In Lapland, reindeer herders rebel against wind turbines

published on Friday, January 14, 2022 at 5:35 p.m.

On windswept ridges, the Jåma brothers slalom between the wind turbines that stretch as far as the eye can see, where their animals came to graze in winter.

Climate emergency or not, for these reindeer herders, the turbines must disappear.

“Before, the area was perfect for our reindeer. The place was immaculate, virgin of any human activity. Now, everything is damaged”, laments the youngest, Leif Arne, driving his 4×4.

A modern-day quixote, members of the Sami minority in northern Europe are up in arms against large wind projects and other “green” infrastructure, which they accuse of cutting into their livelihoods and encroaching on their ancestral traditions.

A classic tale of the earthen pot versus the iron pot, but this time the earthen pot might end up winning.

In a resounding judgment, the Norwegian Supreme Court found in October that two wind farms erected on the Fosen peninsula (western Norway) violated the right of six Sami families, including the Jåma brothers, to practice their culture, in violation of a UN text, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Together with four smaller neighboring facilities, the farms in question, Storheia and Roan, form the largest onshore wind farm in Europe, with a total capacity of 1,057 MW, enough to cover the energy needs of more than 170,000 homes.

If the 11 magistrates of the highest judicial body of the country unanimously judged invalid the authorizations of expropriation and exploitation granted for the construction of the 151 turbines, they did not however say anything about their fate…

“These turbines must be dismantled”. For the Jåma, breeders from father to son for countless generations, there is no room for doubt.

Completed in 2020, the Storheia wind farm deprives them, they say, of the “best” of the three pastures to which they alternately guide their livestock in winter.

Nomads, the reindeer move with the seasons to see if the lichen – the moss they feed on, especially during the cold season – is greener elsewhere.

– Not a reindeer around –

Lasso slung over his shoulder, the eldest of the Jåma, John Kristian, scans the horizon line bristling with white giants through binoculars. Not a shadow of a reindeer around.

“Today it’s impossible for the reindeer to come here with all the huge disturbance from the turbines spinning and spinning and scaring them. And then they make so much noise,” he explains.

“There are also roads… Nature is completely destroyed here. Only rocks and gravel remain.”

Before the Supreme Court, a lower court had suggested that the loss of this land should be compensated by financial compensation to allow ranchers to feed their animals with fodder in the winter.

Net refusal of the interested parties. “The reindeer have to find their own food. If we are the ones who give them fodder, it is no longer traditional breeding”, justifies Leif Arne.

If nothing is done, the Jåma will however, for lack of sufficient pasture, reduce their herd – the size of which they do not say because “it would be as if we were trumpeting how much money we have in the bank”.

At 55, Leif Arne is already living on the razor’s edge: in court, he claimed that his activity had only generated a margin of less than 300,000 crowns (less than 30,000 euros) in 2018.

Fewer animals, and the viability of his breeding is gone.

For the moment, solutions are pending.

“We take the judgment of the Supreme Court very seriously (…) We of course want to rectify the situation”, assures Torbjørn Steen, spokesman for Fosen Vind, the consortium which operates most of the wind farm.

“The next step is to define operating conditions guaranteeing that we can operate these wind turbines without infringing the rights of reindeer herders or threatening herding. What we favor now is quite simply a dialogue with breeders”, he promises.

– Dantesque dilemma –

Main shareholder of the incriminated project via the public group Statkraft, the Norwegian State is plunged into a daunting dilemma.

How to enforce the court decision and preserve the rights of the Sami without compromising important economic interests – the six farms of the Fosen wind farm cost a total of more than 1 billion euros – or an already slow ecological transition?

Storheia and Roan alone supplied more than 20% of wind power produced in Norway in 2020, according to Fosen Vind.

In the immediate future, the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, which had issued the concessions declared invalid, requested additional expertise.

“We have not decided whether the facilities can remain in place in part or in full,” Minister Marte Mjøs Persen told AFP.

A disappointment for the Sami who see it as a way to play for time while the turbines continue to run at full speed, or even a way to circumvent the court decision in the long term.

