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Aug 22 2014

Large Dams Just Aren’t Worth the Cost

kariba_dam By Jacques Leslie

Sunday Review

New York Times

Thayer Scudder, the world’s leading authority on the impact of dams on poor people, has changed his mind about dams.

A frequent consultant on large dam projects, Mr. Scudder held out hope through most of his 58-year career that the poverty relief delivered by a properly constructed and managed dam would outweigh the social and environmental damage it caused. Now, at age 84, he has concluded that large dams not only aren’t worth their cost, but that many currently under construction “will have disastrous environmental and socio-economic consequences,” as he wrote in a recent email.

Mr. Scudder, an emeritus anthropology professor at the California Institute of Technology, describes his disillusionment with dams as gradual. He was a dam proponent when he began his first research project in 1956, documenting the impact of forced resettlement on 57,000 Tonga people in the Gwembe Valley of present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe. Construction of the Kariba Dam, which relied on what was then the largest loan in the World Bank’s history, required the Tonga to move from their ancestral homes along the Zambezi River to infertile land downstream. Mr. Scudder has been tracking their disintegration ever since.

Once cohesive and self-sufficient, the Tonga are troubled by intermittent hunger, rampant alcoholism and astronomical unemployment. Desperate for income, some have resorted to illegal drug cultivation and smuggling, elephant poaching, pimping and prostitution. Villagers still lack electricity.

Mr. Scudder’s most recent stint as a consultant, on the Nam Theun 2 Dam in Laos, delivered his final disappointment. He and two fellow advisers supported the project because it required the dam’s funders to carry out programs that would leave people displaced by the dam in better shape than before the project started. But the dam was finished in 2010, and the programs’ goals remain unmet. Meanwhile, the dam’s three owners are considering turning over all responsibilities to the Laotian government — “too soon,” Mr. Scudder said in an interview. “The government wants to build 60 dams over the next 20 or 30 years, and at the moment it doesn’t have the capacity to deal with environmental and social impacts for any single one of them.

“Nam Theun 2 confirmed my longstanding suspicion that the task of building a large dam is just too complex and too damaging to priceless natural resources,” he said. He now thinks his most significant accomplishment was not improving a dam, but stopping one: He led a 1992 study that helped prevent construction of a dam that would have harmed Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of the world’s last great wetlands.

Part of what moved Mr. Scudder to go public with his revised assessment was the corroboration he found in a stunning Oxford University study published in March in Energy Policy. The study, by Atif Ansar, Bent Flyvbjerg, Alexander Budzier and Daniel Lunn, draws upon cost statistics for 245 large dams built between 1934 and 2007. Without even taking into account social and environmental impacts, which are almost invariably negative and frequently vast, the study finds that “the actual construction costs of large dams are too high to yield a positive return.”

The study’s authors — three management scholars and a statistician — say planners are systematically biased toward excessive optimism, which dam promoters exploit with deception or blatant corruption. The study finds that actual dam expenses on average were nearly double pre-building estimates, and several times greater than overruns of other kinds of infrastructure construction, including roads, railroads, bridges and tunnels. On average, dam construction took 8.6 years, 44 percent longer than predicted — so much time, the authors say, that large dams are “ineffective in resolving urgent energy crises.”

DAMS typically consume large chunks of developing countries’ financial resources, as dam planners underestimate the impact of inflation and currency depreciation. Many of the funds that support large dams arrive as loans to the host countries, and must eventually be paid off in hard currency. But most dam revenue comes from electricity sales in local currencies. When local currencies fall against the dollar, as often happens, the burden of those loans grows.

One reason this dynamic has been overlooked is that earlier studies evaluated dams’ economic performance by considering whether international lenders like the World Bank recovered their loans — and in most cases, they did. But the economic impact on host countries was often debilitating. Dam projects are so huge that beginning in the 1980s, dam overruns became major components of debt crises in Turkey, Brazil, Mexico and the former Yugoslavia. “For many countries, the national economy is so fragile that the debt from just one mega-dam can completely negatively affect the national economy,” Mr. Flyvbjerg, the study’s lead investigator, told me.

To underline its point, the study singles out the massive Diamer-Bhasha Dam, now under construction in Pakistan across the Indus River. It is projected to cost $12.7 billion (in 2008 dollars) and finish construction by 2021. But the study suggests that it won’t be completed until 2027, by which time it could cost $35 billion (again, in 2008 dollars) — a quarter of Pakistan’s gross domestic product that year.

Using the study’s criteria, most of the world’s planned mega-dams would be deemed cost-ineffective. That’s unquestionably true of the gargantuan Inga complex of eight dams intended to span the Congo River — its first two projects have produced huge cost overruns — and Brazil’s purported $14 billion Belo Monte Dam, which will replace a swath of Amazonian rain forest with the world’s third-largest hydroelectric dam.

