Arne O. Holm says Beyond the Pandemic, I Found a Brand New Company Town in the Arctic

(Commentary) Kiruna/Vadsø: The door is ajar, while the pandemic ever so slowly loosens its iron fist around the wealthy part of the world. In poor countries, or in countries with both democratic and financial deficits, it continues its relentless search for new victims.

I myself have used the re-opening to elope through the door and rediscover a part of the world as it once was.

If it still is.

Last week, I followed the E6 road north from Narvik until meeting E10, where I took a turn and moved towards Sweden. My first border-crossing in 18 months. In the majestic mountainous landscape around the Bjørnfjell border crossing station: a pre-warning about what happens a few miles further east. The iron ore freight trains from Kiruna to Narvik are one of the most fascinating things I know. The locomotive hauls 52 truckloads of iron ore, which is to be shipped out from the port of Narvik.

Thundering down the mountainside

The testimonies of the more-than-120-years old history of the ‘rallarne’, the railway workers, are visible everywhere. And the train still thunders on down the mountain slopes from Bjørnfjell to Narvik port. An overwhelming piece of railway history that is nevertheless still a part of modern industrial efforts in the High North.

The station buildings along the old railway are prettier and more monumental than any modern office building constructed to manage a stock and property market, a market that nevertheless insists that the creation of value goes on on their computer screens.

Prettier and more monumental than any office building.

The goal of this “groundbreaking” journey on the outskirts of the pandemic is a brand-new city being constructed in the Arctic. The LKAB mining company will spend the next one hundred years or so extracting its iron ore from underneath Kiruna, a mining town. You can hardly get closer to a modern-day company town.

A new company town

Though modern… The town has been left at its own device for years and years. It is to be demolished and re-created in a quite different location. It is an industrial re-location of a rather spectacular kind. A local community is demolished in the western Arctic. building the new from the ground up is an overwhelming, yet obviously also a feasible idea.

The community center, the church, it all has to go. The parking lot before the LKAB main offices is filled to the brim, yet the old down-town is derelict and almost empty. Swedish rednecks in their shining American vans still insist on driving their usual rounds around the Community Hall, constructed as late as in 1986, yet also still to be demolished soon.

At a shut-down petrol station I finally find someone who can direct me to the new Kiruna. I drive on towards Jokkmokk when it suddenly emerges. More than anything it resembles a giant building construction site, yet it is the core of the new Kiruna. A brand-new town in the Arctic, just a couple of miles from the Norwegian border.

The new Scandic hotel is already there, though I will not read anything into the apparent illogical progress plan.

A class divide created by the pandemic.

Move or die

In reality, Kiruna had the option to either re-locate or die. Without the LKAB mining company, there would be no town, and with no new iron ore deposits, there would be no mining company.

I leave Kiruna and head towards Jokkmokk and Arjeplog. The road winds through endless Swedish forests, on roads so straight that my motorbike whines with boredom. Normally, the parking lots before Konsum and ICA are occupied by Norwegian cars.

Not so this time around. In a few hours, North Bothnia will go from green to red. The flight back to Norway is on, and the queue before the Junkerdalen border crossing test station is long. With a valid Corona certificate on my mobile phone, I am waved on, past the queue. A new class divide, created by the pandemic.

A few days later, I put on a face mask and board a Widerøe plane. I head for Vadsø and the first in-person High North conference since the world shut down. It proves to be a flight without straight lines. The airports are located close to one another along the Finnmark coastline, and we visit them all on this day. In total, a flight almost as long as Oslo – New York.

Pandemic time debut

Vår Energi, an energy company, has invited us to an industrial viva in a part of Finnmark overshadowed by the oil industry. The most recent and brutal UN climate report was perhaps not quite the backdrop the oil industry wanted the most when meeting in person for the first time in a very long time.

Nothing is new about bus-for-plane.

Nor is it a dream scenario for State Secretary Lars Andreas Lunde of the Norwegian Ministry of Oil and Energy, who visits East Finnmark for the first time ever in his life. It is also the first time he attends an in-person meeting as a State Secretary.

A lot to take in, in other words, for a politician who had his debut during the pandemic.

Mayor Wenche Pedersen of Vadsø is, on the other hand, no Arctic novice. On the other hand, she places her trust in the Green Shift benefiting the rural areas. There are ambitious industrial plans for this part of Finnmark.

At a festival in Vadsø

A different historic dinosaur from pre-pandemic times almost blows my unused eardrums when day turns into night in Vadsø. Violet Road, the band, is on the outdoor stage of what was once the county capital before the forced merging of Troms and Finnmark. The Varanger Festival has to be one of the very first post-pandemic festivals. For almost one week on end, the festival fills its many stages with ear-pleasing sounds that to many have grown into a faint memory by now.

A gradual reopening in the High North, in other words.

Yet not everything feels new and strange these days.

The alarm has barely screeched when I receive an incoming text from Widerøe. That is rarely a good sign, nor is it this time around.

Bus for plane when you are going from the eastern parts in the High North to the southern part of the High North is both familiar and inevitable.

And it is very far.

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