'Democracy deficit' Tag Archive

Apr 25 2013
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The Biological Death of River Lagarfljót — Yet Another Revelation of the Kárahnjúkar Disaster


In his much celebrated play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Italian absurdist Dario Fo brings forth a tragicomic picture of the scandal and its most typical aftermaths in democratic societies, thus described by the main protagonist, the Maniac:

People can let off steam, get angry, shudder at the thought of it… ‘Who do these politicians think they are?’ ‘Scumbag generals!’ […] And they get more and more angry, and then, burp! A little liberatory burp to relieve their social indigestion.

These words came to mind last month when Iceland’s media reported upon the current situation of river Lagarfljót in the east of Iceland. “Lagarfljót is dead,” some of them even stated, citing the words of author and environmentalist Andri Snær Magnason regarding a revelation of the fact that the river’s ecosystem has literally been killed by the the gigantic Kárahnjúkar Dams. The dams were built in Iceland’s eastern highlands in the years between 2002 and 2006, solely to provide electricity for aluminium giant and arms producer Alcoa’s smelter in the eastern municipality of Reyðarfjörður.

The revelation of Lagarfljót’s current situation originates in a report made by Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s state owned energy company and owner of the 690 MW Kárahnjúkar power plant, the main conclusions of which were made public last month. Although covered as breaking news and somewhat of a scandal, this particular revelation can hardly be considered as surprising news.

Quite the contrary, environmentalists and scientists have repeatedly pointed out the mega-project’s devastating irreversible environmental impacts — in addition to the social and economical ones of course — and have, in fact, done so ever since the plan was brought onto the drawing tables to begin with. Such warnings, however, were systematically silenced by Iceland’s authorities and dismissed as “political rather than scientific”, propaganda against progress and opposition to “green energy” — only to be proven right time and time again during the last half a decade.

AQUATIC ECOSYSTEMS SHOULD RECEIVE MORE ATTENTION

One of the Kárahnjúkar plant’s functions depends on diverting glacial river Jökulsá á Dal into another glacial river Jökulsá í Fljótsdal, the latter of which feeds Lagarfljót. This means that huge amounts of glacial turbidity are funnelled into the river, quantitatively heretofore unknown in Lagarfljót. This has, in return, led to the disintegration of Lagarfljót’s ecosystem, gargantuan land erosion on the banks of the river, serious decrease in fish population and parallel negative impacts on the area’s bird life.

As reported by Saving Iceland in late 2011, when the dams impacts on Lagarfljót had become a subject matter of Iceland’s media, the glacial turbidity has severely altered Lagarfljót’s colour. Therefore, sunlight doesn’t reach deep enough into the water, bringing about a decrease of photosynthesis — the fundamental basis for organic production — and thereby a systematic reduction of nourishment for the fish population. Recent research conducted by Iceland’s Institute of Freshwater Fisheries show that in the area around Egilsstaðir, a municipality located on the banks of Lagarfljót, the river’s visibility is currently less than 20cm deep compared to 60cm before the dams were constructed. As a result of this, not only is there less fish in the river — the size of the fish has also seen a serious decrease.

Following last month’s revelation, ichthyologist Guðni Guðbergsson at the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries, highlighted in an interview with RÚV (Iceland’s National Broadcasting Service) that the destruction of Lagarfljót’s ecosystem had certainly been foreseen and repeatedly pointed out. He also maintained that aquatic environment tends to be kept out of the discourse on hydro dams. “People see what is aboveground, they see vegetation, soil erosion and drift,” he stated, “but when it comes to aquatic ecosystems, people don’t seem to see it very clearly. This biosphere should receive more attention.”

BENDING ALL THE RULES

All of the above-mentioned had been warned of before the dams construction took place, most importantly in a 2001 ruling by Skipulagsstofnun (Iceland’s National Planning Agency) which, after reviewing the Kárahnjúkar plant’s Environmental Impact Assessment, concluded that “the development would result in great hydrological changes, which would have an effect, for example, on the groundwater level in low-lying areas adjacent to Jökulsá í Fljótsdal and Lagarfljót, which in turn would have an impact on vegetation, bird-life and agriculture.” The impacts on Lagarfljót being only one of the dams numerous all-too-obvious negative impacts, Skipulagsstofnun opposed the project as a whole “on grounds of its considerable impact on the environment and the unsatisfactory information presented regarding individual parts of the project and its consequences for the environment.”

However, Iceland’s then Minister of the Environment, Siv Friðleifsdóttir, notoriously overturned the agency’s ruling and permitted the construction. Although her act of overturning her own agency’s ruling is certainly a unique one, it was nevertheless fully harmonious with the mega-project’s overall modus operandi: For instance, during Alcoa and the Icelandic government’s signature ceremony in 2003, Friðrik Sophusson, then director of Landsvirkjun, and Valgerður Sverrisdóttir, then Minister of Industry, boasted of “bending all the rules, just for this project” while speaking to the US ambassador in Iceland.

A BIOLOGICAL WONDER TURNED INTO DESERT

As already mentioned, the destruction of Lagarfljót is only one of the dams irreversible impacts on the whole North-East part of Iceland, the most densely vegetated area north of Vatnajökull — the world’s largest non-arctic glacier — and one of the few regions in Iceland where soil and vegetation were more or less intact. Altogether, the project affects 3,000 square km of land, no less than 3% of Iceland’s total landmass, extending from the edge of Vatnajökull to the estuary of the Héraðsflói glacial river.

