Uppsala University: Transforming space and society in Kiruna

When the Swedish government and mining company LKAB first shared responsibility for developing the city of Kiruna over a hundred years ago, they focused mostly on practical issues. How does one build a city in a “desolate wilderness”? How does one attract settlers to a new place, far away in the Arctic north? State and corporate ideas about nature, people and the future played a decisive role in the development of Kiruna as a mining town, and these ideas remain to this day. Since 2004, when 6,000 Kiruna residents were informed that they would have to move because of ground deformations caused by mining, these ideas have taken on new meaning when examining what it means to transform a city to continue mining. This is the focus of a new thesis in cultural anthropology from Uppsala University.

“Mining companies were a huge force in developing this part of Sweden at the turn of the last century. Business leadership proved important in developing not just a city for people to live in, but an attractive community perceived as being different, exotic and full of opportunity, like the American western frontier,” says Elisa Maria López, who has just completed her doctorate by defending an anthropological thesis titled “Transforming Kiruna: Producing Space, Society, and Legacies of Inequality in the Swedish Ore Fields”.

López notes, “The mining company that became LKAB (Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB) had an early influence on the development of not only the mine, housing, schools and infrastructure, but also social and economic policy. It remained strong even after the emergence of the welfare state, and this has created special social relations in the community.”

Between 2012 and 2015, Elisa Maria López lived in Kiruna for 15 months to conduct her doctoral research. She built up a network of contacts and became acquainted with many different people, including some whose ancestors came to Kiruna in the early 1900s and some whose ancestors had long lived as indigenous Sámi reindeer herders in the mountains that became the mine and Kiruna city. In her thesis, she describes how some people see their lives in Kiruna today: They want to stay in their hometown and on their native lands. Working in the mine enables residents to do many things, such as travel, further their education and establish families, and to remain close their reindeer grazing lands. Many invest mine wages in reindeer husbandry, which has become necessary as grazing lands are reduced by the expansion of mining and urban infrastructure.

The complex historical, economic, and emotional relationships that most people have with the town and its surroundings have also forged strong connections to place that makes resettlement challenging.

“When you talk about moving Kiruna, you have to understand people’s attitudes in that context,” says López.

Her aim in writing the thesis has thus been to describe residents’ relations to space and place in a community that has long been transformed by the mining industry. Similarly affected places exist around the world. However, she chose Kiruna in Sweden partly because of the ongoing social transformation, with the relocation of many thousands of people, but also because it is happening in the homeland of an indigenous population, the Sámi. While mining deformations are growing, posing a risk to nearby buildings and people, this also necessitates a major spatial expansion of infrastructure, housing, and other buildings, necessary to replace that which can longer be used in the future.

Elisa Maria López says she was both fascinated and surprised that this project was started with little reflection from both the state and LKAB and that it is “really interesting this is how it is done in Sweden”.

She describes the ongoing “urban transformation” as the latest of several mining-based social and spatial transformations in the Kiruna area, changes to not only physical space of its inhabitants but also their social relations to place and to each other. She uses scientific theories from anthropology and sociology (such as those of Henri Lefèbvre) to show how space is not only something physical but also conceptual and social, created through practices, ideas, and symbols. The study further highlights how Kiruna and its surroundings consist of many different spaces, such as the mine, the city, and the mountains, used both for recreation and Sámi reindeer herding. These spaces undergo continual change and are co-produced both humans and non-humans.

“Everyone in Kiruna has affected by the mining industry and the ongoing urban transformation, but in different and unequal ways,” she says. When the basic conditions of life – places to live, work and connect to – change, social relations are also affected.”

A significant part of the thesis is devoted to the experiences of the Čohkkiras (Jukkasjärvi) Sámi herding community (in North Sámi, čearru), on whose lands the town of Kiruna was built. The local Sámi have long been the object of unjust treatment linked to the establishment of the mine and the town, and ideas about the existing land around Kiruna being a “desolate wilderness” as their homelands were perceived by early settlers. The loss of Sámi land and rights that occurred during this time continues to affect the present, and causes many conflicts over who has the right to use Kiruna’s mountains, rivers and lakes.

But the urban transformation has also created opportunities for residents to imagine alternative futures for Kiruna. López also interviewed municipal urban planners and architects who are creating New Kiruna, to study how their work partially articulated local aspirations for a sustainable community.

“I hope that my research can lead to different kinds of questions regarding future extraction projects, and the long-term environmental and social consequences of resource extraction,” says Lopez. “How does economic development affect people’s everyday lives, connection to place, and social relations? Who is responsible for not repeating historical inequalities in connection with such projects? Who decides who should make sacrifices and what is sustainable? We need to be more critical of large-scale development projects and the promises and assumptions on which they are based so we can create sustainable solutions that benefit local people, those who are most affected.”

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