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    Lapland reindeer herders at war with wind farms

    January 19, 2022 - CE Noticias Financieras


      On a mountaintop, the Jama brothers move among wind turbines that stretch as far as the eye can see, on land they used to graze their animals in winter. Climate change or no climate change, for these reindeer herders the turbines have to go.

      "Before, the area was perfect for our reindeer. The place was pristine, it hadn't suffered from human activity. Now, everything has been ruined for years," laments Leif Arne, the youngest of the brothers, standing next to his all-terrain vehicle.

      On both sides of the Arctic Circle, members of the Sami minority in northern Europe vehemently oppose large-scale wind farms and other "green" infrastructure projects that threaten their livelihoods and encroach on their ancestral traditions.

      It is a classic David and Goliath story. And the Sami minority may win in the end.

      In a groundbreaking verdict released in October, the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that two parks built on the Fosen peninsula (eastern Norway) violated the rights of six Sámi families, including the Jama brothers, and prevented them from practicing their culture, in contravention of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

      With four other smaller neighboring facilities, Storheia and Roan constitute the largest onshore wind farm in Europe, with a total capacity of 1,057 MW, enough to power more than 170,000 homes.

      The 11 Supreme Court judges declared the operational permits and expropriation authorizations for the construction of 151 wind turbines invalid. But they made no reference to what will happen now with the infrastructure.

      For the Jama brothers, whose family has been reindeer herding for generations, there is no doubt: "Those wind turbines must be dismantled."

      The Jama's say the Storheia wind farm, completed in 2020, deprives them of the three winter grazing grounds, which they use alternatively.

      Reindeer are nomads who move seasonally in search of lichens, their main source of nutrition, especially in winter. If they are disturbed by the turbines, they go looking elsewhere.

      - Not a reindeer in sight -

      With his bow tied over his shoulder, the eldest of the brothers, John Kristian, peers through his binoculars at the vast, snow-covered horizon.

      Not a reindeer in sight.

      "It's impossible for the reindeer to come here now, with all the disturbances caused by the permanent spinning of the turbines, which frighten them. And they also make a lot of noise," he says.

      "There are also parking lots, roads, road crossings.... Nature has been completely destroyed here. There is nothing left but rocks and pebbles," he adds.

      Prior to the Supreme Court decision, a lower court had recommended that the loss of land could be compensated financially so that the farmers could buy fodder for their animals.

      They totally rejected that option.

      "The reindeer must find their food themselves. If they are supplied, it will no longer be traditional grazing," Leif Arne says.

      If nothing is done, the lack of grazing land means that the Jama family will have to reduce the size of their herd, the exact size of which they do not disclose publicly because "it would be like broadcasting on the radio how much money you have in the bank."

      At 55, Leif Arne now struggles to make ends meet on his income.

      He told the court that his business turned a profit of about 300,000 kronor (E30,000, $34,000) in 2018.

      Reducing the herd threatens the viability of his work.

      Meanwhile, the wind turbines keep turning despite the court decision.

      "We take the Supreme Court's decision very seriously (...) We of course want to rectify the situation," says Torbjorn Steen, spokesman for Fosen Vind, the consortium that operates most of the wind farms.

      "The next step is to define operating conditions that ensure that we can run the turbines without harming the breeders' rights or threatening their herd. The priority for us is to dialogue with the breeders," he says.

      - Dantesque dilemma

      The Norwegian state, the main shareholder in the criticized project through the state-owned energy group Statkraft, finds itself in a tight spot.

      How does it respect the legal decision and protect the rights of the Sámi without compromising its huge economic interests or further delaying its green transition?

      The six wind power plants are worth more than E1 billion (about $1.13 billion).

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

      At the moment, the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, which granted the concessions, has said more information is needed.

      "We have not decided whether the facilities can partially or fully remain," Minister Marte Mjos Persen told AFP.

      This has led to frustration among the Sami, who see the delay as a delaying tactic to allow the turbines to continue operating, or even as a way to evade the verdict.