Instead of building enormous, one-of-a-kind edifices like large dams, the study’s authors recommend “agile energy alternatives” like wind, solar and mini-hydropower facilities. “We’re stuck in a 1950s mode where everything was done in a very bespoke, manual way,” Mr. Ansar said over the phone. “We need things that are more easily standardized, things that fit inside a container and can be easily transported.”

All this runs directly contrary to the current international dam-building boom. Chinese, Brazilian and Indian construction companies are building hundreds of dams around the world, and the World Bank announced a year ago that it was reviving a moribund strategy to fund mega-dams. The biggest ones look so seductive, so dazzling, that it has taken us generations to notice: They’re brute-force, Industrial Age artifacts that rarely deliver what they promise. Read More

Mar 21 2014
1 Comment

Fit For Print – Did The New York Times Get it Wrong?

Gjáin By Larissa Kyzer

Photos by Ólafur Már Sigurðsson

Tourism, it need hardly be pointed out, is big business in Iceland, an industry which in the years following the crash has ballooned, with more than double the country’s population visiting last year. But while making it into the New York Times would normally be good news for Iceland’s economy, a recent entry about Iceland’s highlands on the publication’s “52 Places to Visit in 2014” list was less than ideal from a publicity standpoint.

The paragraph-long blurb did mention the area’s unique landscape, but its key takeaway was that the “famously raw natural beauty” of the highlands—and more specifically, the Þjórsárver wetlands located in the interior—may not be enjoyable by anyone, let alone tourists, for much longer. As reads the article’s subtitle: “Natural wonders are in danger. Go see them before it’s too late.”

The suggested threat facing the integrity of Þjórsárver? Not impending volcanic eruptions or natural deterioration. Rather, the article stated that the Icelandic government recently “announced plans to revoke those protections” which had been safeguarding the wetlands, and additionally, that “a law intending to further repeal conservation efforts has been put forward.”

The “52 Places” article was widely quoted within the Icelandic media. Within days of its publication, the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources issued a brief statement in Icelandic bearing the title “Incorrect Reporting by the New York Times.” It claimed that the New York Times article was “full of misrepresentations” and was “paradoxical and wrong.” The author of the article, contributing travel writer Danielle Pergament, was not contacted in regard to any “misrepresentations,” and neither was the New York Times—although the latter was invited to send a reporter to an open Environment and Communications Committee meeting on Þjórsárver a few days after the article’s publication.

So what exactly caused all the kerfuffle? Did The New York Times get it all wrong?

A Contentious History

Before we address the “incorrect reporting” alleged by the Ministry of the Environment, it will be useful to step back and explain a little of the context surrounding the Þjórsárver Wetlands and the battles which have been waged over this area since the 1960s.

Located in Iceland’s interior, the Þjórsárver wetlands stretch 120 square kilometres from the Hofsjökull glacier in the northern highlands to surrounding volcanic deserts and are characterized by remarkable biodiversity. A description on the World Wildlife Fund website points not only to the variance of the landscape itself—“tundra meadows intersected with numerous glacial and spring-fed streams, a large number of pools, ponds, lakes and marshes, and rare permafrost mounds”—but also to the area’s unique plant and birdlife, including one of the largest breeding colonies of Pink-footed Geese in the world.

Þjórsárver is fed by Iceland’s longest river, Þjórsá, which also sources much of the country’s electricity. Since the early 1960s, Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, has proposed several plans for creating a reservoir on Þjórsá that would facilitate increased energy production and enlarge energy reserves. Such reserves would not only be useful for existing industries, such as aluminium smelting, but—following the proposed creation of a submarine cable to Europe—could also be sold as part of foreign energy contracts as early as 2020.

Through the years, Landsvirkjun’s proposals have been met with frequent opposition, which in 1981 led to a nature preserve being created in the Þjórsárver wetlands. However, a provision was made within these protections, allowing Landsvirkjun to create a future reservoir, provided that the company could prove that the wetlands would not be irrevocably harmed, and that the Environment Agency of Iceland approved the reservoir plans.

By the late ‘90s, there was another flurry of activity: in 1997, the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA) was founded with the “primary objective” of “establish[ing] a national park in the highlands.” Two years later, the government began work on an extensive “Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources.” Divided into two phases that spanned from 1999 -2010, the Master Plan was intended to evaluate close to 60 hydro and geothermal development options, assessing them for environmental impact, employment and regional development possibilities, efficiency, and profitability.

