pcf podcast

FRICTIONS episode #4: Kirkenes mega-port and logistics in the Arctic: infrastructure's hegemonic potential

This episode of frictions focuses on the Arctic, home to the Sámi people – the only recognised indigenous group in Europe. New shipping routes and related logistics infrastructure are planned to cross the melting region, threatening their already precarious community life.

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Matti Aikio: “My own community is a community that for sure will be affected; at least if the railroad comes and if the Kirkenes port will be constructed in that scale. My own community where I come from, I know they are very threatened, frightened about this.”

Kirkenes, Norway’s northernmost coastal town has been marked on the Arctic shipping route, as a possible future mega-port. It is planned to be connected by train to Rovaniemi and Helsinki in Finland, and across the Baltic Sea to Estonia. This would be the first European stop on the Northern Sea Route, also called Polar Silk Road, shortening transit between Asia and Europe by up to 60%.

Matti Aikio, a Sámi artist, told us what this development - means for him:

Matti Aikio: “My father’s village’s reindeer herding district is called Lapin paliskunta - Lappi reindeer herding district and the railway line would go straight in the middle of it, because the village of Vuotso is in the middle of these two artificial manmade lakes, one of them is the biggest one in northern Europe, called Lokka, so the railway cannot go around them and has to go right in the middle. Since we have already lost so much land because of the forest industry and the tourist industry coming closer, and so on the system is already so endangered, we cannot have any new obstacles, any kind of infrastructure there, that would make a major change to the system. The people in my village  who are full time practising reindeer herding, some of them have told me that this would be the end the end of reindeer herding in our area.

The reindeer are being hearded in free natural pastures and depending on the region and the local reindeer herding culture you heard part of the year or all year long. Reindeer are basically like wild animal in the forest but they are just being gathered twice a year, in summer time with the ear marking and in the autumn winter time for the separation and slaughter and so on. Traditionally this reindeer herding culture has always been nomadic, so they migrate long distances, sometimes hundreds of km between the summer pasture and the winter pastures. In the Norwegian coast you would move in the spring you to the island in the northern coast of Norway, and this is still going on. Traditionally the reindeers would swim, now they are transported on a boat, but in some case they still swim; they spend the summer there on the island and they migrate back on the land. This system has been affected so much by the national borders of the Nordic countries, which is a long history, starting from the 1750s, maybe before but the border treaty from 1751, a very important border treaty, the first that separated the Sámi land in the northern Sámi area, but there was a additional protocol of that border treaty, which allowed Sámi people to continue migrate across the national borders, as if the border did not exist. Historically this is a very unique and special border treaty in this respect.

During this period of increased assimilation pressure of the Sámi culture, the reindeer herding culture has been very, very important for maintaining the Sámi language and culture alive, because of its nomadic nature. Because these reindeer herding and Sámi people have been nomads, they have always been sovereign in their terrain, they have been able to move without modern technology, in any kind of weather, so this is what helped in the long run to protect the culture and protect the language, because the language stays alive with the practices with the practical aspects of the culture. For example the reindeer language terminology is very rich in Sámi language, but when you loose some of the traditional practices, you start to forget those words and this is why, even if we speak the Sámi language and you go to the finish side of the border, if I go to meet some reindeer herders that practice the traditional nomadic, they have much richer vocabulary about reindeer herding culture that us for example. The reindeer herding culture is still so important because, when we start to ask ‘what does indigenous culture, indigenous people mean, and this is also in legal terms, under international law, when we have this kinds of threats, like the Arctic Railway, as long as we have this indigenous status, we can use the international law to protect our rights, culture and lands form the plans of the Finnish government or the Norwegian government, and so on. This is where reindeer herding culture is really essential because the living reindeer herding culture in the Sámi land is like our most powerful tool to protect, to keep those lands in our use, because if we stop practicing that then it is easier for the governments to take over them and build whatever kinds of infrastructure there.”

Infrastructure connects and disconnects time-space in multiple dimensions. In the context of the Arctic, it connects logistics hubs and commercial interests, consolidating national and super-national projects. But at the same time, it disconnects Indigenous communities from their land.

A temporal relation also emerges: the way in which infrastructural apparatus are conceptualised and promoted, resonate with colonial practices and memories of dispossession and disempowerment through assimilation. At the start of 17th century, the Swedish empire viewed the North as a silver deposit and supported settlers on Indigenous land. This period of domination and struggle continued during the consolidation of the Scandinavian nation states, when church and national education both discouraged and suppressed Sámi language and culture.

