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Feb 16 2014

The Wheels of Greed Are Spinning in Iceland

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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
1 Comment

New York Times Sounds Alarm for Endangered Icelandic Highlands

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!

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

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

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

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

Oct 21 2013

Passion for Lava – The Struggle to Save Gálgahraun Lavafield

By Dr. Rannveig Magnusdottir

People have different passions. Some people are enthusiastic about coffee, others adore shiny things, yet others are passionate about nature and wildlife. Passion for nature makes people chain themselves to trees, parade naked to protest the fur trade, sail in rough seas to stop whale killing, climb oil rigs to protest drilling etc.

Now in Iceland, a group of environmentalists (lead by the NGO “Friends of the lava” are passionate about protecting a lava field, close to Reykjavík called Gálgahraun (Gallow-lava), from being dug up and buried under major roadworks. Some people might think this very odd. Why protect a small piece of lava since Iceland has so much of it? There is lava pretty much everywhere! There are a number of reasons why this particular lava field is unique and should be kept unspoiled. This lava was formed in the eruption of Búrfell, 8000 years ago and is protected by law.

This beautiful lava field is mostly intact, and contains amazing geological features and old historical paths used by our ancestors. It also has a strong resonance for cultural reasons, as our best known painter, Jóhannes Kjarval, used scenes from the Gálgahraun lava field as inspiration for some of his famous paintings. Furthermore, it is one of the last unspoiled lava fields within the greater Reykjavík area. What upsets people about the situation is that the planned (and possibly illegal) road construction is completely unnecessary. It will only serve a low number of people (Álftanes has a population of 2.484) and the road construction will cost a fortune (approx 6 million Euros). The argument put forward for the new road layout is that the old road has caused accidents because of icing but out of 44 roads within the greater Reykjavík area, 21 roads were considered more dangerous than the Álftanes road, and of 1427 roads in the whole country, 301 roads have more accidents than Álftanes road. The road could be improved and made much safer for a fraction of what the new road would cost. I don’t know exactly what drives the municipality of Garðabær and The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration to pursue this insane road construction but something about the whole thing stinks very badly.

Four nature NGO’s have sued the municipality to halt the road construction, but have not been able to change the planned work and the lawsuit is still being processed in court.

In the last weeks hundreds of people have been protecting the lava field and they set up a rota to make sure there was always someone in the lava field protecting it from the bulldozers. These brave people are making a human shield to protect something they love. Today, the police started dragging them away and are carrying them handcuffed like they were the criminals. On days like these it doesn’t feel like Iceland is a country of law and order anymore.

If you want to help in any way, you can either show up in Gálgahraun and protest or transfer a donation to their bank account number: 140 05 71017, kennitala. 480207 – 1490. All help is greatly appreciated.

Addition at 13:30 on 21st of October: I just came from Gálgahraun and the bulldozers are already ruining this amazing lava field. Dozens of people have been arrested, there is police everywhere and we all (even the police) stood there horrified watching the screaming bulldozer tear down delicate lava features. The people responsible will stop at nothing, their greed has no limits.

Update in February 2014: Gálgahraun lavafield has been destroyed and the court cases against its defenders have commenced. All are charged for “disobeying police orders”. (S.I .Ed.)

 

Oct 03 2013
2 Comments

The Age of Aluminium – A Documentary

Aluminium has found its way into every facet of our lives: deodorants, sun lotions, vaccines or filtered drinking water. But what do we actually know about the side effects of our daily consuming of aluminium products? The light metal comes with heavy consequences. Latest research links it to the increase in Alzheimer’s, breast cancer and food allergies. Hand in hand with the large scale environmental destruction and routine cultural genocide, deemed necessary to generate electricity for smelters, come the often disastrous ecological impacts of bauxite mining.

Saving Iceland would like to recommend this recent and informative film by Bert Ehgartner. Below is a short trailer for the film. You can stream or download the whole film, in either English or German here.

See also: Is Aluminium Really a Silent Killer?

