Wind energy conflicts show how Arctic renewable energy projects can founder

“The Sámi aren’t against a greener world, but it’s unfair that we have to pay for it with our culture.”

By Kevin McGwin - September 23, 2020
The Kjøllefjord wind farm in northern Norway. Herders have the backing of science and the courts when they say reindeer avoid turbines, rendering grazing areas unusable. (Statkraft)

Arctic renewable energy has the potential for a global impact, but stories of energy transformation in the region are often overshadowed. For the month of September, ArcticToday is launching a special focus on renewable energy in the Arctic and this piece is part of that coverage. Find the full series here, or subscribe to our daily newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to be the first to read new installments.

At its essence, the Sámi position when it comes to renewable energy in the form of wind turbines and hydroelectric is simple: Herders don’t want their reindeer-herding disrupted by human-made hindrances.

Infrastructure such as railways, roads, dams and wind farms all pose problems for herders in one way or another. In the case of wind farms, the problem is twofold: First, their placement can disrupt migration routes, either forcing reindeer and their herders to find a new path between winter and summer grazing areas or requiring them to negotiate passage with the wind farm’s owner; the second problem is that the turbines themselves can render grazing areas unusable.

The Sámi experience is a case study in how renewable energy projects in the Arctic, depending on how they are executed, can be a source of problems instead of a solution.

“The Sámi aren’t against a greener world, but it’s unfair that we have to pay for it with our culture,” says Christina Henriksen, the president of Sámiráđđi, an organization that represents Sámi interests in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Sámi recognize that renewable energy and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions are necessary, but the groups that represent them are opposed to energy projects on Sámi territories that threaten the Sámi way of life — developments that often amount to what some critics have labeled “green colonialism.”

What’s more, they say, some of these projects risk doing more harm to the environment than good.

“Wind power is a renewable energy source that, properly done, can help meet our future energy needs. But improperly placed wind farms are neither environmentally friendly nor sustainable,” Sweden’s Samediggi, that country’s elected Sámi assembly, wrote in its wind-power policy, published in 2009.

Instead of building new energy infrastructure that lays claim to new land in Sápmi, the strategy recommends that existing hydroelectric dams in the region be upgraded.

Wind turbines are a particular concern because, scientific studies confirm, reindeer avoid them. The findings are something the courts appear to have accepted. Earlier this year, a Norwegian court ruled that a group of herders should be paid 90 million kroner ($9.6 million) after they had claimed they were no longer able to graze in the area in what is currently Norway’s largest wind farm.

The decision, according to Henriksen, was welcome recognition of the effects energy infrastructure has on the Sámi, and it may set a precedent they can use when future wind farms come into conflict with herding. The Sámi, however, hardly considered it a victory.

“We had hoped that the court would decide that the permit was given illegally, because the acknowledgement of the fact that these areas are ruined for the reindeer husbandry is very important,” Henriksen says.

Herders also point out that the money — which is go to towards building fences, feeding reindeer during the winter and helping those who must give up herding to find new livelihoods — is limited. The effect of wind farms, they worry, is not.

“If they take the wind turbines down after 25 years, who’s to say they won’t put something else up in its place?” Henriksen says. “It’s also a mental thing: you can pay a herder to feed his animals, but that’s not herding anymore. Eventually the money will run out. What do they do then?”

The Sámi are not alone in their misgivings about renewable energy infrastructure in the wide-open spaces of the North. Some conservancies and land owners argue, for example, that wind turbines cause problems for wildlife or spoil views. But Sámi organizations have remained in the forefront of such disputes, because of how central reindeer herding is to Sámi culture.

“The loss of land is the crucial point,” Henriksen says. “The non-Sámi organizations we ally with are against wind turbines and infrastructure because of its impact on the natural environment. For us, there’s that, but, if we lose our land, we lose our culture.”

In Norway, the Sámi have suggested the national wind power strategy — intended as guidelines for how the country could promote construction of new wind farms — should, first and foremost, state where wind farms may not be built. That, according to Sámediggi, Norway’s elected Sámi assembly, would allay uncertainty amongst herders about the future of the practice.

The rules for how the Sámi should be consulted before a project begins differ across Arctic Europe. In general, Sweden, Norway and Finland provide some form of guarantee to consult the groups who will be affected. Norway goes furthest. It has ratified ILO Convention 169, A UN agreement that guarantees indigenous groups a say in issues that affect them. Still, Henriksen says, the Sámi feel consultation amounts to information-giving followed by negotiations about how to find an agreement that is “less harmful” than what they were originally presented with.

Rasmus Kløcker Larsen, a senior research fellow with SEI, a Sweden-based independent research institute dealing with environmental issues, describes this as the Sámi seeking to get the best out of what they see as a foregone conclusion.

“It’s often presented as if Sámi are happy to have worked out an agreement, but the reality is that they didn’t have much of a choice. In a situation when you aren’t free to enter into an agreement or not, you take when you can get.”

He says the Sámi tend to be marginalized both by a lack of recognition of their Indigenous rights in national legislation, and by a lack of resources to defend violations of their rights. This is especially true when it comes to wind power.

“Wind power is perceived as benevolent amongst the general population, and it has broad political support,” he says.

When decisions are made about where to place new installations, the Sámi might find themselves pitted against powerful people in southern Sweden who don’t want projects placed near their summer cottages. Placing the burden on people who have a weak position in debates over renewable energy is convenient for decision makers.”

Inspired, in part, by the court ruling from Norway this January, as well as one in Sweden, also in January, about Sámi fishing and hunting rights, herders, Henriksen and Kløcker Larsen agree, will increasingly turn to the courts to settle disputes.

“It’s in our favor that interpretations of the law can change — and the law is starting to recognize that Sámi people have rights,” Henriksen says, “but, for now, the system is the same.”

When lawsuits fall out on behalf of the Sámi, it shows, according to Kløcker Larsen, that the courts have started to recognize that decisions must be made out of respect for their rights as an Indigenous group, including their right to influence decisions about projects that affect them. This, he believes, is an acknowledgment that the courts view existing national legislation as outdated in light of advances in international Indigenous rights.

But changing legislation may be a challenge. Sweden, for example, takes a cost-benefit approach towards renewable-energy projects that doesn’t allow for equal treatment of what he calls “the unique and intrinsic values” of an Indigenous culture. When it does, it places it alongside factors that affect more people or involve larger sums of money.

“People like renewable energy, and wind farms are a big business,” he says. “That’s hard for a traditional livelihood to compete against, especially when the playing field is uneven and the rules of the game are dictated by others.”