Sixty major waterfalls were destroyed and innumerable unique geological formations drowned, not to forget Kringilsárrani — the calving ground of a third of Iceland’s reindeer population — which was partly drowned and devastated in full by the project. In 1975, Kringilsárrani had been officially declared as protected but in order to enable the Kárahnjúkar dams and the 57 km2 Hálslón reservoir, Siv Fiðleifsdóttir decided to reduce the reserve by one fourth in 2003. When criticized for this infamous act, Siv stated that “although some place is declared protected, it doesn’t mean that it will be protected forever.”

The dams have also blocked silt emissions of the two aforementioned glacial rivers, Jökulsá á Dal and Jökulsá í Fljótsdal, resulting in the receding of the combined delta of the two rivers — destroying a unique nature habitat in the delta. In their 2003 article, published in World Birdwatch, ornithologists Einar Þorleifsson and Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson outlined another problem of great importance:

All glacier rivers are heavy with sediments, and the two rivers are muddy brown in summer and carry huge amounts of sediment, both glacial mud and sand. The Jökulsá á Dal river is exceptional in the way that it carries on average 13 times more sediment than any other Icelandic river, 10 million metric tons per year and during glacial surges the amount is many times more. When the river has been dammed this sediment will mostly settle in the reservoir.

In contravention of the claim that Kárahnjúkar’s hydro electricity is a “green and renewable energy source,” it is estimated that the reservoir will silt up in between forty and eighty years, turning this once most biologically diverse regions of the Icelandic highlands into a desert. While this destruction is slowly but systematically taking place, the dry dusty silt banks caused by the reservoir’s fluctuating water levels are already causing dust storms affecting the vegetation of over 3000 sq km, as explained in Einar and Jóhann’s article:

The reservoir will be filled with water in autumn but in spring 2/3 of the lake bottom are dry and the prevailing warm mountain wind will blow from the south-west, taking the light dry glacial sediment mud in the air and causing considerable problems for the vegetation in the highlands and for the people in the farmlands located in the valleys. To add to the problem the 120 km of mostly dry riverbed of Jökulsá á Dal will only have water in the autumn, leaving the mud to be blown by the wind in spring.

This development is already so severe that residents of the Eastfjords municipality Stöðvafjörður, with whom Saving Iceland recently spoke, stated that the wind-blown dust has been of such a great deal during the summers that they have often been unable to see the sky clearly.

All of the above-mentioned is only a part of the Kárahnjúkar dams over-all impacts, about which one can read thoroughly here. Among other factors that should not be forgotten in terms of hydro power would be the dams’ often underestimated contribution to global warming — for instance via reservoirs’ production of CO2 and methane (see here and here) — as well as glacial rivers’ important role in reducing pollution on earth by binding gases that cause global warming, and how mega-dams inhibit this function by hindering the rivers’ carrying of sediments out to sea.

TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE OF CORRUPTION AND ABUSE OF POWER

“Lagarfljót wasn’t destroyed by accident,” Andri Snær Magnason also said after the recent revelation, but rather “consciously destroyed by corrupt politicians who didn’t respect society’s rules, disregarded professional processes, and couldn’t tolerate informed discussion.” The same can, of course, be said about the Kárahnjúkar ecological, social and economical disaster as a whole, the process of which was one huge textbook example of corruption and abuse of power.

Responding to same news, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, Iceland’s current Minister of the Environment, cited a recent report by the European Environment Agency, titled “Late Lessons from Early Warnings,” in which the results of a major research project into mega-project’s environmental impacts and public discussion are published. One of the damning results, the report states, is that in 84 out of 88 instances included in the research, early warnings of negative impacts on the environment and public health proved to be correct.

This was certainly the case in Iceland where environmentalists and scientists who warned of all those foreseeable impacts, both before and during the construction, found themselves silenced and dismissed by the authorities who systematically attempted to suppress any opposition and keep their plans unaltered.

One of the most notorious examples of this took place after the publication of Susan DeMuth’s highly informative article, “Power Driven,” printed in The Guardian in 2003, in which she highlighted all the up-front disastrous impacts of the project. The reaction in Iceland was mixed: While the article served as a great gift to Icelandic environmentalists’ struggle — tour guide Lára Hanna Einarsdóttir suggesting “that an Icelandic journalist would have lost their job if he or she had been so outspoken” — the reaction of the project’s prime movers was one of fury and hysteria. Mike Baltzell, president of Alcoa Primary Development and one of the company’s main negotiators in Iceland, wrote to The Guardian accusing DeMuth of “creating a number of misconceptions” regarding the company’s forthcoming smelter. Iceland’s Ambassador in the UK and Landsvirkjun’s Sophusson took a step further, contacting the British newspaper in a complaint about the article’s content and offering the editor to send another journalist to Iceland in order to get “the real story” — an offer to which the paper never even bothered to reply.