Jamaica Bauxite Mining Videos

Sep 24 2013
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Secrets and Lies: Undercover Police Operations Raise More Questions than Answers

Chris Jones, Statewatch

British police officers undercover in protest movements have been shown to have regularly operated outside the UK. Activists, lawyers and MPs have all called for an independent public inquiry in order to reveal the full extent of the practice.

Two-and-a-half years after the unmasking of Mark Kennedy and other police spies in protest movements, new information has emerged that reveals the extent to which police forces across Europe colluded in their deployment. Accusations have been made that police infiltrators were at the forefront of planning protests, acting as agent provocateurs. European law enforcement agencies coordinated these activities in secretive, unaccountable transnational working groups. Police officers formed long-term, intimate relationships with activists, had children with them, and became part of their extended families. The identities of dead children were stolen to create cover “legends.”

Rather than provide answers, this information has given rise to more questions:

• On what grounds was infiltration authorised?

• Did national police forces have knowledge of foreign undercover officers operating on their territory and, if so, did they benefit from information obtained by those officers?

• Is forming relationships with “targets” – including having children with them – official state policy?

• To what extent are undercover deployments demonstrative of coordinated European police operations?

• How many – if any – of the groups infiltrated by undercover agents can be said to warrant such levels of intrusion, and how is this assessed?

Legal challenges and political inquiries have been made – and are ongoing – in an attempt to find answers to some of these questions. Official reviews have been carried out in a number of countries, but those that have been made public – for example in Iceland and the UK – have been condemned as lacklustre and shallow by political activists, journalists and elected representatives. [1] The majority of these reviews have been kept secret, providing no answers to those affected by the actions of undercover officers, while those who authorised and took part in the operations have yet to be called to account. While officials may have occasionally wrung their hands and expressed concern, no heads have rolled – yet. [2]

Repeated calls have been made in the UK for an independent public inquiry into the use of police spies to infiltrate movements, including by a former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, which have so far been resisted. [3] This article illustrates significant collusion amongst European police forces and arguably only a Europe-wide inquiry, for example by the European Parliament, can go some way towards establishing the extent to which authorities across the continent have undermined civil liberties and human rights. Read More

Sep 12 2013
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The Mark Kennedy Saga – Chapter Iceland

Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson Grapevine

Each time a free-floating rumour gets confirmed, and past political behaviour becomes a scandalous spectacle, one cannot resist wondering if such conduct might be going on today. This was the case in 2006, after a grand exposure of espionage the Icelandic state aimed at socialists during the Cold War. During parliamentary discussions following the revelation, Mörður Árnason, MP for the Social-Democratic Alliance (“Samfylkingin”), highlighted the importance of revealing if similar espionage was indeed occurring in present times. If so, he asked, “how is it being conducted? […] Which foreign states have been able to access this information?” Quite typically, those questions were never answered.

Half a decade later, in late 2010, it was revealed that a British police officer, one Mark Kennedy, had travelled around Europe for seven years disguised as environmental and anti-capitalist activist ‘Mark Stone’ and was collecting information about various activist movements and, in some cases, acting as an agent provocateur. Along with the UK, Denmark, Germany, Italy and France — to name but a few of the places where he worked — he did a stint in Iceland’s Eastern highlands in the summer of 2005. In Iceland, he attended a protest camp organised by the environmentalist movement Saving Iceland which targeted the construction of the gargantuan Kárahnjúkar dam and American aluminium giant Alcoa’s smelter in Reyðarfjörður.

The revelation mostly stayed within activist circles and publications, until early 2011, when a public expose of the spy’s true identity lead to the collapse of a UK trial against six climate-change activists, in which Mark’s secretly obtained evidence played a key role. British newspaper The Guardian then took up the case, and the Mark Kennedy saga started to snowball contemporaneously with the broader attention it received, bringing to light a number of other undercover spies.

Sex, Secrecy And Dead Children’s Identities

Shortly after Mark was exposed, Irish and German authorities admitted that he had worked within their jurisdictions and with their knowledge. Due to the ongoing efforts of Andrej Hunko — MP for German left party Die Linke — a truckload of information regarding European cross-border undercover police operations has since seen the light of day.