Over the course of the Master Plan’s two phases, it was decided that the nature preserve established in the Þjórsárver Wetlands was to be expanded and designated as a “protected area.” The new boundaries were to be signed into regulation based on the Nature Conservation Act in June 2013 (the resolution was passed by parliament that year according to the Master Plan), until the Minister of the Environment, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, elected to postpone making them official in order to consider a new reservoir proposal from Landsvirkjun.

Based on this new proposal, Sigurður Ingi has drawn up new boundaries for the protected area, which would expand the original nature reservoir, but cover less area than the original boundaries created by the Environment Agency of Iceland. The new suggested boundaries do not extend as far down the Þjórsá river, and therefore would allow Landsvirkjun to build their Norðlingalda Reservoir. Conservationists who oppose this point out that the three-tiered Dynkur waterfall will be destroyed if Landsvirkjun’s reservoir plans go through.

olafur_mar_sigurdsson Parsing Facts

This brings us back the alleged “misrepresentations” in the New York Times write-up. Best to go through the Ministry of the Environment’s statement and address their qualms one by one:

“The article in question is full of misrepresentations about Þjórsárver preserve and the government’s intentions regarding its protection and utilisation. For instance, it states that Þjórsárver covers 40% of Iceland, while in fact, it only covers .5% of the country today.”

The first version of the article, since corrected, read as though the Þjórsárver wetlands constituted 40% of Iceland. In reality, it is the highlands that constitute 40% of Iceland’s landmass, and Þjórsárver is only part of this area. Following a call from Árni Finnsson, the chair of INCA who was quoted in the piece, this error was corrected.

“There are no plans to lift the protections currently in place. On the contrary, the Environment and Natural Resources Minister aims to expand the protected area and if that plan goes through, it’ll be an expansion of about 1,500 square kilometers, or about 1.5 % of the total area of Iceland.”

It is true that Minister of the Environment Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson has not suggested that the current protections—namely, the preserve that was established in the ‘80s—be altered. Nevertheless, it is also misleading to suggest that he personally “aims to expand the protected area,” as the expansion plans were basically mandated by the findings of the Master Plan. Moreover, he elected not to approve the Environment Agency’s expanded boundaries, but rather to propose new boundaries which would create a smaller protected area than was intended.

So no, Sigurður Ingi is not cutting back on “current protections,” but that’s only because he refused to approve the protections that were supposed to be in place already.

“Therefore, it is clear that there will be a substantial expansion of the protected area under discussion. The New York Times asserting that protections on Þjórsárver will be lifted in order to enable hydroelectric power development is both paradoxical and wrong.”

What we’re seeing the Ministry of the Environment do here is a neat little bit of semantic parsing. The NYT article states that after spending decades protecting the wetlands, “the government announced plans to revoke protections, allowing for the construction of hydropower plants.” This is a carefully qualified statement, and might accurately refer to any of several ministerial initiatives, from Sigurður Ingi’s redrawing of the Þjórsárver protected area boundaries, to his recent proposal to repeal the law on nature conservation (60/2013). This law was approved by Alþingi and was set to go into effect on April 1, 2014. It included specific protections for natural phenomena, such as lava formations and wetlands. In November, Sigurður Ingi introduced a bill to repeal the nature conservation law, although this has yet to be voted on by parliament.

So, no, the New York Times article was not “paradoxical and wrong.” It was, unfortunately, quite correct. Read More

Mar 15 2014

Tom Albanese – Blood on Your Hands

tom-albanese-chief-executive-at-rio-tinto-plc-300x232 On 6th March Tom Albanese, the former Rio Tinto CEO, was appointed CEO of Vedanta Resources, replacing M S Mehta. The newspapers are billing his appointment as an attempt to ‘polish the rough edges off [Anil] Agarwal’s Vedanta’ and to save the company from its current crisis of share price slumps, regulatory delays and widespread community resistance to their operations. This article looks at Albanese’s checkered history and the blood remaining on his hands as CEO of Rio Tinto – one of the most infamously abusive mining companies.

The Financial Times notes the importance of his ‘fixer’ role, noting that:

The quietly spoken and affable geologist is seen as someone willing to throw himself into engaging with governments and communities in some of the “difficult” countries where miners increasingly operate. That is something that Vedanta is seen as desperately needing – not least in India itself. Mr Albanese may lack experience in the country but one analyst says that can give him the opportunity to present himself as a clean pair of hands who will run mines to global standards…“There’s a big hill to climb there” Mr Albanese said.(1)

In fact Albanese has already been hard at work for Vedanta since he discreetly joined the company as Chairman of the little known holding company Vedanta Resources Holdings Ltd on Sept 16th 2013, billed as an ‘advisory’ role to Anil Agarwal (Vedanta’s 68% owner and infamously hot headed Chairman).