Another example is that of Grímur Björnsson, geophysicist working at Reykjavík Energy at that time, who was forbidden from revealing his findings, which were suppressed and kept from parliament because they showed the Kárahnjúkar dams to be unsafe. His 2002 report, highly critical of the dams, was stamped as confidential by his superior at the time. Valgerður Sverrisdóttir, then Minister of Industry, subsequently failed to reveal the details of the report to parliament before parliamentarians voted on the dams, as she was legally obliged to do. Adding insult to injury, Grímur was finally deprived of his freedom of expression when his superior at Reykjavík Energy — taking sides with Landsvirkjun — prohibited him to speak officially about the Kárahnjúkar dams without permission from the latter company’s director at that time, Friðrik Sophusson.

THE SHADOW OF POLLUTED MINDS

Similar methods applied to the East-fjords and other communities close to the dams and the smelter, where the project’s opponents were systematically ridiculed, terrorized and threatened. One of them is Þórhallur Þorsteinsson who, in a thorough interview with newspaper DV last spring, described how he and other environmentalists from the East were persecuted for their opposition to the dams. In an attempt to get him fired from his job, politicians from the region even called his supervisor at the State Electric Power Works, for which he worked at the time, complaining about his active and vocal opposition. Another environmentalist, elementary school teacher Karen Egilsdóttir, had to put up with parents calling her school’s headmaster, demanding that their kids would be exempt from attending her classes.

Farmer Guðmundur Beck — described by DeMuth as “the lone voice of resistance in Reyðarfjörður” — was also harassed because of his outspoken opposition towards the dams and the smelter. After spending his first 57 years on his family’s farm where he raised chicken and sheep, he was forced to close down the farm after he was banned from grazing his sheep and 18 electricity pylons were built across his land. Moreover, he was literally ostracised from Reyðarfjörður where Alcoa’s presence had altered society in a way thus described by Guðundur at Saving Iceland’s 2007 international conference:

In the East-fjords, we used to have self-sustaining communities that have now been destroyed and converted into places attracting gold diggers. Around the smelter, there will now be a community where nobody can live, work or feed themselves without bowing down for “Alcoa Director” Mr. Tómas.* — We live in the shadow of polluted minds.

(*Mr. Tómas” is Tómas Már Sigurðsson, Managing Director of Alcoa Fjarðaál at that time but currently president of Alcoa’s European Region and Global Primary Products Europe. Read Guðmundur’s whole speech in the second issue of Saving Iceland’s Voices of the Wilderness magazine.)

A LESSON TO LEARN?

All of this leads us to the fact that Icelandic energy companies are now planning to go ahead and construct a number of large-scale power plants — most of them located in highly sensitive geothermal areas — despite a seemingly non-stop tsunami of revelations regarding the negative environmental and public health impacts of already operating geothermal plants of such size. This would, as thoroughly outlined by Saving Iceland, lead to the literal ecocide of highly unique geothermal fields in the Reykjanes peninsula as well as in North Iceland.

Two of the latter areas are Þeistareykir and Bjarnarflag, not far from river Laxá and lake Mývatn, where Landsvirkjun wants to build power plants to provide energy to heavy industry projects in the north. Large-scale geothermal exploitation at Hellisheiði, south-west Iceland, has already proven to be disastrous for the environment, creating thousands of earthquakes and a number of polluted effluent water lagoons. The Hellisheiði plant has also spread enormous amounts of sulphide pollution over the nearby town of Hveragerði and the capital area of Reykjavík, leading to an increase in the purchasing of asthma medicine. Another geothermal plant, Nesjavallavirkjun, has had just as grave impacts, leading for instance to the partial biological death of lake Þingvallavatn, into which affluent water from the plant has been pumped.

Responding to criticism, Landsvirkjun has claimed that the Bjarnarflag plant’s effluent water will be pumped down below lake Mývatn’s ground water streams. However, the company has resisted answering critical questions regarding how they plan to avoid all the possible problems — similar to those at Hellisheiði and Nesjavellir — which might occur because of the pumping and thus impact the ecosystem of Mývatn and its neighbouring environment. In view of this, some have suggested that Iceland’s next man made ecological disaster will be manifested in a headline similar to last month’s one — this time stating that “Mývatn is dead!”

Concluding the current Lagarfljót scandal — only one manifestation of the foreseen and systematically warned of Kárahnjúkar scandal — the remaining question must be: Will Icelanders learn a lesson from this textbook example of political corruption and abuse of power?

Recent polls regarding the coming parliament elections on April 27, suggests that the answer is negative as the heavy-industry-friendly Framsóknarflokkur (The Progressive Party), for which both Siv Friðleifsdóttir and Valgerður Sverrisdóttir sat in parliament, seems to be about to get into power again after being all but voted out of parliament in the 2007 elections. Following the Progressives, the right-wing conservative Sjálfstæðisflokkur (The Independence Party) is currently the second biggest party, meaning that a right-wing government, supportive of — and in fact highly interrelated to — the aluminium and energy industries, is likely to come into office in only a few days from now.

In such a case, Iceland will be landed with the very same government that was responsible for the Kárahnjúkar disaster as well as so many other political maleficences, including the financial hazardousness that lead to the 2008 economic collapse and Iceland’s support of the invasion in Iraq — only with new heads standing out of the same old suits. Sadly but truly, this would fit perfectly with the words of Dario Fo’s Maniac when he states on behalf of the establishment:

Let the scandal come, because on the basis of that scandal a more durable power of the state will be founded!

