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Arctic turbulence: why Indigenous communities are fighting wind farms

The Arctic is experiencing climate change at a faster pace than the rest of the world. Having already had to adapt, the Indigenous people of Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia – the Saami – now face a new threat to their existence as industrial wind farms are constructed on their ancestral lands to supply the western world’s growing demand for green energy.

Speaking at a panel on Indigenous self-governance in 2018, Aili Keskitalo, the president of the Saami Parliament in Norway, said: “I’d like to speak about the paradox of green colonialism, when colonialism has dressed up in nice, green finery and we are told that we have to give up our territories and our livelihoods to save the world because of climate change.”

“We are told that we have to have wind power plants – they even call them wind parks, but they are really industrial power plants – in our reindeer herding areas, because the world needs clean energy,” she continued. “So, as an Indigenous people, we do not only carry the burden of climate change, but we also carry the burden of mitigation, or the world’s reaction to climate change, and it’s a pretty heavy burden.”

In the mountains in Vesfn, a Norwegian municipality located between Trondheim and Tromsø, the Jillen-Njaarke reindeer herders are locked in a battle to protect their ancestral livelihood as the largest wind farm in Norway is being constructed straight through the middle of one of their most important reindeer migration routes.

“Today there are very dark clouds hanging over the Jillen-Njaarke reindeer herding district,” says Ole Henrik Kappfjell, one of the Saami reindeer herders in Vesfn. Reindeer herding is the main source of income for many Saami people, especially for the South Saami where more than 50% of families are connected to reindeer husbandry. “We are facing a very huge opponent. The capital forces are enormously big. We as a people, we as an Indigenous minority, we are trying to fight for an old reindeer herding culture.” Kappfjell met with Novara Media to discuss the current situation of the reindeer herders, with Eva Fjellheim interpreting into English.

Culture and existence.

Øyfjellet Wind Park is owned by Aquila Capital, a German investment group, which purchased the shares from Eolus Vind AB in 2019 for a preliminary price of €30 million. The total revenue of the project is expected to be in the region of €441 million. As part of the agreement, Eulos will continue to build and maintain the site which is being funded by Aquila. All energy produced in the first 15 years by the wind farm has been signed to Alcoa, a US multinational aluminium production company, which owns a smelting plant in nearby Mosjøen and is the biggest private employer in the region. According to Alcoa’s website, the smelting plant is already powered solely by hydroelectric power.

By contrast to the large corporations behind the wind farm, the Jillen-Njaarke reindeer district is composed of three families. On top of their ancestral reindeer herding responsibilities, they are now having to navigate complicated legal processes to defend their right to their ancestral livelihood under human rights law.

Christina Henriksen is the president of the Saami Council, an NGO which promotes the rights of the Saami in their nation states and internationally. “It is our homeland, on which our culture, our people, our existence depend,” she tells Novara Media. “This is where we transfer Indigenous knowledge between generations, this is where we get our nutritious, traditional food, so the Saami Council’s view on the wind power development is that it is a new kind of colonialism.” Over 40% of the land in Norway is used by the Saami for reindeer herding.

Construction on the wind farm began in December 2019 and is due to be completed by the end of 2021. The final construction plans were approved by Norway’s Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, the licence for the project having been granted by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate to Eolus Vind back in 2016, on the grounds that a coexistence agreement could be made with the local reindeer herders.

But reindeer herders say construction has commenced without their agreement. “They just start to construct, and they believe that we will reach an agreement after they have started to construct,” says Kappfjell. “That is not the way a democracy should work.”

Eolus Vind maintains that throughout the licensing and planning process, local stakeholders, including the Jillen-Njaarke reindeer district, were able to give their opinions on the project. A spokesperson from Eolus Vind told Novara Media: “We have been granted a concession (licence) after a long democratic process. The concession states that coexistence is possible.”

Øyfjellet Wind Park’s website states the development supports reindeer herding and recognises its cultural significance. It also states the Øyfjellet’s belief that “it is possible to facilitate beneficial coexistence.”

But Ole Henrik Kappfjell does not believe coexistence is possible. “If we were involved at an earlier stage, we could, in a better way, have explained how this project would threaten the future existence of nomadic reindeer herding in Jillen-Njaarke,” he says. “And then we could have reached an agreement that this encroachment would be too big for us to cope with.”

‘Forced to flee’.

The conflict between reindeer herders and developers became evident in April this year, when herders tried to migrate their herd between the winter and summer pastures. Each year reindeer migrate between summer and winter pastures to make best use of the seasonal changes to the landscape. While the Saami reindeer herders facilitate the migrations, they herd in a pastoral style, following the direction and pace of their reindeer. With each migration, different routes and pastures may be used, depending on a range of factors including weather conditions, food availability or accessibility over frozen lakes and rivers.