Matti Aikio: “The assimilation process and the colonisation never ended. With us, with Sámi people we are stuck in this never ending defence war position, where we are just like trying to defend what we have left of our land and our culture, and we know we cannot loose more. This kinds of plan will increase assimilation, because this kind of infrastructure will make it more and more and more difficult for the people in the local Sámi community to practice livelihood that is part of the Sámi culture and to make a living out of that. So this means that more and more people will have to find different kind of jobs, away from their areas, which means that they become more and more assimilated. So the local Sámi community become more and more assimilated. This is really a big problem.”

Infrastructure also plays a fundamental role in the extraction-circulation-accumulation cycle. Sápmi is a territory that suffers already enormous pressure from mining, as well as forestry, hydropower and tourism. Recent estimations identify the Arctic region as holding 20 to 30% of the world’s untapped gas and 5 to 13% of oil reserves. The catalytic potential of infrastructure for driving extraction is a further concern for Sámi people, as Christina Henriksen, president of the Sámi Council, explains.

Christina Henriksen: “The planned port and the large infrastructure dreams from some of the environment in Kirkenes, seems to be based on the expectations of increased production and increased extraction of natural resources, why would you have a large port with ships going to Asia if you are not going to extract something from the area? This is our main fear, that there will be more extractions in the Sámi area, in Sámi reindeer herding areas, which are already under large pressure from infrastructural projects, from industrial projects, from recreational projects and every kind of encroachment. So the pastures are already narrowed and simply we don’t have any more space to give, because only this infrastructure project seems to be planned to be on new areas, instead of using already in use by the industry. So the port project probably means that they will want to build more mines in the Sámi homeland, I suppose Russia would take care of its own business, make their own port and Murmansk is planning already infrastructural projects, a railway going down to the southern parts. I suppose you are aware of the so called Arctic railway project, the hoping dream of the mayor of Kirkenes to connect the city, so they are selling it as an environmental project, you know: railways, that’s good! But they would in fact split all the reindeer areas. This kind of infrastructure project and in particular the railway project would be a disaster for the reindeer herders in doing their livelihood of course but also for the environment, the ecosystem with the inhabitants. So the environment will be affected: the water around it, the large rivers, lakes, and as a prolongation of that, Sámi culture will be even more threatened than how it is already. So all these things are connected: our culture, our existence is closely connected to access to land, to our ancestral land.”

As the Norwegian Truth and Reconciliation Commission slowly starts to examine injustices committed by Scandinavian States against Sámi – including dispossession of land and resources – large financial investments are being pumped into the “Arctic Corridor”. The Mayor of Kirkenes has promoted the Arctic deep-water port in China, courting the interests of COSCO. Peter Vesterbacka – the developer of the hit game Angry Birds – is partnering with Chinese construction firms to build the tunnel from Helsinki to Tallinn. He also signed a preliminary deal with Kirkenes-based public development company Sør-Varanger for developing the Arctic railway. We spoke to the CEO of this company Kenneth Stålsett:

Kenneth Stålsett: “We focused especially on the Arctic Railway Projects and connecting this one with the harbour development in Kirkenes or in the Region. Kirkenes is a mining town and a company town built around the mine. You can see that the infrastructure here is more or less 100% built to have an efficient mine. At the same time Kirkenes is also located at the last western point before you enter the eastern market. So Kirkenes is a small town, but it is multinational and is a geopolitically interesting spot. We have had 10.000 inhabitants at least for 30 years. We are not growing and not necessarily declining. But what we are doing is a sort of a development in order to meet the new world, new trends and new competencies that we need and we really think that where we are located on the map gives us opportunities and of course logistics and the harbour development and the railroad are a part of the future visions we believe in. This combined with the general interest on the Arctic where we see a lot of money being pulled to the area. So we think we are located relatively nicely to take part in this development. But this development has to happen on the premises of the people that live up here and not of anyone else.

The Sámi have their traditional work, their reindeer herding, their culture. So it´s a melting pot between a lot of things up here, a lot of stakeholders and interests that need to be brought into debate, but at the same time we have the same needs: we need jobs, schools, housing, income.”