Aug 06 2012

Call Out! Join Us to Stop the AGM of the World’s Most Hated Mining Company: Vedanta


From our friends at Foil Vedanta:

Join us at the eighth annual AGM protest: 28 August 2012 2.00 pm, Lincoln Centre, 18 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3ED. Nearest tube Holborn (Piccadilly & Central lines) or Chancery Lane (Central).

We are also calling out for a global day of action. Please show your solidarity with movements across India and Africa fighting this devastating company. Email your pictures or statements to savingiceland (at) riseup.net.

Why Peoples’ Movements are Fighting Vedanta:

Vedanta plc is a London listed FTSE100 company which has brought death and destruction to thousands. It is owned by billionaire Anil Agarwal and his family through companies in various tax havens. It has been consistently fought by people’s movements but it is being helped by the British government to evolve into a multi-headed monster and spread across India and round the world, diversifying into iron in Goa, Karnataka and Liberia, Zinc in Rajasthan, Namibia, South Africa and Ireland, copper in Zambia and most recently oil in the ecologically fragile Mannar region in Sri Lanka.

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Jun 07 2012
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Accused of Betrayal Because of His Opinions


On May 18, Icelandic newspaper DV published an interview with Janne Sigurðsson, director of Alcoa Fjarðaál since the beginning of this year. In the interview, Janne describes, amongst other things, crisis meetings that were held within the company due to the protests against the construction of the Kárahnjúkar dams and the aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður. With gross and incongruous sentimentality she compares the society in Eastern Iceland, during the time of the construction, with a dying grandmother, whose cure is fought against by the anti-Alcoa protesters. Janne also maintains — and is conveniently not asked to provide the factual backup — that only five people from the East were opposed to these constructions.

On May 21, however, DV published an interview with Þórhallur Þorsteinsson, one of the people from Eastern Iceland who had the courage to oppose the construction. In the interview, which turns Janne’s claims upside down, it emerges how heavy the oppression was in the East during the preamble and the building of the dams and smelter was — people where “oppressed into obedience” as Þórhallur phrases it. He talks about his experience, loss of friends, murder threats, the attempts of influential people to dispel him from his work, and the way the Icelandic police — and the national church — dealt with the protest camps organized by Saving Iceland, which lead him to wonder if he actually lived in a police state.

Þórhallur Þorsteinsson is one of the people from Eastern Iceland who protested against the construction of the Kárahnjúkar dams. For that sake, he was bandied about as an “environmentalist traitor”, accused of standing in the way of the progress of society. Influential people attempted to dispel him from his job, he had to answer for his opinions in front of his employers, and his friends turned against him. The preparations for the construction started in 1999, but the construction itself started in 2002. The power plant started operating in 2007 but the wounds have not healed though a few years have passed since the conflict reached its climax.

“There are certain homes here in Egilsstaðir that I do not enter due to the conflict. Before, I used to visit these homes once or twice a week. I am not sure if I would be welcome there today. Maybe. But in these homes I was, without grounds, hurt so badly that I have no reason to go there again. Now I greet these people but I have no reason to enter their homes. I was virtually persecuted,” Þórhallur says, sitting in an armchair in his home in Egilsstaðir.

His home bears strong signs for his love of nature, his bookshelves are filled with books about the Icelandic highlands, nature and animals. For decades, Þórhallur has travelled in the highlands and did thus know this area [the land destroyed by the Kárahnjúkar dams] better than most people. “I had been travelling in this area for decades. I had gone there hiking and driving and I have also flown over it. I went there in winters just as in the summers. I went there as a guide and I knew the area very well. So I am not one of those who just speak about this area but have never got to know it.”

Not only did he know the land but also cared for it. He was hurt to see it drowned by the reservoir and has never managed to accept its destruction. “I am immensely unhappy with everything regarding this project. The dams, the [Alcoa] aluminium smelter, the environmental impacts, and additionally, it has not brought us what was expected. Thus I find hardly anything positive about this,” Þórhallur says.

“The sacrifice of this part of the highlands, the environmental impacts of these constructions, just can not be justified. Waterfalls by the dozen, many of them extremely beautiful, are rapidly disappearing and are just about waterless. A highly remarkable land went under water, under the reservoir, for instance Hálsinn which was the main breeding ground for reindeer. Additionally, this was the only place in Iceland with continuous vegetation from the sea, all the way up to the glacier. This has now be interrupted by Hálslón [the reservoir].”

The Resistance in the East

During the journalist’s trip around Eastern Iceland, many of the locals spoke a lot about how artists from 101 Reykjavík [the center of the city] protested against the construction. Þórhallur, however, points out that the original resistance against the project was formed in the local region. “People tend to forget this fact all the time, as they only speak about 101 Reykjavík. Before the conflict started, an association for the protection of Eastern Iceland’s highlands was founded here. It was founded with the purpose of opposing the construction — Kárahnjúkar had not even entered public discussion at that point although we, of course, knew about it.”

About thirty people joined the inaugural meeting and agreed upon the importance of such an association. Soon, a few people left the organization. “Those who had an opposite opinion compared to what people generally thought about the project were oppressed. The picture was painted in a way suggesting that the residents of Eastern Iceland should stand together. The rest of us, who were against the project, were not considered true members of this society. And we were not good citizens at all. In people’s minds, we were traitors. We were the people who wanted to send people back to the turf huts, as they used to say. We were said to be against development, against creating a good future for our children. All this was thrown at us, that the children would not come back home after studying, that they would not get any jobs. By opposing the construction, I was, in these people’s minds, taking away their children’s future livelihood, preventing the creation of jobs, and lowering real estate prices here in the east. I got to hear all of this. This is how it was.”

