'Economic Collapse' Tag Archive

Dec 07 2016

An Uncertain Alternative


Árni Daníel Júlíusson

Iceland’s recent general election shows that the country’s neoliberal consensus is over. What happens next?

When the Icelandic parliament assembled in fall of 2010, tens of thousands gathered to throw eggs and rotten tomatoes at the politicians. The MPs were participating in a traditional march between the cathedral and the parliament building that marks the beginning of each legislative setting. Protesters repeated their performance exactly a year later, now with an even larger crowd.

These events marked the midpoint of Iceland’s anti-neoliberal rebellion, which had started in the fall of 2008 at the time of the financial collapse. The mass actions represented a definitive break with the neoliberal consensus the country had sustained since 1984.

Any government will now have to understand — and then accept — this popular revolt if it wants to credibly hold power. Old alliances and structures have collapsed, and new ones must be built.

This October’s elections reflected the changed political atmosphere. On the one hand, the results were inconclusive, failing to produce a clear majority that could form a government. On the other hand, they decisively showed the fate of the sitting government, made up of the centrist Progressive Party (FSF) and the right-wing Independence Party (XD). In 2013, they had received a clear majority of votes — each winning nineteen parliamentary seats out of a total of sixty-three — despite their direct responsibility for a number of bank collapses in 2008.

Between 1991 and 2008, XD enacted a unrelenting series of ultra-neoliberal and right-wing policies that led to the financial crisis. The basis for this neoliberal turn, however, was laid in the eighties, when an earlier Progressive-Independence coalition government held power.

How these parties returned to power in 2013 can only be explained by the events between the financial crisis and that election. Their fate in this October’s election gives us a sense of what might come next.

A Disgraced Left

When the Icelandic banks collapsed on October 6, 2008, a powerful mass movement appeared out of nowhere. By late November, it had become a grave threat to the government.

The movement was organized on several levels and had several centers of operations, which were mostly uncoordinated. All of them coalesced, however, in weekly meetings in the center of Reykjavík. On December 1, protesters convened a meeting at Arnarhóll, after which the more radical wing attacked and occupied the Central Bank of Iceland. A full-scale uprising — which many expected — did not materialize. Read More

Jul 30 2015
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Time to Occupy the Smelters?


Helga Katrín Tryggvadóttir

Icelanders are notoriously bad investors. Once someone has a business idea, everyone jumps on the wagon and invests in exactly the same thing. The infamous growth of the banking sector is one example, before the 2008 banking crash the Icelandic banking sector was 12 times the size of the GDP and Iceland was supposed to become an international financial centre. I have no idea how anyone got the idea that an island with three hundred thousand inhabitants could become an international financial centre, but many people in Iceland considered this a perfectly normal ambition.

And then there are the politicians, they have had the same investment idea for more than hundred years. Either it is building an artificial fertiliser factory, or it is building an aluminium smelter. Last year one MP proposed building an artificial fertiliser factory, in order to “lure home” young Icelanders who have moved abroad. A majority of those have moved abroad to educate themselves, but sure, who doesn’t want to use their PhD on the factory floor?

Now there is an Icelandic investor in the North of Iceland, Ingvar Skúlason, who is planning on building an aluminium smelter, at a time when aluminium prices have been dropping due to overproduction. He has already managed to sign a deal with a Chinese company, NFC, which is willing, he says, to pay for the whole construction, yet the smelter would be owned by Icelandic companies. All of this sounds kind of dubious in my ears. And everyone can see that this is not a good idea, even the banks, with a new report released by Arion Bank advising against more investment in the aluminium industry. The bank bases its analysis on the fact that aluminium price is too low at the moment to bring any profit into the country (since the price for the electricity is connected with the price of aluminium, the price the aluminium smelters pay to the National power company (LV) is low when aluminium prices are low).

But that does not stop the politicians from supporting the idea. The prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, was present when Skúlason signed a deal with the Chinese company, praising the initiative. Skúlason also claims to have support from the Minister of Industry, which is not surprising since her only campaign promise was building an aluminium smelter and get the “wheels of the economy rolling”. Recently, Alcoa World Alumina, owned by Alcoa Inc., admitted to having bribed officials in Barein. In Iceland, however, they have never had to pay any bribes. Icelandic officials have been more than willing to do their service for free, “bending all the rules” as Friðrik Sophusson, former head of LV, was caught on tape saying.

There are currently three aluminium smelters in Iceland. Together, they use 80% of the energy produced in the country and their profit account for 60 billion ISK a year (USD 500 million). Yet, a majority of the profit is registered as debt to their parent companies abroad, leaving the Icelandic subsidiaries operated in debt but creating profits to the parent companies. The only profit that is left in the country is the wages they pay to their employees, and that only accounts to less than 1% of the national revenue. The jobs they create (which is usually the main argument for their construction), also account for less than 1% of all jobs in Iceland. The price they pay for the energy is also below the normal market price. Lets think about this for a second: 80% of the electricity produced in the country goes to international corporations that only produce 1% of the national revenue and creates 1% of the jobs, exports the majority of the profits and pays below-market price for the energy. So, 99% of the people do not get any share in the majority of its electricity production. Sounds familiar.

Maybe it is time to occupy the smelters?