Vedanta Resources Holdings Ltd (VRH Ltd) (previously Angelrapid Ltd) are a private quoted holding company with $2 billion assets at present, and none at all until 2009. VRH Ltd own significant shares in another company called Konkola Resources Plc – a subsidiary of Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) – Vedanta’s Zambian copper producing unit. This is an example of the complex financial structure of Vedanta – with holding companies like this one serving to move funds, avoid taxation and facilitate pricing scams like ‘transfer mispricing’.

Shortly after becoming CEO of Vedanta Resources Holdings Albanese helped Agarwal by buying 30,500 shares in Vedanta Resources in November 2013 as their share price plummeted and Agarwal himself bought a total of 3.5 million shares to keep the company afloat. In December Albanese bought another 25,163 shares.

picture-424 By February 2014 he was being sent out to Zambia to manage a crisis over Vedanta’s attempt to fire 2000 workers, which Agarwal himself had failed to fix during an earlier trip in November, and further damage caused by revelations about the company’s tax evasion, externalising of profits and environmental devastation in Foil Vedanta’s report Copper Colonialism: Vedanta KCM and the copper loot of Zambia

In a taste of things to come newspapers referred to Tom Albanese as the Chairman of Vedanta Resources, and Labour minister Fackson Shamenda alluded to a ‘change of management’ giving them new confidence in Vedanta. Albanese appeared to have done some fine sweet talking, promising that workers would not be fired as part of a ‘new business plan’ and claiming that all of KCMs reports are transparent – an outright lie as their annual reports, profits and accounts are as good as top secret in Zambia and the UK.

However, scandals and unrest continued to blight Vedanta in Zambia and the Financial Times reported that Albanese had flown out a total of four times in February alone.

Albanese’s role as a ‘fixer’ and sweet-talker is nothing new. His appointment as CEO of Rio Tinto in 2006 was on very similar terms, as an article in The Independent newspaper noted his role to ‘green tint’ Rio, and ‘scrub its image clean’. The article mentions that, in an exclusive interview with the paper Albanese declared unprompted that the company is a “good corporate citizen”, and describes him showing no emotion and choosing his words carefully, focusing on safety and environmental and social responsibility.

But Albanese could not play dumb about the reasons a new image was needed for Rio. Since he joined the company in 1993 Rio had been accused and found guilty of a number of major human right violations

png-indonesia-somare-sby-rio-tinto-freeport-mining-money-death1-456x331 In the early nineties they forcibly displaced thousands of villagers in Indonesia for their Kelian gold mine. They, and partner Freeport McMoran caused ‘massive environmental devastation’ at the Grasberg mine in West Papua, and when people rioted over conditions in 1996, began funding the Indonesian military to protect the mine. $55 million was donated by Freeport McMoran to the Indonesian military and police between 1998 and 2004, resulting in many murders and accusations of torture. In 2010 they locked 570 miners out of their borates mine in California without paycheques leaving them in poverty. In 2008 Rio threatened to shut their Tiwai point aluminium smelter, firing 3,500 if the government imposed carbon taxes. In Wisconsin, Michigan and California the are accused of toxic waste dumping and poisoning of rivers, and in Madagascar and Cameroon they have displaced tens of thousands of people without compensation or customary rights at their QMM mine, and the giant Lom Pangar Dam – built to power an aluminium smelter.

bouganville In 2011 a US federal court action accused Rio Tinto of involvement in genocide in Bouganville, Papua New Guinea, where the government allegedly acted under instruction from Rio Tinto in the late eighties and nineties when it killed thousands of local people trying to stop their Panguna copper and gold mine. 10,000 people were eventually killed in the class uprising that resulted from the conflict over the mine. Rio Tinto were accused of providing vehicles and helicopters to transport troops, using chemicals to defoliate the rainforests and dumping toxic waste as well as keeping workers in ‘slave like conditions‘.

Yet, Albanese is being seen as a respectable CEO with a more diplomatic and clean approach than his new Vedanta counterpart Anil Agarwal. There is great irony in Albanese’s promises to improve workers conditions in Zambia when Rio Tinto are famed for their ‘company wide de-unionisation policy’, with 200 people marching against the ill treatment of mineworkers outside the international Mining Indaba in Cape Town in February, calling them ‘one of the most aggressive anti union companies in the sector’.

rio-tinto-pollution Perhaps Albanese will feel at home in another company with a dubious human rights and environmental record. Both Rio and Vedanta have been removed from the Norwegian Government Pension Fund’s Global Investments for ‘severe environmental damages’ and unethical behaviour following investigations. The Norwegian government divested its shares in Rio Tinto in 2008, while it divested from Vedanta Resources in 2007, and also excluded Vedanta’s new major subsidiary Sesa Sterlite from its portfolio just a few weeks ago in January 2014.