      "The state must acknowledge that serious mistakes have been made over the past 20 years, and it can do so by apologizing," commented Silje Karine Muotka, chairwoman of Sameting, the Norwegian Sami parliament.

      "And he has to follow up with concrete actions: the operating permit has to be cancelled, the turbines have to be dismantled and the area has to be restored, replanted and returned to the breeders," she told AFP.

      With each passing day, Sissel Stormo Holtan, a 40-year-old breeder, loses a little more faith in the legal system.

      This woman took on the Roan wind farm and won, or so she thought.

      "Nothing has changed even though we won. It's strange, like starting a new fight all over again, and it's unfair," she laments as she throws handfuls of lichen at a young orphan reindeer she has tamed.

      Sissel says she is tired of hearing the authorities talk about a long "process."

      "The sooner they remove them, the sooner we can use the area again," she says, although she admits, "I don't see myself using the area. Maybe my daughter or grandchildren can use it."

      - Right of veto -

      The Sami--formerly known as the Lapps, a term now considered pejorative--are an indigenous minority of some 100,000 people who have traditionally lived by herding reindeer and fishing.

      Settled in areas of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, the community has a painful past.

      They were subjected to brutal assimilation efforts in the 20th century, and the land they have worked for generations now has energy, mining and tourism projects.

      Before Storheia and Roan, other wind farms were built on "their" land, and others are under construction or planned.

      Like modern-day Quixotes, the Sámi take on windmills. The Sami Parliamentary Council, which brings together their community parliaments in Norway, Sweden and Finland, demands some form of veto right for future projects.

      Any wind power plants must be approved by local Sámi villagers and their elected authorities or they will be suspended, said a statement adopted in January 2021.

      Acknowledging that "climate change is a serious issue impacting Sami society," the council said that "measures taken to limit climate change must not have a negative impact on the culture and living conditions of indigenous peoples."

      According to many observers, the Norwegian Supreme Court's decision could set a legal precedent that will affect other infrastructure projects in Sami territories in Norway and its neighbors.

      "Other companies will have to think twice before starting a project without first verifying its legality in court," anticipated Susanne Normann, a researcher at the Center for Development and Environment at the University of Oslo.

      The issue has repercussions throughout the Nordic region.

      In Finland, which aspires to become a world leader in the production of electric batteries, the Sami are concerned about mining projects.

      They are currently targeting two prospecting permits granted in the tundra near the northwestern village of Enontekio, a region known for its breathtaking scenery and considered rich in mineral deposits.

      Alarmed by the environmental damage mining has caused in other parts of Finland, the Sami collected more than 37,000 signatures in 2020 to support a petition protesting against the authorities for failing to consult local people or conduct impact studies on reindeer herding.

      - "Double punishment" -

      Settled mainly in the Arctic, a region that is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, the Sami are first-hand witnesses to climate change.

      "Those of us who have lived and worked here all our lives see the vegetation changing, the tree line moving, the permafrost melting. We see new species of insects and plants," says Matti Blind Berg, a reindeer herder near Kiruna in northern Sweden.

      Temperatures rise and fall sharply now, alternating periods of cold and thaw that form thick layers of ice on the ground, preventing reindeer from reaching the lichen they often dig under the snow with their feet.

      This has also sparked rivalry among breeders for grazing land.

      In that sometimes explosive context, land use faces enormous pressure from wind farms, deposits of copper and rare earth minerals--all highly prized now that the world is turning to electric power--and forests planted for biofuels.

      "I fully understand that we need a green transition, I'm the first to support it," insists Blind Berg. "But I find it strange, to say the least, that a green transition should be at the expense of nature."

      For Susanne Normann, climate change is a "double punishment for indigenous peoples."

      "Not only are they among the peoples most exposed to climate change, but they also have to pay the price in the form of wind farms and hydroelectric dams on their territories in the name of fighting global warming," she said.

      "Where is the justice, when we know that they bear very little responsibility for the problem?" he questioned.



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