A recent book on the matter, written by Guardian journalists Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, brings further context to the affair — the mapping of at least 30 years of police espionage and infiltration of environmentalist, anti-racist and anarchist movements in the UK and elsewhere. Among the information revealed, the authors explain how the undercover officers at the Special Demonstration Squad — the undercover unit responsible for the infiltration — had the modus operandi of taking up identities of dead children in order to build up credible alter-egos based on the short lives of real persons.

It has also been revealed that Kennedy — along with others in his position — enjoyed several intimate relationships with some of his prospects, using sex to build up trust and gather information. One infiltrator, Bob Lambert, even fathered a child with one of these women, only to disappear as soon as his undercover employment became too risky. Eight British women who were victims of this tactic have pressed charges against the spies’ employer, the Metropolitan Police, due to the psychological damage they suffered. In a recent episode of investigative TV programme ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4, some of them described their experience as having been mass-raped by the state, as they would never have consented to sleeping with the police officers had they been aware of their real identities. Adding insult to injury, their claims will not be heard openly — the British High Court recently ruled that it would take place in the secret Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

Saving Hell’s Angels

Enter Iceland, where the big question concerned whether Mark Kennedy had operated with or without the Icelandic authorities’ knowledge and approval. According to the country’s penal code, a foreign party or state’s espionage that takes place within the jurisdiction of the Icelandic state — or is directed at something or someone therein — is illegal and punishable with five-years imprisonment. Had Mark operated without the authorities’ knowledge, it should have caused an international conflict. If he, on the other hand, collaborated with the Icelandic police, it would have equaled the invoking of proactive investigative powers, which the Icelandic police apparently didn’t have at that time.*

Thus the affair entered Iceland’s parliament in late January 2011. Assuming the former version being more likely than the latter, the above-mentioned MP Mörður Árnason asked his fellow party-member and then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Össur Skarphéðinsson, about the government’s possible actions regarding the matter. After a few lousy personal jokes thrown between the two, Össur claimed he would wait for a report on the matter — conducted by the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police — which Ögmundur Jónasson, MP for the Left Greens and then Minister of the Interior, had already requested.

But when finally published by the Commissioner’s National Security Unit in May 2011, it was pretty much impossible to estimate the relevance of the report, as the details of Ögmundur’s request were never made public. It was, however, clear that the National Commissioner — whose report literally equated environmentalist activists with Hells Angels — wasn’t about to bring any concrete information out into the public domain.

Lost In Information

Although admitting that the police received information about the activists and their plans via domestic and foreign sources, and that the Icelandic police collaborated with foreign police authorities regarding the protests, the report’s authors nevertheless fully dodged the question regarding the Icelandic police’s alleged collaboration with Mark Kennedy. The main conclusion of the report merely found that “during an overhaul of data at the National Commissioner’s office, no information has come forth enabling an answer regarding whether this agent provocateur […] was here in collaboration with or without the knowledge of the Icelandic police in 2005.”

Despite criticism from Saving Iceland and Árni Finnsson, head of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, which both accused the minister of condoning cover-ups and evasions by accepting these results, Ögmundur never really touched officially on the issue again. Neither did Össur nor Mörður or — as a matter of fact — anyone else from the establishment.

The truth regarding Kennedy’s operations in Iceland is still not publicly acknowledged, and the absurdity of the issue as it now stands is probably best described by Ögmundur’s own words, taken from an article published on Smugan — a now defunct leftist news-site —  and his last public remark on the report: “The National Commissioner’s report states that the Icelandic police obtained information from abroad concerning the protests at Kárahnjúkar, but that the police do not have information about how this information was obtained.”

* It is, in fact, questionable if the Iceland police had proactive investigative powers or not. As a result of weak laws and a lack of regulations, it actually seems that until 2011 the police had just about carte blanche regarding whom to spy on and for what reason. See more about it here.

Click here to go to the support site for the women’s legal action against the Metropolitan Police.

Watch the above-mentioned Dispatches show here below:

The Police’s Dirty Secret (47mins – Dispatches/Channel4 – 24JUN2013) from Casey Oliver on Vimeo.