Albanese was previously famed for being one of the highest paid CEOs on the FTSE 100, earning £11.6 million in 2011. However he refused his 2012 bonus in a last ditch attempt to save his career at Rio before he was fired in January 2013 amid a total of $14 billion in write-downs caused by his poor decision to acquire Alcan’s aluminium business just before prices crashed, and a $3 billion loss on the Riversdale coal assets he bought in Mozambique, making him in effect a ‘junk’ CEO today.

money-graphics-2004_936392a Other commentators have noted that this is not the first time Vedanta have recruited a junked mining heavyweight to save their bacon, but point out that the appointments have previously been short-lived, possibly due to frustrations about the dominance of majority owner Agarwal and his family. The infamous mining financier Brian Gilbertson, who merged BHP and Billiton, was another scrap heap executive who helped Vedanta launch on the London Stock Exchange in 2003 in the largest initial share flotation that year. However, he quit after only seven months after falling out with Agarwal.

Albanese is diplomatic when faced with questions about potential conflicts between himself and 68% owner and Chairman Anil Agarwal claiming Agarwal “will be in[the] executive chairman role when it comes to M&A and strategy”. However, commentators point out that, ‘the British Financial Services and Markets Act of 2000 stipulated that the posts of CEO and Chairman of companies should be separated – a principle which was backed in October 2013 by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority’, potentially posing another corporate governance issue for Vedanta, who are already accused of violating governance norms in London by people as unlikely as the former head of the Confederation of British Industry – Richard Lambert.

But Albanese is positive about his re-emergence as a major mining executive. In fact the man with so much blood on his hands may be alluding to his experience in making great profit from others’ misery, when he says to the Financial Times, on the occasion of his appointment as Vedanta CEO, that:

Sometimes the best opportunities are when the times are darkest”.

Read More

Mar 05 2014

Björk, Patti Smith, Lykke Li and More to Play Concert for Icelandic Conservation

2012bjorkpr270312 Event takes place on March 18 in Reykjavik at Harpa.

Bjork will play a concert in protest at the Icelandic government’s proposed changes to conservation laws.

The Icelandic singer tops the bill at the event, which will take place on March 18 at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland. Artists appearing include Lykke Li, Patti Smith, Mammút (pictured below), Highlands, Of Monsters And Men, Samaris and Retro Stefson.

The concert is organised in conjunction with the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA), Landvernd, the Icelandic Environment Association and director Darren Aronofsky, whose film Noah was shot on location in Iceland in 2012 and will premiere at Sambíóin Egilshöll Cinema on the same afternoon.

Collectively operating under the name Stopp!, the group aims to encourage the Icelandic authorities to protect Iceland’s natural environment and impose controls on the damming of glacial rivers and harnessing of geothermal energy, in light of new legislation, reports RUV.

This project was introduced at a press conference at Harpa on the 3rd of March 2014. Björk and Darren Aronofsky participated in the press conference.

The artists will donate their time and the net income will go to INCA and Landvernd.

The following statement lists the group’s demands:

Stop – Guard the Garden! mammut-komdu-til-min-svarta-systir

All over the world too much of priceless nature has been sacrificed for development, often falsely labeled as sustainable. Rain forests have been cut, waterfalls dammed, land eroded, lakes and oceans polluted, earth’s climate altered and the oceans are now rapidly getting more and more acidic.

In Iceland, the Karahnjukar Power Plant has become the symbol for the destruction which threatens human existence on this earth.

It is our duty to protect Icelandic nature and leave it to future generations, undamaged. The Icelandic highlands, Europe’s largest remaining wilderness – where nature is still largely untouched by man, is not just a refuge and treasure which we inherited and will inherit. The highlands belong to the world as a whole. Nowhere else can we find another Lake Myvatn, Thjorsarver Wetlands, Sprengisandur, Skaftafell or Lake Langisjor.

We demand that Thjorsarver Wetlands, the wilderness west of Thjorsa River and the waterfalls downstream will be protected for all future to come. We strongly protest plans by the Minister for the Environment and Resources to change the demarcation line for the extended nature reserve in the Thjorsarver Wetlands. By doing so, the minister creates a space for a new dam at the outskirts of the area. The way in which the minister interprets the law in order to justify that all nature and/or potential power plants are at stake in each and every new phase of the Master Plan for Conservation and Utilization of Nature Areas is an attack on Icelandic nature and not likely to stand in a court of law. [We have engaged a law firm and we are threatening lawsuit if the Minister goes ahead with his plan]

We now have a unique opportunity to turn the highlands into a national park by bill of law to be adopted by the parliament. Thereby the highlands as a whole will be subject to one administrative unit and clearly defined geographically. Thus all plans for power lines, road construction and/or other man made structures which will fragment valuable landscapes of the highlands will belong to history.

