both projects are firmly opposed by Sámi affected communities.

The Samí-led Gallok/Kallak mine blockade, photographed in 2013. Photo:

Each Fennoscandian state recognises, or fails to recognise, the consultation rights of Sámi communities to a different degree. There are Sámi parliaments in each of the three countries, but they enjoy varying degrees of political power. In February 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee decided that Finland breached the Sámi rights by interfering in the Sámi parliament electoral roll. Only Norway has so far signed the ILO 169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, but despite this there have been several lawsuits against the Norwegian state related to reindeer herding rights and wind industry developments on grazing land. The actual water and land rights, including the Right to Say No to unwanted projects, are not guaranteed in any of the three nation-states.

In Rönnbäcken/Raavrhjohke, the nickel mine project would affect hundreds of local Sámi people but the majority have been excluded in the decision-making process. There is no consent. Local Sámi organisations filed a complaint to the UN Committee on Racial Discrimination, which, in November 2020, published an opinion that Sweden violated the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination through the lack of consultation of the Sámi in the permitting process and recommended for it to be undertaken again, and for the state to revise its mining laws to assure Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the indigenous people.

Mining projects in Sápmi are generally met with strong opposition and resistance, often in coalition with other locals and with environmental organisations. In the period we cover in this report, there has been strong Sámi-led opposition to mining projects in Biedjovággi, Gállok/Kallak, Käsivarsi/Giehtaruohtas, Repparfjorden/Riehppovuotna, Rönnbäcken/Raavrhjohke, Utsjoki/Ohcejohka. Sámi communities continue to tirelessly struggle for their rights to self-determination and nature-based livelihoods across the whole region. The land and the people have been disproportionally impacted, and the pressures remain great. However, recent legal victories give hope that long-lasting change may become reality.

Northern mining for a 'Green Shift'?

“Do not pollute our future” (banner). March against sea dumping in Repparfjorden/Riehppovuotna the Sámi National Day. The Parliament at Olso, February 6, 2016. Photo: Mina Røed / Natur og Ungdom.

Players in the northern mining industry are investing heavily in presenting mining companies as the deliverers of a low-carbon future. Ministers, other government representatives and sometimes academics are invited to regular industry conferences where this greenwashing exercise takes place, but civil society and affected communities rarely enjoy meaningful access and participation. This exclusion, amongst many other factors, casts serious doubt on the industry’s claims that mining companies will be: “climate neutral suppliers of crucial raw materials for a successful European Green Deal.”

On current evidence from mining-affected areas in the North, the EU and North European countries much vaunted ‘world class legislative frameworks’ and so-called ’responsible mining practices’ do not guarantee that the mining industry can and will be well regulated.

‘Insourcing’ raw materials from Europe is framed in moralistic terms by the mining industry. They promote the repatriation of mining operations to Europe and the North as a way for European citizens to take on their fair share of the sacrifice the industry and politicians deem necessary for a clean energy transition to take place.

This argument is deliberately misleading on two counts: First, mining never left North Europe. In fact, in the 21st century it has reached unprecedented scales, especially on the lands of historically marginalised people like the Sámi. Second, without drastic changes to the world’s growth-based economic system, increasing mining in Europe will not necessarily lead to a decrease in mining elsewhere in the world.
“Give us a mining industry for the future! No to mining waste in Norwegian fjords!” (Banner). Civil disobedience training camp in Repparfjorden/Riehppovuotna, Norwegian Sápmi. June 2014. Photo: Mina Røed / Natur og Ungdom.

Beneath a veneer of green, the mining industry’s ‘business-as-usual’ plans to profit from the energy transition will see northern mining companies from Finland, Norway and Sweden expand their impacts on ecosystems, local and indigenous communities around the world. Mining companies based in these countries have been and are active in other EU countries and beyond, in so-called ‘third countries’ of the Global South. Many of these operations have caused grave environmental impacts and some have been accused of serious human rights violations (Boliden, Lundin Group).

The Government Pension Fund of Norway invests in a large number of mining companies worldwide, including those with much-criticised track records. Swedish and Finnish public and pension funds are also invested in many mining companies. Finnish state-owned company Outokumpu, once a mining giant, has since the 1990s transformed into a steel-making colossus, operating in 30 countries over 6 continents. Norwegian state-owned gas and oil giant Equinor (previously Statoil) extracts and explores in more than 30 countries across all the continents.

As well as these well-established ventures, Fennoscandian companies and states are looking to new extractive frontiers. The Norwegian Government, for example, has made its desire to exploit the deep sea through mining plain. A Seabed Mineral Act has been introduced, and the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate is running mineral exploration of the seabed.

Beyond mineral extraction, Finnish and Swedish companies are also exporters of mining equipment, expertise and consulting services (e.g. Metso Outotec, spin-off of Outokumpu). The three countries are also important arms producers and exporters, with ties to the mining sector that are in dire need of further public investigation.

Manifestation for “Fast mark, rent vatten och levande kulturarv” (‘Firm ground, clean water and living cultural heritage’). Sergelstorg, Stockholm, April 27, 2019. Photo: mirko nikolić.
Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish mining industries and interests today do not stop at the national borders nor within the European continent. This fact both undermines virtuous industry narratives about a just transition and highlights the need for increased due diligence and public scrutiny on mining in these nations, and a necessary reckoning with the far-reaching (neo)colonial legacies.

Deep rooted, well-networked, international

Public scrutiny of mining operations and frontline resistance are growing in tandem with the mining industry’s expansion and increased impacts.

Mining protests in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Sapmi.

Civil society organising critical of the mining industry in the region, while being rooted locally, operates nationally and internationally through alliances, networks and coalitions. From direct action on the ground to juridical and institutional processes, the work of these organisations keeps pushing mining policy and legislative change onto and up the public agenda. At the same time, many assert non-extractivist alternatives and imaginaries for life-sustaining modes of development.

At European level, critiques of the EU’s pro-mining policies are increasingly being articulated. Two recent examples include the ‘Joint civic statement on the European Horizon 2020 project MIREU,’ signed by organisations from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain, and the ‘Open Letter to the EU Commission to align critical raw materials sourcing plans with the interests of the planet, communities and the climate’, signed by 234 civil society organisations, communities and academics.

Anti-extractivist work in Europe is taking place under the banner of climate justice and international solidarity that originates and is reciprocated well-beyond Europe’s borders. Human rights and rights of indigenous peoples are given paramount importance in these activist responses, and particular focus is given to co-operation and continuing good relations with Sámi-led organisations.

Far from being localised, ‘not-in-my-back-yard’ struggles, as mining companies and politicians present them, communities’ resistance to mining in the European North is deep rooted, principled and internationalised.

This interactive story is taken from:

A Green Shift? Mining and resistance in Fennoscandia (Finland, Sweden, Norway) and Sápmi

Authors: Svein Lund, Arne Müller, Snowchange Cooperative (Noora Huusari, Tero Mustonen)

Editor: mirko nikolić (YLNM)


We wish to thank everyone who helped with input, reviewing and/or visual materials. Special thanks to Ignacio Acosta, Mose Agestam, Gunilla Högberg Björck, Carina Gustavsson, Janne Hirvasvuopio, Mika Koskinen, Rauna Kuokkanen, Sanni Laine, Ingegjerd Meyer, Susanna Myllylä, Jari Natunen, Marie Persson Njajta, Stellan Oscarson, Lisa Wanneby. Acknowledgement of these colleagues does not imply their endorsement of the views expressed in this paper.

We dedicate this report to all those communities resisting unwanted extraction and raising their voices for a post-extractive future in the North and beyond.


Created with an image by Finmiki - "winter sea frozen"