The First Protests

At a certain point, the verbal abuse was taken further than can be considered normal. “My life was threatened. A man that I used to work with met me in the street and said that I ought to be shot. Of course, it was painful to live through this, it hurt because they were trying to oppress me. They personified the issue so they could portray me as if I was taking something away from people, as if I was preventing the people here from living an ordinary life. This was the attitude.

I have lived here since I was a little kid and from early age I have been contributing to this community. I have partaken in building it up, socially and as an individual. I have been here all my life. Despite my opposition to this construction, I did not consider myself being any less of a member of this community. Nothing of what I have done justifies the accusations of me wanting to ruin this community. I was simply against this construction. But just like others, I was to be suppressed into obedience.”

Despite all this, Þórhallur refused to throw away his ideals and stay silent. Determined not to be silenced, he continued his fight with both words and actions. “I am probably the only resident in Eastern Iceland who ever has been fined for opposing the Kárahnjúkar dams [in fact Gudmundur Mar Beck, farmer at Kollaleyra in Reydarfjordur (site of the ALCOA smelter) was also fined a hefty sum for protesting against the project. Ed. SI.org]. Along with others, I blockaded a bridge over river Besstastaðaá and was fined,” he says and adds that he did happily pay the fine. “This action was symbolic for the situation at that time, as a token of the fact that the case had become insolvable. We didn’t intend to completely prevent these people from continuing their way,” Þórhallur says. These people were the board of Landsvirkjun [Iceland’s national energy company] as well as Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, then mayor of Reykjavík [later Minister for Foreign Affairs in the government that was toppled by protesters during the winter of 2008-9], and the area that was at stake at that time was Eyjabakkar wetlands. “We read two statements out loud, from the Association for the Protection of Eastern Iceland’s Highlands, and after that the protest was over.”

He does not regret this, even though he had to face the consequences his actions. “I was there in my spare time but at this time I worked for the The State Electric Power Works. Following the protest, we witnessed one of the worst witch-hunting periods in the history of Eastern Iceland. The severity is very memorable to me.”

Harsh Attacks

This protest had been organized by Þórhallur as well as Karen Egilsdóttir, who was an elementary school teacher, and Hrafnkell A. Jónsson, who has now passed away. “Parents phoned the school’s headmaster and demanded that their kids would not have to go to her classes. Politicians in the East systematically tried to get me fired from my job. They phoned both the State’s and the Region’s electric utility directors, demanding that I would be fired because of a thing I did in my spare time. These same men constantly interrupted the Chairman of RARIK [Iceland State Electricity] and I had to stand up for my opinions. I had to show up in front of the Region’s electric utility director and proof that I had been at the protest during my spare time. And as my words were not enough, I had to get my supervisor to come and proof it. Everything was tried. It was harsh.

And when I was informed that very influential people in the East, respected members of their society, were trying to get back at me and get me dispelled from work because of my opinions, I got a very strange feeling regarding what kind of a society I live in.

I also witnessed the behaviour of the police who chased protesters around the highlands, which made me wonder if I lived in a police state. The police tried to prevent protesters from resting by putting wailing sirens on during the middle of the nights, they constantly drove past them and around their cars, took photographs during darkness using flash, and blocked roads so that people could not bring them food. I saw all of this taking place.”

Always Knew of More Opponents

For two years in a row, the protesters set up camps in the highlands. During the first summer [2005], the protest camp was pitched on a land owned by the Bishop’s Office. “The church’s tolerance was not greater than so that the Bishop’s Office asked for the protesters to be removed. The second year I brought them food by taking an alternate route to their camp when the police had closed the main road. I supported these people because they were doing a job that many of us here, the locals, could not do. They were protesting against something that very few people from the East felt up to, due to the way those who dared to protest were treated. We were monitored and the word, about what kind of a people we were, was spread around. That is the reason why many people contacted me, people who otherwise did not dare to voice their opinion, did not dare to join the struggle. I always knew that I spoke on behalf of more people than just myself.”

Thus, when Saving Iceland contacted Þórhallur, he was more than willing to help. He was a spokesperson of the Icelandic Touring Association and explained to Saving Iceland that it would be just about impossible to expel them from the camping area at Snæfell, which had been open to the public for many decades. Eventually, a ten days long camp was to be set up there. “Then the word started to spread and I received a phone call from the Bishop’s Office, asking me if we could stop the camp from taking place. I told them that this camping area had been open to the public ever since the hut was built, but I invited them to come to the East and try to expel them themselves. A few days later, Landsvirkjun’s public relation manager called me and brought up the same thing. He asked about the possibility of putting a limit on the amount of people allowed to stay at the camp, if the health and safety authorities would agree upon this amount of people, etc. etc. I told him the same: “This is an open camping area and we do not choose who gets to stay and who not.” You get the picture of how the situation was at this time.”