We strongly caution against any plans to construct a geothermal power plant at or near Lake Myvatn. The Bjarnarflag Power Plant is not worth the risk. Lake Myvatn is absolutely unique in this world. Hence, we have a great responsibility for its protection.

We demand that the nature of Reykjanes Peninsula will be protected by establishing a volcanic national park and that all power lines will be put underground.

We find it urgent that the government will secure funds for conservation by hiring land wardens and will protect valuable nature areas against the ever growing pressure of mass tourism.

In particular we protest against the attack on nature conservationists, where unprecedented (sic. S.I. editor) and brutal conduct by the police as well as charges pressed against those who want to protect the Galgahraun Lava, was cruel and unnecessary. We remind that the right of the public to protest nature damage everywhere, worldwide, is a basic premise for the success of securing future human existence on this earth.

We demand that the proposed bill of law repealing the new nature protection laws be withdrawn and that the new laws should take effect, as stipulated, on April 1.

 

Feb 16 2014

The Wheels of Greed Are Spinning in Iceland

Godafoss Iceland once was set as an example of unspoiled nature, clean energy and extraordinary financial recovery. Unfortunately, lately the strong Atlantic winds of change start to blow in the wrong direction.

By Julia Vol

In the wake of the devastating financial crisis that brought Iceland to its knees, the people took charge, went out on the streets and demanded the right-wing government to quit what later will be named the “pots and pans revolution”. The right-wing government, led by the Independence Party, was deeply involved in corruption and notoriously known for its crony capitalistic approach in reaching for the country’s leadership, which eventually led to the economical collapse.

The new social-democratic alliance led by Johanna Sigurðardóttir came to power in May 2009, and in the aftermath of the financial collapse had a lot of mess to clean and painful decisions to make. However, under Sigurðardóttir’s leadership the economic situation stabilized and recovery came about quicker than expected. In the years to follow, Iceland was often quoted as an example for economic recovery to fellow crisis countries such as Greece and Ireland. In addition to essential financial reforms and regulations, the social-democratic government set the foundation for long-term social and environmental sustainability. Natural preservation laws and committees were put forward to minimize the exploitation of Icelandic natural resources for monetary profit, green economy plans were outlined by the Parliament, and sustainability considerations started to receive growing attention in decision-making processes.

Many Icelanders even claim that the crisis turned out to be somewhat a positive thing, breaking the “gold rush” craze grasping the nation over the years prior to the crisis, and helping people get back to basic values and out of their arrogance and greed.

Still, apparently not enough Icelanders shared this optimistic view, as in April 2013 the right-wing coalition led by the infamous Independent and Progressive Parties were voted back into the government, by a majority of 51% of the votes. Only four years after being disgracefully thrown out of Parliament, the two parties were back on the top again. With less than a year in power, things seem to take a backward turn to the worse quite quickly, especially in regards to issues of natural preservation, social justice and governance on the little island.

sigurdur-saurbjor A More Utilitarian Use of Nature

The results of the administration switch were soon translated into action. Among the first steps of the new government was to cancel out the Ministry of Environment and merge it with the Ministry of Fishing and Agriculture. No conflict of interests there. The new minister of all the above declared upon entering the office, that his administration would be making more utilitarian usage of the Icelandic nature and refused to sign a bill initiated by the previous government to increase nature protection in Iceland. This promising start embodies the governments’ general line of argument: that whenever environmental considerations are part of the equation they will always count the least.

It’s All About Energy

The previous government had appointed a special professional committee to conduct the “Energy Framework”, a document aimed at providing guidelines on which areas of Iceland could be harnessed for power, and which shall be protected, aiming to regulate and limit the exploitation of natural resources for monetary profit. Shortly after coming to power, the new government called to cancel the Energy Framework guidelines and build a new shiny power plant in areas previously categorized as preserved. The government also dismissed over 400 letters from citizens who raised concerns over the new changes – in a manner that was widely described as arrogant and ignorant. Government officials claimed that experts’ opinions were more important than public opinion, while forgetting to mention that the two experts appointed to deal with the issues were politically appointed with no expertise in energy nor in preservation.