By the end of November 2019, the three families in the Jillen-Njaarke district had already moved their herds by road to a winter pasture north-west of the Øyfjellet Wind Park construction area. On 18 December 2019 they were advised that the detailed construction plan had been approved by the Ministry of Oil and Energy, “even though there was no agreement about mitigation measures,” according to Kappfjell. The construction site cut straight through the migration route the herders would need to use to move their reindeer back towards summer pastures over the spring.

In the winter, Kappfjell and the other Jillen-Njaarke reindeer herders move their reindeer by road; a concession already forced by environmental changes caused by climate change, particularly the thinning of ice on the frozen lakes they used to cross. But when moving to spring pastures, the herders prefer to move in the ancestral way, with the reindeer dictating the pace and direction of the movement as they travel across the natural landscape.

To facilitate this, the Jillen-Njaarke families wrote to the Norwegian Ministry of Oil and Energy to request that construction be halted for six weeks to allow the safe migration of reindeer from the winter to spring pastures. They were granted four weeks. “But then the company complained about this decision to the Ministry of Energy and [the] development. And they in the end only gave us a few days to carry out the migration,” says Kappfjell. “The problem is that within this time frame, it’s not possible for us to carry out an ancestral migration.”

The reindeer herders worked through the night to migrate the reindeer, forcing them to keep moving when they would usually have been grazing and resting. “This wasn’t a spring migration; we were forced to flee.

“We had to move a lot faster than if we would have carried out an ancestral migration. As reindeer herders, we care about our animals. We were afraid that the pregnant female reindeer will lose their calves. We consider this time frame as irresponsible,” he continues. “This was very, very tough for both animals and people. It is not ancestral Saami reindeer herding. If our ancestors saw us, they would give us a hard time. They would tell us that this is not a good way to herd them.”

Local knowledge of the areas and routes used by reindeer has been built by the Saami over countless generations. But the areas they are able to use has decreased incrementally due to colonisation, industrialisation and climate change. Each encroachment may be small on its own, but they accumulate to something much larger.

The Saami have found ways to adapt to many of these changes. Climate change has opened new pastures, and they have adopted snowmobiles to aid their herding. But large-scale wind projects threaten to reduce the areas reindeer herders can use, pushing them past the point of adaptation. Kappfjell says: “With all of these large encroachments and changes and disruptions on reindeer herding land, it is hard to see how this can continue in the future.”

Research conducted by Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found that reindeer avoided the areas surrounding wind turbines during construction, and that once construction was complete, the reindeer continued to avoid large areas around the turbines, distressed by the continuous running of the turbines. This can lead to the reindeer spreading out over very large areas to avoid the wind turbines, making it difficult for the herders to protect the herd and move with the reindeer.

The burden of proof.

Saami people argue the decision that coexistence between reindeer herders and Øyfjellet would be possible was made by people who did not share the same knowledge of reindeer herding and the local environment that Saami herders have gained through generations of living and tending to reindeer in the Arctic. Susanne Normann, a researcher at the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo, explains: “When consultations are organised by people who do not have deep knowledge about what reindeer herding really is, then it is extremely difficult for the Saami people to prove the consequences.”

Normann says there is also a hierarchy of knowledge within colonial structures which can make it difficult for Indigenous peoples in legal settings. “I think Indigenous knowledge systems are more holistic, in a way; they have a spiritual and historical orientation that do not fit into colonial knowledge systems which seem more technical and fragmented. In a way we have different knowledge systems that do not speak well to each other. This happens in the context of power asymmetry,” she tells Novara Media.

The burden of proof falls to the Saami, as they are required to prove that such developments will affect their ability to continue their ancestral livelihood. “It does not seem that the Norwegian authorities are applying the principle of precaution when making decisions about human rights violation caused by wind power developments on Saami reindeer herding territories,” says Eva Fjellheim, a Southern Saami PhD fellow at the Centre for Saami Studies at the University of Tromsø.

“This principle states that you should err on the side of caution and prevent harm if you do not know the outcome of encroachment of nature, and is part of the Biodiversity Act. The Act further states that ‘special considerations should be made regarding nature which constitutes the basis for Saami culture’. Saami reindeer herders are given the heavy burden of proving that their culture is at risk, and this has proven to be very difficult. Precaution as a principle is even more crucial in relation to areas where Saami reindeer herding culture already is under enormous pressure from multiple extractive industries and infrastructure developments, as is the case of the southern Saami territories.”

Reindeer herding and the right to migrations are protected under the Norwegian Constitution by Norway’s Reindeer Husbandry Act. The rights of the Saami, as an Indigenous people, are also protected by an international convention, ILO Convention 169, which Norway has ratified. But one of the main criticisms of the convention is that while Indigenous peoples are granted the right to self-determination of their ancestral lands and consultation on projects which may impact them, it doesn’t give Indigenous peoples the right to veto developments such as the wind power projects, meaning their territories cannot be protected. “We have no more land to give and we cannot alone take responsibility to provide the world with so-called green solutions. We, too, want a greener future, but the solution is not to take away all land and destroy our livelihoods and our culture,” says Christina Henriksen.

