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Could a renewable energy lead to the eradication of an Indigenous Arctic community?

For hundreds of years, Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have borne the brunt of colonialism and racism. Like their global counterparts, their rights have been ignored and they continue to lose huge amounts of land. But now, for the Sámi people whose land has already been broken apart by the state borders in northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula in Russia, there are two new threats: climate change and, paradoxically, a solution to it.  

Both threaten this Indigenous population and its livelihoods. The Sámi culture is, like all Indigenous cultures, connected to the land they live and work on. But something that’s “so uniquely Sámi”, according to President of the Norwegian Sámi Parliament, Aili Keskitalo, is reindeer herding.

Although the Norwegian government has proposed plans to the national parliament to review the licensing of wind power plants, Keskitalo told The Skylark that unless there is an outright ban on new wind power plants on reindeer herding areas, the population could be wiped out.

The white paper presented “does not protect our lands and livelihoods as needed, and it is not clear how the proposed stricter rules would even be practiced,” says Keskitalo, adding “authorities are still pushing wind power in an effort to stave off criticism for the oil and gas part of our economy”. For Keskitalo, there are alternatives that must be explored. Energy efficiency, alternative renewable energies and a deeper engagement with Indigenous peoples are necessary if the community is to survive.

Norway is an energy nation that has built its prosperity on energy, first hydroelectric power and then oil and gas. But now because of the global climate crisis Norway is shifting into green energy production. And this is where the Sámi people are getting into a real squeeze. Because climate changes are affecting us, as they affect everyone, but in the Arctic the temperature is rising faster than in other parts of the world. This affects grazing conditions and vegetation for the reindeer and makes the weather more unstable in winter, which can cause the grazing land to freeze over. In mid-winter, when it’s supposed to be cold and stable, it can rain and the rain freezes on the ground and makes a layer of ice, which makes it harder or impossible for the reindeers to reach their food. This is because of climate change.

This winter, we had unprecedented snow. There hasn’t been as much snow in these parts for maybe 100 years. The reindeers struggled to dig through the snow to get through to their food. It was a crisis winter. Usually reindeer are semi-domesticated so they will find their own fodder, but this winter was so extreme that the herders had to feed the reindeer. Climate change is affecting us severely.  

Windmill parks are not for recreation 

But, our new and big problem is Norwegian climate mitigation policies which involve exploring wind power possibilities. I’m sorry to say that many of the areas that are attractive for wind power plants are also important reindeer herding areas. These are areas that might be high up in the mountains with much wind; areas which haven’t been subject to much competitive land use before.  

This new industry is all about competitive land use. They call them “windmill parks” but I think that kind of language is a way of trying to greenwash this. In reality, these are big industrial areas where people should not move and animals can be hurt if they move inside of these areas. There are roads and power lines, the rotors of the wind turbines create noise and they are visually scary for reindeers when they’re moving.

New research also shows the detrimental effect on reindeers who see windmills, or even the shadows of windmills (when the sun is low these huge windmills, maybe 200 metres, cast long and moving shadows). The result is that the reindeer become scared to move within the perimeter of these windmills and can stay away from them by as much as 15km. The rotors in the winter can throw lumps of ice and snow which can reach 200 metres; if a human or animal were hit they could be killed. Windmill parks are not for recreation and are not areas where humans or animals should be.  

It is a double burden to carry 

Establishing those wind power plants on reindeer herding areas is forcing the removal of reindeers and Sámi reindeer herders. Reindeer herding is suffering because of climate change, but we are also carrying the burden of the climate mitigation efforts of the Norwegian government. It is a double burden to carry and it’s getting really heavy.  

It makes me so sad to see all these plans for building wind power plants on our homeland. The government tells us “oh, but you have to provide the solutions for climate change”. But we already gave land because of energy production. Many wind power plants have already been built or are planned to be built upon Sámi reindeer herding areas. And we have earlier been forced to give up land to hydroelectric power plants. In fact, one of the greatest political conflicts between the Norwegian government and the Sámi people was because of the Alta Dam. We have already given up land to save Norway’s energy needs so it has to stop, it cannot go on forever. We will be eradicated. 

Green colonialism 

This weekend I went to the eastern part of Finnmark to learn more about a planned wind power plant on the areas where my mother’s family are reindeer herders. The site is close to a sacred mountain and they want to build northern Europe’s biggest wind power plant in what they claim is an unused and unpopulated area. But it’s populated by Sámis and reindeers.

“We have already given up land to save Norway’s energy needs so it has to stop, it cannot go on forever. We will be eradicated.”

In the Arctic, this time of year is the growing season so we don’t have much vegetation here; reindeer need big areas to move to find enough food and every piece of land in northern Norway is already in use by reindeer herders. It has been a food producing, sustainable, ecological livelihood for hundreds of years, maybe more than a thousand years, but it’s really under pressure today.  

I call it land grabbing what they are doing because they are taking the land away from us and telling us that we owe it to the world. It’s a bitter fact that it’s done in the name of the environment, but I have no other word for it than green colonialism because it’s colonialism. It’s the same thing over again. It’s the same thing they did before and now they’re doing it again but they’re changing the rhetoric. They say it’s because the world needs green power but we have no more land to give and I do not believe the wind power industry is as green as it’s claimed. 

Free, prior and informed consent 

What we need is free, prior and informed consent when it comes to industry projects on our homelands, on lands that we live on and lands that are resource based. For me there is no other solution that would provide for our needs greater than the right to say yes, the right to agree to a project that may affect us or our territories. But of course, this means we would also have the right to say no. So that is what we are striving for.

We have heard many pretty words about how dialogue is going to change everything and dialogue is certainly positive. But you have to realise that Indigenous peoples can be drowned by dialogue. If every industry project invites us to endless meetings where we are supposed to be in dialogue with them, we could be in dialogue with them for years – and there are so many! And we are just one small people. They could talk us to death. So, without us having a possibility to give or withhold consent, attempts at dialogue are pointless.  

We must first conserve more of the energy that we produce 

There are other solutions and alternatives. For example, at this time of year we have daylight around the clock in northern parts of Norway, but how is that utilised? I’m no engineer or energy expert but I think we should be exploring more broadly other kinds of renewable energy sources.  

“It’s a bitter fact that it’s done in the name of the environment, but I have no other word for it than green colonialism.”

I would also like to remind people that the climate crisis isn’t the only environmental crisis that the world is facing. We are facing a biodiversity crisis and this kind of industry is claiming parts of nature that we need for the future. You cannot only focus on the one environmental crisis, we have to think more broadly and more holistically when we approach our strategies for the future. 

I would also question our need to focus on this kind of economic growth because isn’t this kind of growth the same that brought us to the climate and biodiversity crises? We cannot continue in this way, into the foreseeable future. What I notice when I come to other countries is that they are much more frugal with their energy than Norwegians. Perhaps it’s because we have been brought up with cheap energy, cheap electricity, so we use more than our part, to put it bluntly. I’m sure it’s the same for other energy producing states in the world. We must first conserve more of the energy that we produce and use it more frugally. That is certainly a lesson to learn, in particular for Norwegian citizens.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 24th July 2020

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