Clean power, green jobs, no emissions – the wind industry is used to being one of the good guys. But to Åsa Larsson-Blind, president of the Sami Council, it’s just the latest – and potentially most deadly – industrial threat to a fragile, ancient culture focused around reindeer herding up towards the Arctic Circle.
“The wind industry often says it wants to have a dialogue,” Larsson-Blind told Recharge. “But I believe it thinks it is easier to accommodate than it actually is. I think it has a naïve view that it is just putting up some windmills, not taking away [reindeer] pastures.”
The most immediate spark for Larsson-Blind’s anger is the Norwegian state’s rejection of a non-binding request from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to order a halt to work on the Storheia wind farm in central Norway, ahead of further investigation of the impact on traditional reindeer husbandry at the site.
The 288MW Storheia is the second and largest project in the Fosen complex, the 1GW development led by Norwegian utility Statkraft. According to the Sami Council, like other wind farms already operating across the Nordic states and – far worse – the many more in the pipeline, it will have a drastic effect on the reindeer grazing lands that have underpinned the livelihoods and culture of the indigenous Sami people for thousands of years.
Storheia’s 80, V117 Vestas turbines are due to start installation from April. The Sami Council hoped its complaint to the UN CERD, followed by the organisation’s mid-December request for a pause to work, would at least prompt the Norway to allow time for more studies of the project’s impact.
But Larsson-Blind is resigned to a decision that she claimed reflects the odds stacked against the Sami as they attempt to defend the herders’ way of life against a regional wind boom. “We know there are huge economic interests that are at stake.”
A favourable regulatory regime, excellent wind conditions and demand from the region’s flourishing data centre sector means Nordic wind power is moving north and its projects getting larger. The Sami people – numbering about 100,000, and whose traditional lands stretch across Norway, Sweden, Finland and part of Russia – fear the consequences. With a potential 4GW total scope, Markbygden in Sweden is another Nordic mega-project with implications for the Sami.
Wind is the most recent of a clutch of industries to impinge on lands traditionally used for reindeer husbandry – mining and logging are others – but the scale of the projects planned in the Nordics could be “the last straw”, said Anna Skarin, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who has investigated the impact of the industry on reindeer grazing lands.
Skarin – who says her work on the issue is non-partisan and funded by the Swedish Energy Agency – has found reindeer avoidance of turbines even on small projects of eight or 10 machines, with an impact observed up to 5km away. The reindeer have a visual aversion to the turbines and, it is believed – Skarin is about to start work to establish for sure – also dislike their noise. On top of that comes disruption from the associated construction work and infrastructure needed to support the projects.
At the level of build-out planned, Skarin reckons the ability to implement mitigation measures could be stretched to breaking point. “There are thousands of turbines in the planning system,” Skarin told Recharge. “I think if everything is built, it will really be a big impact on the ecosystem. We’ve already seen it beginning.”
The number affected is hard to pin down, but Skarin estimates there are 1,000 reindeer herders in Sweden alone, most of them Sami.
Larsson-Blind claims the threat from the wind industry is one of “life or death” for the Sami culture. “When a big wind farm comes like Fosen, it will be impossible to carry on the traditional lifestyle [embodied by reindeer herding].
“The traditional way of life is considered one of the big denominators of Sami culture. If you can’t continue that way of life and pass on the culture, you have no culture.”
Her most scathing criticism is reserved for the Norwegian state, which she believes is providing legal cover for wind power and other industries in a manner that shows “double standards” in a nation that likes to see itself as a paragon of human rights.
In its rejection of the CERD request for a pause at Fosen, Norway’s energy ministry found “no basis” for complying, noting that the project has been “thoroughly tested in several rounds in the legal system” during which racial discrimination against the Sami did not arise as an issue.
Larsson-Blind claims that legal system simply isn’t set up to adequately deal with the issue, leaving the Sami with no choice but to turn to international agencies like CERD. “The hard thing is that we do not have enough support from legislation or the government in securing Sami rights to land.” And she appealed to the wind industry to take an independent view of its impact.
“Every company needs to make sure they are taking Sami rights to land into consideration. They can’t just trust the state processes, because they are not perfect.”
For its part, the Nordic wind sector is at pains to emphasise its efforts to take account of the Sami when developing projects – and to scrupulously abide by the legal process operating in each jurisdiction.
Asked by Recharge whether a request from a UN agency should of itself be enough to prompt a halt in work at Fosen, a spokesman for Statkraft said: “If you don’t look at the facts of the case, I can see it would be easy to jump to that conclusion.”
But a “long and thorough licensing process” had consulted all affected parties, “and we know the effect on reindeer herding was given extensive attention, and thoroughly assessed during the appeals processes”.
The Statkraft spokesman pointed to mitigation measures for reindeer populations contained in the license – and that a compensation agreement had been struck with the local herders.
“We do acknowledge that the reindeer herders will be negatively affected by the wind farm. But the negative effects will be mitigated and compensated fully.”
“We are committed to act in a sustainable, ethical, socially responsible manner in everything we do,” said the Statkraft official.
Charlotte Unger, head of industry association Svensk Vindenergi, is also keen to stress the industry’s “dialogue” with the Sami.
“Since they depend on nature with their reindeers, and of course a stable environment, trying to hinder climate change is of course very important also for the Sami people. I hope we could find solutions that are good for [the industry], the Sami people, and regarding climate change,” Unger told Recharge.
With the Sami on the frontline of climate change around the Arctic Circle, this is an argument Larsson-Blind hears often – but it cuts little ice with her.
“Do children really have to grow up without their language, their culture, in the name of fighting climate change?”