The burden of mitigating climate change.

The Jillen-Njaarke reindeer herders are now in the process of legal action to stop the construction of Øyfjellet Wind Park. They are being supported by Motvind, a Norwegian organisation formed in 2019 campaigns against the construction of wind power projects. Motvind is politically independent and encompasses local groups campaigning against wind power for a range of reasons, from Indigenous rights to social and business interests and environmental welfare.

Jillen-Njaarke’s initial case was dismissed by the court in Oslo in September 2020 and the reindeer district was ordered to pay 1,767,374 Norwegian Kroner (£146,000) in legal fees to Øyfjellet and Eolus Vind. Motvind is crowdfunding to help cover the costs. They are now taking the case to the Norwegian Court of Appeal to challenge the verdict.

“It’s really hard for me right now to believe in the state of justice in Norway. This verdict, it really affects me personally. It touches everything about me,” says Kappfjell. “The king of Norway and the church, they have asked for forgiveness for how the Saami have been treated. I thought that when someone is asking for forgiveness, that it also implies that the future would be improved. But I have to say that I feel violated by this sentence.”

Just 200 miles south of Øyfjellet, reindeer herders recently won a court case against another large wind power development, Fosen Wind. The development of that wind farm meant one of the winter pastures used by reindeer herders was completely lost. The developers were ordered to pay compensation to the herders, but the pasture has been lost forever.

When Novara Media asked Eolus Vind asked if it would halt construction if a coexistence agreement could not be met with the Jillen-Njaarke reindeer herders, the company replied: “If an agreement cannot be made between the two parties, the courts will make a ruling on compensatory measures.”

But by placing a monetary value on the Saami’s losses, the courts and developers are showing a lack of knowledge of what reindeer herding and the right to continue a sustainable way of life means to the Saami. “It’s not just an occupation,” says Kappfjell. “It’s a livelihood. It’s a culture and it’s an identity. It’s everything that I live and breathe for.”

Susanne Normann argues that protecting Indigenous peoples’ way of life should matter to everyone. “I think that keeping other ways of living and producing and the attached knowledge systems are of extreme importance for all of us to even be able to imagine other and diverse future ways of living,” she tells Novara Media. “To be more technical about it. The Saami produce meat. We need proteins, and it’s produced in a much more responsible way. It’s not industrial production. I think also we can see their practices as one of the answers to the ecological and climate crisis.”

Bearing the burden of mitigating the impact of climate change is not unique to the Saami. In the US and Canada, Indigenous peoples’ land rights are being used as the last line of defence against oil giants. In Canada, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation were able to use their land rights to halt the expansion of oil sands. The Saami, however, do not have the same constitutionally protected rights to their territories in any of the nation states they dwell in, which is making it difficult for their land to be protected.

Both Motvind and the Saami Council have written to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, arguing that the construction of Øyfjellet Wind Park is violating the Saami’s rights and international human rights conventions.

When contacted for comment, an Alcoa spokesperson said: “Alcoa is fully committed to respecting human rights, as expressed in our publicly available policy, and these principles apply throughout our supply chain. We are aware of questions related to whether a developer’s plan for a wind power project in Norway could impact reindeer husbandry, and we received an inquiry from a group representing the Sámi people. As a potential customer of the project, we immediately opened an inquiry to verify that all international agreements and regulations are followed and that human rights are protected. This inquiry is being conducted as part of Alcoa’s Ethics & Compliance program and is ongoing.”

The fight for a future.

The Saami find it especially difficult to argue against wind power. In Canada and the US, an allegiance has formed between green activists and Indigenous communities, on the basis that Indigenous peoples’ land rights are used as the legal basis for halting fossil fuel extraction projects. In Norway, however, the Saami are finding themselves in opposition to mainstream narratives around green power. “Wind power is clean energy, it goes well with the climate change discourse,” says Eva Fjellheim. Many of our climate change priorities focus on how to mitigate the effects of climate change by producing the same levels of energy with sources that do not require the burning of fossil fuels. But, Fjellheim argues, as much as we do require renewable energy sources, we also need to reduce our energy usage. “It’s been an established truth that the energy demand is growing, and this is what we need to do. There is no discussion about the consumption of energy,” she says.

Ole Henrik Kappfjell remains hopeful for the future, and believes the construction of the wind farm will be halted. He says the Saami are resilient and do not want to be painted as victims, but they’re fighting against large corporations and their rights need to be recognised if they are to be able to continue to practice their ancestral livelihoods and live sustainably with the land. He also says reindeer herding and being in the mountains continue to bring him joy. “In the 1990s there was this band called Faithless, and they had a song called ‘God is a DJ’ and in that song, there is a sentence that says ‘this is my church, and this is where I heal my hurt’ – and that is what the mountain means to me.”

S Reid-Collins is a freelance journalist based in London.

The Climate Focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).

[photos, video at source]