Not everybody was happy within the Touring Association. “Some of the board members were against it and conflicts took place within the association. I asked them what they intended to do, if the Association would then, in the future, pick out people allowed onto the camping areas. I said to them: These people just enter the camping area, follow the current rules and pay their fee. While so, we can not do anything. Then, some of the people realized how far they had stepped over limits.

So the protesters came to Snæfell and stayed for ten days. That worked out pretty well but then they went to other places [within the intended reservoir. Ed. SI] and came up against all sorts of misfortunes.”

A Protection Cancelled

He also points out how politicians behaved in the Kárahnjúkar issue. “It is interesting to look at the current discussion about the Energy Master Plan. Some people now say that politicians are interfering with specialists’ work. In that case, it is worth remembering the fact that the Kárahnjúkar dams were removed from the Master Plan and were only briefly considered in that context. Those who decided this were politicians. The project underwent an Environmental Impact Assessment and Iceland’s Planning Agency rejected it due to the drastic and irreversible environmental impacts. But then the case was simply taken into a political process and soon it was decided to go ahead and build the dams, despite the Planning Agency’s view that the environmental impacts were unacceptable.

The way this case was handled should actually be an ample reason for an investigation. This area’s official protection was cancelled so the land could be drowned. Never before had this happened in Iceland, but it was nevertheless done by Siv Fiðleifsdóttir, then Minister of the Environment. That is her monument: being the one Minister of the Environment, responsible for the most severe environmental destruction,” Þórhallur says plain-spoken.

The Old People Got Away

He believes that only the further damming of Þjórsárver wetlands would have been a even bigger environmental sacrifice. “Thereafter came Kárahnjúkar. But this is all about politics, Icelanders have no time for politics. The Danes have done fine without heavy industry. This is always just a question of a political policy, and for decades, the inhabitants of Reyðarfjörður [where the Alcoa smelter is located] have been promised that someone will come and do something for them. In such a position, people tend to forget their survival instinct.

The exchange rate was way too high and all the local fishing industry left. Fishing company Skinney Þinganes moved all their business to Höfn in Hornafjörður, while Samherji [another seafood company incidentally owned by the family of Halldor Asgrimsson, one of two main perpetrators of the Karahnjukar dams] bought fishing quota from Stöðvarfjörður and Eskifjörður and took it away from there. But because an aluminium smelter was on its way, people believed that this was no problem. It is always possible to starve people into obedience. It is easy to change the mentality in such a way that it simply receives. All of a sudden the smelter appeared as some sort of a life buoy. The positive side of it is that now there are much younger people living in Fjarðabyggð [combined municipality of a few towns, including Reyðafjörður] than before. The old people got away. But behind this is the sacrifice. The sacrifice was too big and it was the whole region’s sacrifice. We sacrificed this for the benefits of a North American corporation. We sacrificed everything for too little. While all this took place, people were supposed to stand together and they spoke about the region as a totality. But immediately as the construction was over, all such solidarity disappeared.”

Direct and Indirect Payments

He is, nevertheless, able to understand why the region’s people were in favour of the construction and focused on getting a smelter. “I understand them very well, as they got something out of it. But it is clear that we got too little. 200 people from here work in the smelter, I think. 200 jobs — that is not enough for such a sacrifice. 500 jobs would also not have been enough when compared with the land that was destroyed. But people can be bought up if they are handed money. And I understand farmers who had never seen any real money but were all of sudden promised amounts which they would, in any other case, not have been able to even dream of. But is that the way we want it to be? That people can be mislead by money?

If they would have stood their ground and rejected all of , if the Fljótsdalshérað region would have rejected this, and the local politicians and the public — then this would never have become true. Now, some people state that we never had anything to say about it, but these are people who have a bad conscience because they did not fight against the construction.

Everywhere in the world, except Iceland, these “counterbalance steps” as they are called, would have been considered bribery. Basically, local politicians were bought up. Farmers and influential people were hired on good salaries and farmers got fertilizer to use on uncultivated land. All such indirect payments to influential people certainly have an impact on what decisions are made and on what premises they are made. Some farmers received compensation due to the destruction, but to pay compensation to only one generation is not acceptable. It would have made much more sense to link the compensation with the power plant’s electricity production and pay them to those living in the area on an annual basis.”

Gullfoss Falls Could be Forgotten

Asked about the actual value of the land now lost, Þórhallur answers: “This land used to be an attraction. The waterfalls that have now dried up, the vegetated land that went under water, the wilderness which is becoming increasingly precious. Being able to live with such quality is like nothing else. If well organized, hundreds of thousands of travellers could have been been shown this land without the land being harmed. Seen from a long-term perspective, that could have created more money than the dams.”

Think about the fact that the Gullfoss waterfalls and the hot spring Geysir did not use to be popular tourist places. It was not easy to get to them, say fifty or hundred years ago. We can not sacrifice something just because only a few people know about it. Using that same argument, we could as well dry up Gullfoss, as in a few decades we would forget about it and the next generations would not know what a beautiful waterfall used to flow there. We can not think in that way. One generation can not treat Iceland’s nature, this national treasure, in such a way.

I first drove to Hafrahvammar canyon in 1972 and, in fact, roads and paths have been there for many decades, but they were quite difficult to pass. That could easily have been changed and thus, the access to the area could have been increased.”

