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The Vanishing Town of Kiruna

Updated: May 27, 2020

Every place that draws travelers, like the Ice Hotel, has a main attraction and at least one lesser known back story. Kiruna is the small town that you fly into to get to the Ice Hotel. Like me, most people hop off the plane, walk past the "welcome" ice sculpture, and into baggage claim. Then, after collecting luggage, they get into a bus or taxi and leave Kiruna behind. Kiruna, however, is also leaving itself behind. I learned this from a Saami guide who drove us between the Ice Hotel and her farm on two different days so we could horseback ride and learn about Saami culture. The story I relate comes mostly from the guide, a young (20-something) woman whose family has been living in this area for generations, along with other Saami.

The life of the Saami is inextricably bound to the wild reindeer of Sweden. The animals (estimated to be more than 10,000) migrate throughout Scandinavia. The Saami follow the migration, managing the herd in the process. In the old days, they followed the reindeer on foot. The Saami would gather and corral the reindeer, mark them as to which family managed them, count the herd, and kill what they needed to survive. The reindeer are used for meat and clothing. The Saami traveled in the back country for long periods of time following the reindeer.

With the introduction of the snowmobile, the Saami have a much easier time of managing the herd. They don't need to be away from their family for so long. The migration of the reindeer has also speeded up. When the Saami were on foot, they steered the reindeer at walking pace. With snowmobiles, the reindeer are allowed to move more quickly.

The Saami don't feel they own reindeer. Nor do they feel they own the land. So years ago, when the King at the time tired to give the Saami land, they replied that they don't own the land. The King either didn't understand this noble philosophy or chose to take advantage of it. He gave the land around Kiruna—or at least the mining rights—to Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB), a Swedish mining company. Started in the 1890's, the ming produces iron ore pellets. Since the mid 20th century, the company is owned by the Swedish government.

I sat in stunned disbelief when my Saami guide told me how much iron ore leaves the mine each day. But with a revenue of 31.133 billion SEK, that comes out to more than 82 million SEK per day (13 million USD), with the net profit of one-third that.

Imagine how much iron ore has come out of the ground over the past 125 years. It is so much that the mine has been extracting from under the town and plans to continually expand under the town. Hence the need to move the entire town. In fact, LKAB is in the process of buying the town, home-by-home, a process that has been going on for a few years and will continue until each property is bought. One of the main highways will close soon due to undermining.

The Saami aren't happy with the mine and town move because it interferes with their age-old reindeer herding practices. It's my understanding that the vibrations, land deformation, and other mining side effects disturb reindeer migration routes. Saami won't be allowed to herd in these areas.

My Saami guide has been fighting as best she can against the unstoppable forces of mining and the Swedish government. It was heart breaking for me to hear her tell of when she learned her father took a job in the mine so he could make a better life for his family. He did this while she was away at school. I'm sure it tore him apart to do it. He is probably like many Saami of his generation.

I admire my guide's courage and spirit. I hope she continues to fight for her culture.

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