Sami voices

This track contains extracts from the interviews with Christina Henriksen – president of the Sámi Council, and Matti Aikio, an artist from Vuotso, a small reindeer-herding Sámi village in northern Finland. The interviews were recorded in 2021, for the podcast FRICTIONS – episode 4

Infrastructural hegemony in the Arctic: the case of Kirkenes

By Lukas Höller

Arctic regions are facing the impacts of climate change about twice as fast as the global average. One of the most visible consequences of today’s climate crisis is the retreat of Arctic sea-ice. Paradoxically, this concerning development increases accessibility to newly discovered fields of oil, gas, and valuable metals, and faster sea routes between Asia and Europe. The cumulative impact is driven by climatic changes, enabling new opportunistic, anthropogenic activities, which again worsen the impact on the environment and thus create enormous, twofold pressure on such territories and the people that inhabit them.

Photo Lukas Höller, 2020

One of these changing territories is the Norwegian city of Kirkenes, a former mining town with 10,000 inhabitants, located around 400 km above the Arctic Circle, bordering Russia and Finland. Some investors in the region of Kirkenes imagine the development of a new extra-urban port and a railway connection towards the hinterland along the “Arctic Corridor,” potentially serving as a strategic node for China’s ‘Polar Silk Road’, shortening transit between Asia and Europe by up to 60%.

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. 

This “vision-of-a-few” is anchored within the history of Kirkenes. The city was founded in 1905 as a worker- and transshipment town to exploit iron ore from the Sydvaranger mine, several kilometers land-inwards. Since then, the city’s collective memory has centred mining and heavy labor, which has brought periods of economic boom-and-bust and societal uncertainties. The extra-urban port and railway plans would accelerate global trade and the extraction of aquatic and terrestrial resources. The port is planned to be connected by train to Rovaniemi and Helsinki in Finland, and across the Baltic Sea to Estonia. The infrastructural apparatus would cross Sami territory, without Sami consensus.

Already before the emergence of the mining town, the transborder territory between Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia was already inhabited by Sami people, the only officially recognized indigenous people in Europe. Access to ancestral land is essential in Sami culture. The migration routes of semi-domesticated reindeers across Sapmi as well as from sea to land and land to sea are vital in terms of food, income, as well as for the ancient Sami culture. Besides that, the catalytic potential of infrastructure for driving extraction is a further concern for Sami people and their culture which in modern times has been heavily undermined by Christianization and processes of nation-state making. Assimilation processes, stigmatization, and exclusion from decision-making has led to the loss of culture, language, collective memory, and dispossession of land and resources.

Photo: Inger-Elle Suoninen / Yle Sápmi. Source: The Barents Observer, 10/9/2018

Despites the formalization within the Norwegian Constitution in 1997 and as the Norwegian Truth and Reconciliation Commission started to examine the injustices against the Sami, significant financial and infrastructural investments are being pumped into the “Arctic Corridor”, once more endangering their livelihood.

Photo: Lukas Höller, 2020
Lukas Höller is an architect and PhD candidate at PortCityFutures.


The Barents Observer, 10/9/2018: “Protesters in Finnish Sápmi draw red lines against railroad to Arctic Ocean”

The Guardian, 23/2/2019: “The battle to save Lapland: ‘First, they took the religion. Now they want to build a railroad'”

The Barents Observer, 24/11/2018: “Saami Council: Railway to Arctic Ocean will have major negative consequences for reindeer husbandry”