“The Same Horrific Situation Far and Wide”

In the end he says that the aluminium smelter has not lived up to society’s expectations. “It still has not been possible to staff the smelter with Icelanders. Only Icelandic-speaking people are hired there but despite all the unemployment and all the advertising, sub-contractors partly staff their companies with foreigners, as Icelanders are not willing to take on these jobs. The labour turnover has been about 25 percent. Despite the fiasco the nation has went through [the 2008 economic collapse], this is not considered a decent option for a working place.

Was the hole purpose of drowning this land, destroying this nature, drying up these waterfalls, to be able to import migratory workers from abroad? Do some of the unemployed people on Suðurnes not want to come to the East, move into all the empty apartments and work in the smelter in Reyðarfjörður? Isn’t there something wrong? Why do people not apply for jobs here?” Þórhallur asks and adds that the pot-rooms and the cast-house are not really desirable workplaces, though some other jobs in the smelter might lure some. “One has to work 12 hours shifts and I know no-one who works in the smelter and looks at it as their future job. I also know people who used to work there but quit because of the long shifts. They did not want to sacrifice their family life for the job. People will work there until they find a better job. If the economy recovers in a few years time, how will this end? Will we end up having to staff the smelter solely with foreign labour on season?

This was supposed to save everything but the same horrific situation is evident far and wide. The smelter had, for instance, no positive impacts in nearby places like Stöðvarfjörður and Breiðdalsvík.

The planned population increase in Eastern Iceland never took place, and as the senselessness was absolute, everything collapsed. No-one lives in the houses that were built — streets were laid but no houses built on them. The municipality is bankrupted, as it is expensive to go into such a construction and to sit up with this half-finished street-system. This situation might recover in a few decades, but it still was not worth it.”

Apr 19 2012

“International Activists Criminalized”


Article by Jón Bjarki Magnússon, originally published on April 4th, in Icelandic newspaper DV. Translated from Icelandic by Saving Iceland.

German MP Andrej Hunko states that European police authorities are overtly and covertly planning increased surveillance of activists

Perhaps this is no longer common knowledge, but it still is a documented fact that the police authorities in the Western world operated in such a way throughout the whole of the 20th century.

“Though we have not yet managed to change the laws, we have managed to bring attention to the cause, which is very important.” So says Andrej Hunko who lately has been struggling against police spying on people involved with social movements in Europe. Hunko, who is a MP for the German left-wing party ‘Die Linke’, is concerned about the increased use of such espionage, especially as movements located on the political left wing are increasingly labelled as “leftist extremist and terrorists groups” that “have to” be monitored closely.

“I am concerned about this development. I am utterly opposed to the systematic criminalisation of international activists.” Among other things, Hunko, who is a member of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs of the European Parliament, points out that plans are now being made to co-ordinate the laws of the member-states of the European Union, so that police spies from one country will be able to operate in another country without the special permissions that have been required. Hunko believes that this will subvert the work of social movements in Europe. “All this is happening very quickly and without an informed discussion, neither among members of national parliaments nor among members of the European Parliament, not to mention the public in those countries.” Read More

Dec 17 2011

The Cross-Border Undercover Operation Needs an International Independent Investigation


”I’m glad that the women, who were used physically and emotionally by British undercover police, have decided to initiate a legal action against police. Thereby, the operations of these police officers lands once again on the German parliamentary agenda,” commented the German MP Andrej Hunko, regarding reports in the Guardian daily newspaper.

Eight women have filed legal action against the Metropolitan Police. Five officers have been named that have infiltrated leftist movements since the 1980’s, and used deceit to create sexual relationships with these women. Among them is the former undercover officer Mark Kennedy, who worked for the German police in the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern und Baden-Wuerttemberg. The open statement of these women contradicts the claims of Kennedy, that he only had sexual relationships with two women.

Andrej Hunko further stated:

“The courageous step of these eight women must also have consequences in Germany.

According to media reports, Kennedy was operating in 22 countries. It follows then, that Kennedy likely also used such illegal tactics in these countries. In my opinion, the Kennedy operations went against the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8, which protects the rights for private and family life, including the right to form relationships without unjustified interference by the state. Read More

Dec 09 2011
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Time Has Told: The Kárahnjúkar Dams Disastrous Economical and Environmental Impacts


The profitability of Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national energy company, is way too low. And worst off is the Kárahnjúkar hydro power plant, Europe’s largest dam, the company’s biggest and most expensive construction. Landsvirkjun’s director Hörður Arnarson revealed this during the company’s recent autumn meeting, and blamed the low price of energy sold to large-scale energy consumers, such as Alcoa’s aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður, as one of the biggest factors reducing profit.

These news echo the many warnings made by the opponents of the cluster of five dams at Kárahnjúkar and nearby Eyjabakkar, who repeatedly stated that the project’s alleged profitability was nothing but an illusion, but were systematically silenced by Iceland’s authorities.

Now, as these facts finally become established in the media—this time straight from the horse’s mouth—similarly bad news has arrived regarding another big Icelandic energy company. Reykjavík Energy has failed to make a profit from their 2007 and 2008 investments, effectively making them lose money.

At the same time, new research shows that the environmental impacts of the Kárahnjúkar dams are exactly as vast and serious as environmentalists and scientists feared.

