In what has been viewed a landmark decision, Norway has decided to allow the construction of a new copper mine close to Europe’s northernmost point, in an area inhabited by native reindeer herders and fishermen.

View of Kvalsund. Image credits: Ludovic Péron.

It’s a classic industry versus environment problem. Ironically, the mine’s development has been enabled by climate change, which has made the frigid area more accessible, and the government has agreed to greenlight the project. The mine is expected to generate substantial revenue and jobs in the area.

“The mining project will strengthen the industrial base in the north,” Industry Minister Torbjoern Roe Isaksen of the centre-right coalition government said in a statement. “It will contribute positively to the local community, with new jobs and skills.”

However, the mine digging could severely damage reindeer summer pastures, and there are also plans to dump tailings into a nearby fjord, which would destroy spawning grounds for the coastal cod.

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Norwegian officials say that there will be little harm done to the environment, but local fishermen and herders disagree.

“I am shocked by the government’s decision. I had hoped that the Norwegian government would have heard our arguments … They do not take us seriously,” reindeer herder Nils Mathis Sara told Reuters. “We will definitely protest against this decision.”

You could hardly imagine a more picturesque village than Kvalsund, where the mine is planned. The painted wooden houses hug closely together in the Repparfjord, bearing the common sub-zero temperatures. However, this lovely picturesque rural area also has picturesque rural problems. The village has 1,027 inhabitants, and much of the municipality money is spent on caring for the elderly, as younger people have moved away in search of more attractive economic prospects.

Much of the traditional Sámi culture has been lost in the past century, but this is still one of the most authentic Sámi areas in Scandinavia. The two most important economic activities have been traditionally fishing and reindeer herding, though, in more recent years, tourism has also become more important.

All herders in Arctic nations (such as Russia, Canada, or US) echo the Norwegian Sámi concerns, citing threats from climate change, oil spills, mining, and poaching. The Arctic has experienced accelerated warming, with temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F) since pre-industrial times, twice the global average.

In a way, the Kvalsund conundrum can serve as a good metaphor for the entire planet: on one hand, economic prospects are appealing, but on the other hand, they can come at devastating environmental damage. Sooner rather than later, the entire world will have to make that decision. Apparently, Norway already has.