Tony Prower Over the course of the last half a year new plans have been laid out, setting the stage for more energy projects that violate the Energy Framework and the Icelandic conservation law. Experts from all fields are voicing their concerns and dissatisfaction over the very short-sighted environmental assessments made in the preparations for the new plants, warning constantly about the irreversible damage that will be done to Icelandic wilderness and disturbed ecosystems.

Worldly renowned natural areas such as the Mývatn lake, the Þórsjá river and the Icelandic highlands are put in danger of destruction, all for the cause of producing more energy for aluminum smelters. Lately, the Minister of Environment (and agriculture, and fishing), announced that he aimed to change the existing conservation law to allow further development in preserved areas around the Þórsjá river, including damming the river flow. This area (Þjórsárver, S.I. Ed.) has been protected by both the Environment Agency of Iceland and the Ramsar Convention since 1981. As expected, the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association strongly objected the plan, claiming that this will cause irreversible damage to the entire area and the surrounding waterfalls. The minister’s answer to these allegations was that it is okay to sacrifice several waterfalls for the purpose of economic profit which will come out of developing the area.

bjarni-benediktsson Infrastructure for Private Interests

The violation of the natural conservation law continued when last October the government presented a brand new program to construct a highway which will pass through an 8,000 year old protected lava field. This expensive plan has been approved by the government right after a long line of a very painful budget cuts in education, welfare, health, culture, research, arts and science (yet not in subsidies to heavy industry). Why such a rush to build a highway in a sparsely populated area in times of financial cuts? The answer followed soon: The family of the Minister of Finances is expected to greatly benefit from the development of this project.

Environmentalist groups appealed against the project to the supreme court, however, the government decided that waiting for the court decision would be a waste of time and gave green light to start the construction. This sparked a protest of concerned citizens, and many of them arrived to express their dissatisfaction with the construction. They were arrested for speaking their mind despite their completely peaceful protest. Among the arrested protesters were some very well-known journalists, professors and public figures, not exactly a group of hooligans. Today, some of these people are facing prosecution 1384091_10151986640350011_622374459_n for demanding the government to obey the law. This chain of events vividly demonstrates the government’s insistence on proceeding with its plans at all costs, using every possible tool to silence the opposition.

“Enjoy the Icelandic Wilderness (Before it’s Too Late)!”

The disruption and destruction of the Icelandic nature reserves is not preventing the new government from attracting as many tourists as possible, and maximizing profits from marketing Icelandic wilderness before it’s all gone. Tourism is a very fast-growing industry in post-financial crisis Iceland. The number of tourists has tripled over the past 12 years passing the threshold of 1 million tourists in 2013 (keep in mind that the entire population of Iceland is 380,000 people!). Understandably, this raises concerns over the fragile Icelandic nature, which was never exposed to so many people at once. While the previous government was putting forward regulations and preservation plans, the new government announced that 1 million is not enough and aims to bring over 3 million tourists per year within the next few years. Already today the effects of this fast growing industry are evident all around the island: Massive tourism is damaging fragile ecosystems, and Icelandic cities are turning into tourist attractions with decreased space for the local population. Needless to say that such a steep increase in tourism will put strain on the ecological system, especially since there is still no regulation or infrastructure in place to prevent the long-term effects of massive tourism. No wonder then, that even the New York Times strongly recommended its readers to go to Iceland ASAP, before it’s too late.

To Whale or Not to Whale

The paradox of destroying nature while communicating and marketing the image of Iceland as a pure and unspoiled nature destination is very present in the whaling controversy. Last summer the whaling of Fin whales was renewed, and the new administration has also revoked the decision to limit whaling grounds around the capital in favor of whale watching areas. Note that whale watching is the most profitable tourism attraction in the capital area, however, there is an increasing amount of incidents where tourists pay to witness the magic of wild animals but end up watching a very bloody hunting process.

PM-Gunnlaugsson The paradox is that the demand for whale meat worldwide decreases, and that it would be much more profitable to preserve these magnificent creatures for whale watching only. But this does not fall in line with the internal interests of the Icelandic elite, where the family owning the whaling company is well connected. The whaling ships continue their work, and the saddest part of this paradox is that due to low demand many of the endangered animals end their life as dog food in Japan or as some marketing nonsense such as “whale beer”.

The Wheels of Greed are Spinning

Iceland is an amazing country and is home to some of the most creative, innovative, talented and entrepreneurial people. It has the potential to become a role model for a sustainable community in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. For a brief moment there it looked that it might even come true. However, it seems that the strong Atlantic winds bring darker times along. Best put into words by the former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir: “The current government’s priorities could not be more different from the ones honored by the last one. Inequality is once again rearing its ugly head, and the sharp knife of austerity has been turned towards the welfare system—all to benefit society’s wealthiest and best-off. Once more, the wheels of greed are spinning”. Read More

Feb 16 2014
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New York Times Sounds Alarm for Endangered Icelandic Highlands

30highlandsmynd_big Natural wonders are in danger.
Go see them before it’s too late.