Examining what is meant by “WE”, and how it relates to power inequalities in this context, it becomes clear how frictions don’t merely occur because of different conceptions of development. They reverberate through non-consensual narratives that already fill spaces of exclusion. Despite the scale of this territorial transformation, no survey has been carried out across Sámi society about their needs in terms of jobs, education, and importantly, their relationship to the land. We have explored this issue with Christina Henriksen:

Francesca Savoldi: “Until what extent differences in the ideas of development count in this crashing of positions?”

Christina Henriksen: “Development based on our areas and our culture and our existence without including us is just… We are negative to that (laughing). The concept of informed consent is something that is rooted in the UN declaration of rights of indigenous people, indicating that we are informed when the plans are made early as possible that we can give a consent or dissent. Sámi communities would also develop but not putting our existence at risk, so sustainable development, and also turning the trend of mass production and eternal growth, because this is not possible. So this infrastructure projects are initiated to facilitate increased production with our natural resources from the Sámi area. That is just something that we don’t see necessary, and there is also where we often crash with the mainstream society and the majority mainly. The hunt for economic development is something that we don’t see the benefit of, also this development is done very often by people who are not rooted in the north, so the money don’t stay in the north, so why should we a source of wealth for someone who is not going to contribute to the development of our society? To develop our educational institutions, our culture houses and also to contribute to make sustainable employment in the areas that are seen are remote and wild but that it is our homeland and we want to live there.”

Francesca Savoldi: “There has been any discussion, dialogue or negotiation with Sámi around the port and railway project? How transparent have this been?”

Christina Henriksen: “I must say the process has not been very transparent, not only the Sámi, but even the local people in Kirkenes have been blindfolded when it comes to these large projects. It is characterised by great photos and promotion videos of the port itself, saying Kirkenes could be the new Shanghai, the new Rotterdam, as if this is what we want, as if this is why people live there. First of all, people in the north we don’t even have proper roads. On the other hand, i don’t think this is public transportation for people, it is an infrastructure project to get natural resources from the Sámi homeland to China, or to Asia, leading to more production and more waste and more negative consequences for the earth that has not been part of the promotion strategy of those who are planning this project. Sámi reindeer herders from the Norwegian side around Kirkenes, have mostly read about the plan on papers. The Sámi parliament in Finland has been very clear that this is not going to happen, we cannot allow this, it is impossible to combine this railways and infrastructure project with Sámi livelihood along the root. So it seems Finland has walked away from the plan. For some reasons, the former mayor of Kirkenes and his companions in the industry sectors are still pushing for this to happen, of course related to the plans of making Kirkenes a large port city. Sámi council have organised a panel about the project in Kirkenes last February, we invited the mayor, to meet the reindeer owners and both side of the borders, but for some reason he could not attend and sent his substitute, the deputy mayor. That was a big disappointment because we would have really liked to discuss this with him, because he has been promoting this project so heavily in both countries and the EU and also in China.”

Francesca Savoldi: “In terms of the role played by infrastructure during the colonization, do you see any continuity with the present condition?”

Christina Henriksen: “When big infrastructure projects are implemented we are been reminded that not so much has changed, we are still not making decisions ourselves, we see it as an ongoing colonisation of our areas, but we are mentioning colonisation, our national states in which we live seem to be offended, they are really defensive at least in the debate, in the mainstream society. They don’t see themselves as colonisers. Our existence cannot be debated anymore.”

Francesca Savoldi: “A final question. The Kirkenes port project has been supported from both Conservative and Labour parties; how to defend your land and culture, or justice in general, from a marginal position on the spectrum of political representation?”

Christina Henriksen: “That’s a good question. Some Sámi, believe it or not, are also involved in those big national parties, definitely it contributed to raise the discussion in those parties but in the long run it is a struggle to trying and stand up in front of those large parties and the power they represent, both conservative and labour party are really pro industry and pro extraction, so what we can do is that we use the challenge that we do have in the Sámi council, our alliances with EU institutions and other organisation to at least emphasize our expectation and the need to include the indigenous people perspective. Sometimes we experience that we are listened too and that we are but we do consider ourselves as serious actors and people have to pay attention when we share our perspective because they are well thought and prepared and sometimes we feel we have to be more prepared than our counterparts.” 

Francesca Savoldi: “Thank you so much Christina!”

Christina Henriksen: “Thanks for calling!”

We end this episode of frictions with a sound work from the private archive of Matti Aikio. It was exhibited in 2021 at the Barents Spektakel festival in Kirkenes. Thank you for listening!

This episode was produced in collaboration with Lukas Hoeller. The interviews were conducted in April 2021.