Finnish Minister for International Development Heidi Hautala said Wednesday a mining boom in northern Finland that has attracted dozens of companies seeking gold, nickel, uranium and other minerals has shown the need for "transparency and accountability" from mainly foreign operators.
"Serious shortcomings have become revealed even in such a developed and well-organized country as Finland," she told a government conference on socially responsible mining in Espoo. "These have resulted in extensive and very serious environmental problems in the mining sector."
The Lapland boom has brought strong objections from environmentalists who said the region's fragile sub-arctic wetland ecosystem could be destroyed by toxic chemicals used in the mining process.
As evidence, they pointed to a gypsum pond leak at the Talvivaara Mining Co. nickel mine in tourism-dependent Sotkamo, Finland, where the concentration of sulfates and manganese in nearby lake water were found to be several hundred times higher than permissible.
A mineworker died from hydrogen sulfide poisoning at the site this year, the German weekly Der Spiegel reported.
The Talvivaara mine was temporarily shut down Nov. 4 and nickel production won't resume until summer, the company said Wednesday.
The Espoo conference, organized by Finland's Ministry of Employment and the Economy, was set to focus on social responsibility and sustainability issues connected with mining in developing nations, such as Kazakhstan, where the labor unrest has resulted in rioting, deaths and strikes in the past year.
But Finland's own mining controversies intruded when demonstrators interrupted Hautala's speech first by banging on the windows and shouting slogans outside the building, then -- after being invited in by the minister -- marching onto the auditorium stage while chanting, "Stop the lies, stop the toxic mines," Helsingin Sanomat reported.
The protest was organized by the environmental group Hyokyaalto ("Tidal Wave"), which demanded the permanent shutdown of the Talvivaara mine as well as the abandoning of "all other mining plans."
"The action is a protest against the industry and the state's attempt to legitimize mining by discussing its 'sustainability,'" the group said in a statement. "Protesters are reminding people that no such thing as 'responsible', 'sustainable' or 'green' mining exists."
"As the critical and loud popular feedback this conference has been subjected to shows, it is of utmost importance for all actors within the mining sector to engage in an open dialogue with local people, environmental activists, media representatives and other stakeholders," Hautala said.
"Listening sincerely to other parties can provide a way to correct mistakes, improve processes and achieve better results."
She has also called for looking at new taxes on the foreign-owned mining companies flocking to Lapland which would allow local residents to share in the financial rewards of the boom.
The country, she told Kainuun Sanomat in February, "must urgently find a viable model (for mining) that does not conflict with Finland's international commitments."
In northern Finland, she said, revenues are mostly flowing to foreign companies while local landowners are paid mostly just "symbolic compensation."
While against nationalizing mining companies, Hautala said a way must be found for mining company profits to better benefit local populations.