The Icelandic government has spent decades protecting its glaciers, pools, ponds, lakes, marshes and permafrost mounds in the Thjorsarver Wetlands, part of the central highlands, which constitute some 40 percent of the entire country, mostly in the interior. But last year, the government announced plans to revoke those protections, allowing for the construction of hydropower plants (instead of glaciers and free-flowing rivers, imagine man-made reservoirs, dams, paved roads and power lines). “If they get into this area, there will be no way to stop them from destroying the wetlands completely,” said Arni Finnsson, the chairman of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association. More bad news looms: A law intending to further repeal conservation efforts has been put forward, so if you ever want to see Iceland in all of its famously raw natural beauty, go now. — DANIELLE PERGAMENT

Feb 05 2014

People’s Victory Costs Vedanta $10 Billion at Niyamgiri!

Dongria activist uses a phone to document the police at a six day foot-march to prepare for On Saturday 11th January the Ministry of Environment and Forests finally gave its statement formally rejecting permission for Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mine. This move brings a conclusive end to the ten year struggle of the Dongria Kond tribe, alongside local farmers and dalits, to prevent the mining of this sacred mountain range which is their livelihood. Saving Iceland has followed the struggle and supported our comrades at Foil Vedanta as part of the global solidarity campaign which helped win this unique victory. Read More

Feb 05 2014

Copper Colonialism – Vedanta KCM and the Copper Loot of Zambia

cecil-rhodes Saving Iceland associates Samarendra Das and Miriam Rose of Foil Vedanta have recently authored a report exposing Vedanta’s dirty dealings in Zambia. The report has already caused a stir and the Mineworkers Union of Zambia have launched an investigation into the report’s findings.

Daily Nation, a leading independent Zambian daily newspaper, reports: Copper gate scandal deepens

The report by Das and Rose can be downloaded here: Copper Colonialism – Vedanta KCM and the copper loot of Zambia report or you can read the full report (35 page) online below.

21st January 2014. 

In December Foil Vedanta activists made a trip to Zambia to investigate the operations of Vedanta subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), Zambia’s biggest copper miner, and to make links with grassroots movements, academics, journalists and those in the political system who may be questioning the unjust terms of copper mining in their country.

We were shocked to discover the environmental and social devastation wrought by Vedanta’s operations, and the lack of information held by policy makers and regulators in Zambia on this multinational as well as on wider issues with copper market manipulations, material flows and the real interests controlling their country. This report is a comprehensive account of the origins of, and interests behind the rapid loot of Zambia’s copper resources which is currently taking place. Read More

Jan 30 2014

Skouries – A Story of Political Emancipation

How a mining conflict led to the political emancipation of a community in Northern Greece.

By Evi Papada

Occupied London – From the Greek Streets

Skouries1_0 Mining conflicts are increasingly surfacing globally due to complains over mines and pollution of water, soil and land occupied as well as over transport and waste disposal. The Skouries forest in Halkidiki has been at the center of a hot dispute between the mining company, Hellas Gold, a subsidiary of the Canadian mining giant Eldorado Gold and local communities. The company claims that an ambitious plan for mining of gold and copper in the area- including deforestation and open pit mining with excavation and everyday use of explosives- will benefit the region through the creation of some 5,000 direct and indirect jobs, while local residents argue that the planned investment will cause considerable damage to the environment  and livelihoods, resulting to many more jobs losses in the existing sectors of the local economy (farming, pasture land, fisheries, beekeeping, food processing and tourism).  The residents’ claims are supported by research conducted by various independent scientific institutions including the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the Technical Chamber of Macedonia. In addition to legitimacy questions underpinning the transfer of mining rights from the Greek state to the aforementioned company[1],  the Environmental Impact Assessment produced by El Dorado has been found to contain gross methodological discrepancies and whilst the public consultation process could be at best described as cosmetic[2]. Read More

Oct 28 2013

Come and Meet the Members of the Brand

inspired-by-iceland-my-arse By Haukur Már Helgason

After being hailed as the world’s radical wunderkind for a few years, Iceland left observers perplexed when the parties evidently responsible for its failed neoliberal experiment were voted back in 2013. Who or what runs this shop, really?

You “want to move outside the herd and be independent” because you are “different from the ‘ordinary’ tourist.” You “have above average education” and you “have above average income,” says the Icelandic Tourist Industry Association’s report from last year, defining their target group, ‘the enlightened tourist.’ And boy, are you targeted. Read More