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Saami Reindeer Herders Fight Wind Farm Project

Europe’s largest onshore wind farm is being built in central Norway. But the project, which will more than double Norway’s wind capacity, lies in the middle of an important reindeer grazing area, leaving Saami herders worried about the impact it might have on their livelihood and traditions.

Written by Aron B. Løsnes Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Windmills at Smøla, Norway, southwest of the Fosen region.Statkraft

In early April, construction crews began building Europe’s largest onshore wind farm in central Norway. Once it is completed, it will have a capacity of 1,000 megawatts (MW) – more than the current installed wind capacity in Norway – and will produce 3.4 terawatt hours (TWh) of power annually, enough to supply 170,000 Norwegian households with electricity.

Most of the 278 wind turbines will be built on the Fosen Peninsula, near Trondheim. The area is known for its conifer forests, lakes and mountains, much loved by outdoor enthusiasts and used by reindeer herders and for agricultural activities.

But the project will leave a large environmental footprint. The Saami reindeer herders who use the land to graze their animals are concerned about the wind farm’s impact on their traditional industry and culture.

In Norway, the Saami have the right to use land for traditional activities, including reindeer herding. According to a recent U.N. report, the Saami graze about 200,000 reindeer on approximately 40 percent of Norway’s territory.

“It is evident that one of the largest onshore wind power facilities in Europe will have irreparable consequences for the reindeer owners who have drifted here since time immemorial,” said Thomas Åhren, a governing council member of the Saami Parliament of Norway, in a press release.

Compared with the overall area used for reindeer herding in the region – 4,200 square kilometers (1,600 square miles) – the area that will be used for the turbines is relatively small, roughly 70 square kilometers (27 square miles). But, in addition to the turbines, the region will see an increase in human activity, as well as new power lines and more than 241km (150 miles) of new roads.

Industrial projects have challenged reindeer herding communities in Norway for decades. The most famous dispute was the standoff over a hydroelectric project that occurred in Alta between 1979 and 1981. More recently, the Saami have come up against mining and energy corporations.

The joint venture company behind the current wind farm project, Fosen DA, argues that the development will create jobs in maintenance and machine work, and in the hospitality sector, to the benefit of the local economy. According to Statkraft, the largest shareholder of Fosen DA, the wind farms will create about 50 jobs once the farms are completed and generate about 70 million Norwegian kroner ($8.5 million) in property taxes for the municipalities. The project, estimated to be completed in 2020, will cost 11 billion Norwegian kroner ($1.33 billion).

Energy surplus in Norway

Economists have criticized the project for being redundant. Norway produces more energy than it uses. According to Statnett, which owns and operates the Norwegian power grid, the country produced 143TWh of electricity and consumed 128TWh in 2015. Opponents of the project also argue that it won’t have socioeconomic benefits, because the added energy surplus may reduce electricity prices and reduce the country’s revenues from selling power.

The project has been scrapped once before. In 2015, the government-owned company Statkraft, which was the driving force behind the development, decided it would be commercially irresponsible to implement, because of the energy surplus in the Nordic market; the moderate projected increase in electricity demand did not merit more production of electrical power.

But following the reactions from politicians and a request from Credit Suisse, the company reversed its decision 20 days later. After some modifications that included primarily the relocation some of the turbines, Fosen DA – owned 52.1 percent by Statkraft, 7.9 percent buy Trønderenergi and 40 percent by Nordic Energy Power, a company owned by Credit Suisse – decided to press on. Initially, the turbines located on the peninsula were to have a capacity of 650MW, but changes to the plan boosted capacity to 750MW. Some of the local reindeer herders called the decision a betrayal.

Statkraft argues that the added wind energy will be important for increasing the country’s electrification and for selling electricity to Europe. “Renewable production of energy will be increasingly important in the future when fossil fuels are gradually replaced,” said Knut Fjerdingstad, a spokesperson for Statkraft. Almost all of the electrical power used in Norway (98 percent) comes from renewable sources, mostly from hydroelectric plants, and renewable energy has started to replace fossil fuels in the transportation sector.

Norway currently has a limited ability to export its electricity, but this may change. The country exports electricity to Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Russia and the Netherlands via cross-border interconnectors – links to other electrical networks that make export and import of power possible. Oslo plans to build interconnectors to Germany and Great Britain in order to export renewable energy.

But the E.U. quota system means that the added renewable energy could have little effect on overall greenhouse gas emissions. A surplus of emission allowances under the E.U. Emissions Trading System has kept carbon prices low and reduced incentives to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Saami representatives have long supported efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, in part because climate change is also affecting the reindeer industry. But the new onshore wind farm project is one of many development projects in recent years that have put pressure on the reindeer industry.

Consequences for reindeers

Reindeer husbandry has been a part of the Saami culture for centuries. It is a semi-nomadic tradition in which herders follow their animals from pasture to pasture throughout the year. But the Saami are as diverse as other peoples and fewer than 5 percent of the 40,000–60,000 Saami living in Norway are involved in reindeer husbandry.

The local reindeer herders say the project will lead to the loss of pastures and disturb their animals. Several reports have shown that reindeers avoid areas where there are power lines. According to a report by the University of Oslo and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, this is primarily due to human activity along the access roads and maintenance work on the power lines. But it’s unclear if the conclusions of these studies, which were done in areas close to settlements, are transferable to the Fosen peninsula, where there is little human presence.

Reindeer herding is collaborative enterprise. The areas used for herding are divided into districts that contain “siidas,” which are composed of one or several groups or groups of reindeer herders that own the animals in that area. The Fosen reindeer herding district contains 2,000 animals that belong to two siidas, at the northern and southern ends of the peninsula. Each of these siidas has three operating units, or shares, belonging to the reindeer owners.

According to Arvid Jåma, a local reindeer herder, one of the three units in South Fosen will have to close down and the herders will have to quit their practice as a consequence of the wind farm project. Jåma has fought against other development projects in the area in the past. “It is like David’s battle against Goliath,” he said.

In order to keep reindeer herding economically and ecologically sustainable, it is important for the animals to have enough space for grazing, especially in the spring during the calving period. Ellinor Marita Jåma, the director of the Reindeer Herders’ Association of Norway and a member of the Saami Parliament, told the Trønder-Avisa, a Norwegian newspaper, that limiting the size of the winter pastures will make reindeer herding unsustainable. She explained that the people impacted will be forced to give up their cultural heritage, basis of income and lifestyle.

Bearer of Southern Saami culture

According to Jåma, the project violates national and international law, including the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She is also concerned about the impact it will have on the Southern Saami culture. “Reindeer herding in the Southern Saami area is the bearer of the Southern Saami language and culture,” she said.

About 2,000 people are part of the Southern Saami, a subgroup that speaks a language that is significantly different from the other Saami languages. As the Southern Saami are small in number, they face a challenge to maintain their culture and language. Many are now concerned about the impact the wind farm project will have on their situation and some have argued that it violates Norway’s obligation to safeguard the rights of the Saami, including their ability to maintain culture, languages and traditions.

The reindeer herders are now preparing for a legal case to reverse the project. Lawyer Geir Haugen who represents the reindeer herders explained to Adresseavisen, a Norwegian newspaper, that if necessary they will take their case all the way to the Supreme Court of Norway and the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

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