Fears Sweden's green transition threating reindeer herders' way of life

Chloe Keedy explores the impact of green energy on the Sami, one of Europe’s most distinct indigenous groups, in a quest to balance progress and preservation. Credit: ITV On Assignment

On the day we meet Mikael Kuhmunen and his miniature poodle, Ooni, they are doing what they do every day during spring; they are herding reindeer.

It’s no small job - Mikael has 2,000 in his flock, and he’s preparing them for their journey across Sweden’s arctic north to their summer grazing grounds.

It’s a journey that Sami people have been making for millennia, but the way they go about it has changed beyond recognition. When Mikael was a boy, he and his father used to travel on wooden skis. These days he zooms along on a skidoo, with little Ooni tucked inside his jacket for warmth.

Sami people live in a region known as Sapmi - or Lapland - which spans the northern reaches of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia.

For them, every aspect of life is changing. Not just because of the chaotic weather cycles brought on by climate change, but also the infrastructure that’s carving up the landscape, and the mass deforestation by logging companies.

All of it disrupts traditional reindeer herding routes and, with that, an ancient rhythm of life.

Mikael has a flock of reindeer some 2,000 strong. Credit: ITV On Assignment

"These days, we use trucks to migrate with the reindeer from the winter grazing area to the summer grazing area. When I was a boy, we didn't do that," explains Mikael.

"I think it's quite sad because it's like proof of how the lands are fragmented… We can't keep the reindeer together."

Worryingly for Mikael and his family, more change is on the way. Because Sweden’s answer to the climate crisis is a move away from fossil fuels, towards sustainable energy.

This so-called ‘green transition’ relies on a range of materials known as rare earth metals, which are used to make things like wind turbines and electric car batteries.

I travelled north of the Arctic Circle, to a city called Kiruna, which is on the front line of Sweden’s battle against climate change. It’s also home to the world’s biggest underground iron ore mine, where state-owned mining firm, LKAB, has just discovered a new deposit of more than a million tonnes of rare earth metals.

Josefine Ejemalm, who works for LKAB, drove me more than a kilometre down into the mine that she hopes can help to drive Europe’s green industrial revolution.

'Green-transition' relies on rare earth metals. Credit: ITV On Assignment

"I always say that the north is the new south of Sweden, because this is where it all happens. LKAB is just one part of the huge transition towards a greener future."

I ask Josefine how she can describe the enormous mine we are standing in, which guzzles industrial levels of energy every day, as ‘green’.

"Well, we don't call it green yet, because it sounds crazy. Metals are necessary to modern life, but we cannot keep mining metals and producing metals as we used to. We need to do it Co2-free because, in the end, if you want a Co2-free car it needs to come from a Co2-free mine, right? Otherwise, it's not a Co2-free car.

"We’re not there yet… but the clock is ticking!" It’s clear that Josefine passionately believes that the mine is part of the solution, rather than the problem.

But it’s not just the Sami people who are having to make way for the mine, which sits on land that was once rightfully theirs.

More than a century of digging and drilling has caused the earth around the mine to become unstable, resulting in the town itself having to be moved two miles down the road. For the Sami people, though, it's not just about a few buildings or even an entire town being displaced. What's happening here is symbolic of what's happening to their whole way of life.

In the newly relocated Town Hall, Mayor Mats Taaveniku tells me he has no choice but to support the green transition.

He feels a sense of responsibility, not just to Kiruna, but to Europe and the rest of the world. "It has to happen. What is the alternative? There is a cost, but there is a much bigger cost to doing nothing. Then we burn up!"

For Mikael, it’s a struggle to stay optimistic. He hopes that his children will have his way of life - the same way of life that his father and grandfather had before him - but he now finds it frightening to think about the future. "It scares me that maybe me and my family will have to move away from here."

Even amongst northern Sweden’s vast expanses, Mikael and Ooni’s way of life is being squeezed. The green industrial revolution that’s meant to save our future - could spell the end of theirs.

Watch Chloe Keedy On Assignment in the Arctic Circle at 11.05pm on ITV1 or stream on ITVX

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.