“The State must recognize that, for 20 years, serious and important faults have been committed and it can do so by apologizing”, reacts Silje Karine Muotka, the president of Sameting, the Sami consultative parliament, in Norway.

“And concrete actions must follow: the operating permit must be canceled, the wind turbines purely and simply dismantled, and the area restored, revegetated and returned to the breeders,” she told AFP.

For each day that passes, 40-year-old breeder Sissel Stormo Holtan loses faith in justice a little more. It is against the wind farm of Roan that she fought – with success, she believed.

“We won but nothing happened. It’s weird to have to fight again and it gives a feeling of injustice,” she says, handing cladonia balls to a young orphan deer, now fully domesticated.

Smiling and upset at the same time, she confides her weariness.

“The sooner they dismantle the wind turbines, the sooner we can reuse the area,” she says. Before adding, resigned: “This area, I don’t think I will be able to reuse it one day. Maybe my daughter or my grandchildren…”.

– Power of veto? –

An indigenous people who have traditionally lived from reindeer herding and fishing, the Sami – formerly called Lapps – have a painful history.

This community of about 100,000 members divided between Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia was the subject of brutal attempts at assimilation in the 20th century and “its” lands are today strewn with energy, mining, road or tourist.

Before Storheia and Roan, other wind farms have emerged in these regions and others are under construction or in the pipeline.

A forum for cooperation between the Sami parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, the Sami Parliamentary Council is now demanding a sort of right of veto.

Any wind project must be approved by the local Sami people and their elected representatives, otherwise it must be suspended, he said in a declaration adopted in January 2021.

While recognizing that “climate change is a serious problem affecting Sami society”, the Council also considered that measures aimed at curbing it “should not have a negative impact on the culture and living conditions of the indigenous populations”.

The judgment of the Norwegian Supreme Court brings water to its mill.

According to many commentators, the decision could set a legal precedent that could affect other infrastructure projects throughout the vast territories where the Sami live, in Norway and in neighboring countries.

“Other companies will think twice before starting a project without its legality having been tested beforehand in the courts,” said Susanne Normann, researcher at the Center for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo. .

The problem is the same throughout the Nordic region.

In Finland, a nation that aims to become a leader in electric batteries, it is mining projects, perhaps even more than wind turbines, that give the Sami a hard time.

In their sights in particular: two prospecting permits granted in the tundra near the village of Enontekiö (north-west), a region renowned for its breathtaking landscapes and supposed to harbor significant mineral resources.

– “Double punishment” –

Alarmed by the ecological devastation that mining activities may have caused elsewhere in the country, the Sami gathered in 2020 more than 37,000 signatures in a petition in which they criticize the administration for the lack of consultation of the population and study of impact on local reindeer herding.

Living mainly in the Arctic, a region that is warming three times faster than the planet, the Sami are at the forefront of climate change.

“We who have lived and worked here all our lives see how the vegetation changes, the area where the trees grow shifts, the permafrost melts, new species of insects and plants arrive,” says Matti Blind Berg, who raises reindeer near Kiruna in northern Sweden.

Much more fluctuating than before, the thermometer alternates between periods of cold and thaw, covering the ground with thick layers of ice which can prevent reindeer from accessing the lichen and fuel competition between herders on grazing areas.

In this sometimes already explosive context, wind farms, copper or rare earth veins intended for an increasingly electrified economy, and forests planted for bioenergy needs only increase the pressure on the land.

“I fully understand that we need an ecological transition, I am the first to say so”, assures Matti Blind Berg. “But I find it bizarre, to say the least, that a green transition should come at the expense of nature.”

For Susanne Normann of the Center for Development and the Environment, climate change represents “a double penalty for indigenous peoples”.

“Not only are they among the most exposed to the effects of climate change, but they must also pay the price in the form of wind farms and hydroelectric dams built on their territories in the name of the fight against global warming,” he notes. she.

“Where is the justice when you know that they contribute very little to it themselves?”.

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