Mining companies are flocking to northern Finland as new deposits of gold, nickel and other minerals promise vast profits. But the area’s fragile wetland ecosystem is paying the price. Conservationists are so far fighting a losing battle.
Riikka Karppinen used to catch pike as long as her arm here. She and her brother would spend days exploring the marshy wilderness. It was eight years ago, when Riikka was just 10 years old, that she saw the first red sticks stuck into the ground. To begin with, there were only a few but before long there were hundreds. “No one cared much back then,” Riikka Karppinen recalls.
In the mean time, though, the red markers have given way to the machines. “You can hear the noise of the drills day and night,” says Karppinen. Anglo American (AA), one of the world’s biggest mining companies, went treasure hunting in Finnish Lapland, 120 kilometers north of the Polar Circle. And deep below the marshlands of Viiankiaapa are nickel deposits that AA has hailed as the find of the century.
Karppinen’s childhood paradise has now become a symbol of the rush for precious metals and minerals that has overcome the entire country. Foreign mining companies are flocking to Finland to mine its treasures. Here, in some of the oldest rock formations in Europe, lie reserves of valuable raw materials, with geologists describing the ore deposits as among the richest in the world.
Hoping for new jobs and investment, the Finnish government is welcoming prospectors, identifying and mapping the deposits and generously granting data and mining rights at cheap prices, even in sensitive areas. Gold, nickel and uranium hunters are even reaching into tourist and conservation areas in the country.
Some 40 companies are now carrying out hundreds of exploration projects across the country. The town of Sodankylä in Lapland is essentially surrounded by mining claims with several mines already in operation — and their tailings seeping toxins into surrounding lakes and rivers.
Long-suffering as Finns may be, resistance is growing. Fifty-three companies in the tourist sector are protesting against a huge gold mine in Kuusamo in north-eastern Finland, where Australian company Dragon Mining is conducting test drilling in full view of a popular ski resort. Containing 4.9 grams per ton of rock, the gold content is high, but so is the uranium content. Much of the radioactive element would likely end up in nearby lakes during processing. Moreover, vast quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide are released when the ground’s peat layers are dug up during drilling.
“The cost to the environment will exceed the profits from the gold mines,” warns the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation.
“The extent of the mining operations is gigantic and pollution is inevitable,” says geologist Matti Saarnisto, pointing out that Lapland’s waters are in danger of being contaminated with toxic elements such as arsenic, uranium as well as sulfates, cyanides and phosphates. Saarnisto and economics professor Olli Tahvonen are also critical of the sell-out of mining rights and are calling for a mining tax on the exploitation of raw materials.
Their demand recently found spiritual support, with the Lutheran Church agreeing at its meeting of bishops that Northern Finland should not be reduced to a “colony,” whose natural riches are plundered by international companies, with no regard for the environment.
Finland was an enthusiastic participant in the “Natura 2000,” an ecological network of protected areas founded by the European Union. It includes 66 square kilometers of Viiankiaapa, a region home to exceptional biodiversity, including 90 bird species ranging from the delicate red-necked phalarope to the mighty wood grouse. Twenty-one endangered birds and nine endangered plant types can be found among the wide variety of the marshy reserve’s flora and fauna.
“How can a mine have been allowed to open in a nature reserve like this one?” asks Riikka Karppinen. “We will never be able to recover what’s being destroyed.” She was a 17-year-old schoolgirl when she began her campaign against Anglo American — which Lapland’s leading newspaper Lapin Kansa compared to David’s battle with Goliath.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Spiegel Online website: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/mining-boom-underway-in-finland-in-the-search-for-mineral-deposits-a-864561.html