And yet, more dams, geothermal power-plants and aluminium smelters are on the drawing table—presented as the only viable way out of the current economic crisis. Read More

Nov 09 2011
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From Siberia to Iceland: Century Aluminum, Glencore and the Incestuous World of Mining


A special report for Saving Iceland by Dónal O’Driscoll

Preface

Glencore are the majority shareholder of Century, the owner of one operational and one half-built smelter in Iceland, it’s key operations for aluminium smelting. But who are Glencore and what are the implications for Iceland? This comprehensive article profiles the world’s biggest commodity broker, who’s only comparable predecessor was Enron. The profile covers the reach and grip of Glencore’s domination of metal, grain, coal and bio-oils markets, allowing it to set prices which profit very few and are detrimental to many. It shows the tight web of connections between the major mining companies and Glencore through shared board history and shared ownership of assets, cataloguing key shareholders (and board members) who’s stakes make them larger shareholders than institutional investors in ownership of Glencore. These connections include Rusal’s co chair Nathaniel Rothschild, a financier with a $40m investment in Glencore, and a personal friend of Peter Mandelson (former EU trade commissioner and British politician) and George Osborne (UK Chancellor).

The article details the human rights and environmental abuses of Glencore at it’s many operations, including the 2009 killing of Mayan indigenous leader Adolfo Ich Chamán who spoke out about Century’s activities in Guatemala under CEO-ship of Peter Jones (still a Century board member). It claims that Glencore is higher than most in the running for most abusive and environmentally detrimental mining company, going where lesser devils fear to tread – trading with Congo, Central Asia and embargoed countries such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and apartheid South Africa. Glencore founder Marc Rich was involved in trading embargoed Iranian oil, and fled the United States in 1983 accused of insider dealing and tax dodging over Iranian deals, becoming one of the 10 fugitives most wanted by the FBI, until he was pardoned by Bill Clinton. Glencore is still run by two of his main men. Read More

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Oct 07 2011

Inspired By Iceland… No, really!


Árni Daníel Júlíusson

It is funny how things can turn around. For decades, Iceland languished in neoliberal hell, with signs of opposition few and far between. Meanwhile the opposition to the neoliberal order of things grew all over the world—with massive protests in Seattle, Genoa and elsewhere—and the beginnings of a world-wide anti-globalisation movement represented by the World Social Forum, first held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001. Almost nobody in Iceland did or said anything to support these powerful movements against the neoliberal order, with the exception of the brave Saving Iceland organisation. Read More

Aug 30 2011
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More Industry in Hvalfjörður Brings More Abuse of Power


A broad general reconciliation on environmental and industrial affairs in Hvalfjörður has been completely ignored and stepped on by the Associated Icelandic Ports under the administration of a member of the social-democratic party Samfylkingin. This says Sigurbjörn Hjaltason, farmer in Hvalfjörður, who recently called for an investigation into the possible connection between bone deformities in his sheep’s skulls and an environmental accident at the Norðurál aluminium smelter in Grundartangi in 2006. Sigurbjörn has now raised awareness to yet another potential ecological disaster in Hvalfjörður – a fjord which already hosts two highly polluting factories: an aluminium smelter owned by Norðurál/Century Aluminium and an Elkem ferro silicon plant – as well as the abuse of power entailed in the process.

In a recent article, originally published on news-website Pressan, Sigurbjörn says that before the municipal elections in spring 2009, the community in Hvalfjörður settled upon an agreement about environmental and industrial affairs. But under the administration of Hjálmar Sveinsson (on photo), who is a vice-councilman of Reykjavík for Samfylkingin, a joint venture of several port authorities in the Faxaflói area, titled the Associated Icelandic Ports, is enabling the way for the construction of yet another two factories at the Grundatangi industrial site in Hvalfjörður, where the two aforementioned factories are located. Sigurbjörn describes the whole process as a very dubious one: Read More

Aug 27 2011

Disciples of Milton Friedman


The following chapter is from ‘Bankastræti Núll’, the latest book by poet and author Einar Már Guðmundsson, translated and originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine, parallel to an introduction to Einar by Alda Kravec. The introduction says that the book “opens with the narrator’s lament: the current political situation has stifled his ability to write poems to his lover. Although he foresees a future where “reality wakes up” and poets can once again sing the praises of love and nature, the resounding sound of social injustice presently overwhelms him and beckons him to first engage in the struggle against the free reign of the stock exchange, privatisation and greed.”

It is written somewhere that all cats are grey in the dark, but here in Iceland, official reports are all black, no matter how bright it is outside. Alþingi’s Investigative Commission’s Report is black. The Central Bank’s Report on the status of household debt is black. And the government and International Monetary Fund’s Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies is also black, dark as a coal mine, and sure enough, it was drafted in April, the cruellest month. It is a reminder of the misery that the IMF has presided over in countries all over the world, and directly refutes the notion that the IMF plans to apply different methods than those it has adhered to until now.

In Greece, the public has risen up against the Fund’s plans, but here the labour movement and employers get into bed with it and are almost more devout than the Pope in getting investors to come here with their baggage of offshore profits and dummy corporations. In one district, where neo-liberals have sold everything and there is nothing left to mortgage except the harbour, efforts are being made to set a precedent by selling natural resources through a shelf company just so politicians can save face after having handed over the entire district to their associates and relatives on a silver platter. Read More

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