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

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

May 24 2013

In the Land of the Wild Boys


Andri Snær Magnason

First published in Grapevine. Based on a 2010 article entitled “Í landi hinna klikkuðu karlmanna.” (“In the Land of the Mad Men”). Translated in part by Haukur S. Magnússon.

After the election, we see the old parties of economic mass destruction are coming back to power. Giving enormous promises of easy money to be wrestled from evil vulture funds, debt relief and tax reduction, The Progressive Party doubled in size after a few years of hardship. There is a jolly good feeling between the two young new leaders of a brave new Iceland, and when a radio host called them up and offered to play them a request, they asked for Duran Duran’s ‘Wild Boys.’ I Googled the lyrics, not quite remembering the lines, and got a nice chill down my back:

Wild boys fallen far from glory
Reckless and so hungered
On the razors edge you trail
Because there’s murder by the roadside
In a sore afraid new world

They tried to break us,
Looks like they’ll try again

Sounds quite grim. This, coupled with the new government’s announcement that it would be effectively dismantling the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources and that there will be no Minister for the Environment, gave me a strange flashback feeling. I decided to revisit the state of mind that we used to call normal in 2006. When the economic policy, the energy policy, the expansion of our towns, the mortgages on our homes—almost all aspects of our daily life had become totally mad. This is not my own diagnosis; if you search the homepage of the IMF for the phrase “Collective Madness,” you’ll find this:

“’Iceland, in the decade and a half leading up to the crisis, was an example of collective madness,’ said Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citigroup, a remark that elicited spontaneous applause from the more than 300 participants, many of them Icelandic policymakers, academics, and members of the public.”

In our daily lives, we usually sense what is normal and what is over the top. Sometimes the discourse will blind us; PR and propaganda can create a kind of newspeak. It can be a good exercise to try to talk about things in a foreign language, to view them in a new light. As an Icelander, you could for instance try to tell someone from another country that Iceland’s government sold one state bank and received payment in the form of a loan from another state bank—and vice versa. That the state banks were thereby handed to men that were closely connected to the then-reigning political parties. The manager of one of the parties became head of one of the banks’ board of directors, while the other party’s former Minister of Trade belonged to the group that was given the other bank. That man had access to every bit of inside information about the bank’s standing.

In the meantime, this former Minister of Trade became Central Bank Manager. He went to the US and made Alcoa an offer that the company could not refuse. He had thus set in motion the largest-scale construction project in Icelandic history, greatly increasing economic activity in Iceland—a grand boon for the bank he just finished selling to himself.

If you tell this story in a foreign language, people shake their heads. They gape in disbelief. They use words like “corruption” and “mafia.” They exclaim, full of disbelief and even disappointment, “no, not in Scandinavia!”

THE ACCEPTED INSANITY

It is insane to expand a banking system by tenfold in eight years. We know that now. It isn’t technically possible to grow all the knowledge and experience needed to build up and manage such a contraption in such a short time. Not even by shoving an entire generation through business school. It is impossible.

But the megalomania was not just confined to the banking sector. Energy production in Iceland was doubled from 2002–2007, when the huge Kárahnjúkar dam was built in the eastern part of the highlands—to serve one single Alcoa smelting plant. The energy it produces, about 650MW annually, is enough to power a city of one million people. Doubling the energy production in a developed country over a five-year period is not only unheard of, but it would also be considered ridiculous in all of our neighbouring nations. Most industrialised states increase their energy production by around 2–3% annually. Doubling it would be unthinkable. It has been proven again and again that gargantuan investments generally destroy more than they create. Read More

Oct 08 2012
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Kárahnjúkar Dam Blown Up in New Film by Angeli Novi


Saving Iceland would like to draw its readers attention to a currently ongoing exhibition by art collective Angeli Novi, comprised of artists Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir and Ólafur Páll Sigurðsson who both have strong ties to Saving Iceland. Sigurðsson was the founder of Saving Iceland and both of them continue to be active with the network today. You Can’t Stand in the Way of Progress is the collective’s first extensive exhibition and is on show at The Living Art Museum (Nýlistasafnið) in Reykjavík.

At the heart of the exhibition, which consists of audio, video and sculptural pieces, is a 20 minute long film in Icelandic and English, bearing the same title as the exhibition. Around 30 people were willingly buried alive during the making of the film, which was shot this year in Greece and Iceland. Soundscapes were created by Örn Karlsson in collaboration with Angeli Novi.

Corporate green-wash and the Kárahnjukar dams play a key role in You Can’t Stand in the Way of Progress. In one of the film’s scenes, the 700 m long and 200 m high central Kárahnjúkar Dam is digitally blown up by the very same explosion that blew up the Dimmugljúfur canyon in March 2003. The first destruction of the 200m deep canyon, which was carved out by the 150 km long river Jökulsá á Dal, played a strategical key role in the conflict about the power plant’s construction, and was meant to signify the government’s determined intention to steamroller Iceland’s eastern highlands in order to produce electricity for the US aluminium corporation ALCOA. As environmentalists warned from the beginning, the construction has turned out to have devastating environmental, social and economical impacts, and contributed also heavily to Iceland’s infamous 2008 economic collapse.

Asked about the cinematic blast, artists Gunnlaugsdóttir and Sigurðsson said: “It was particularly pleasurable to blow up the image of the dam that has now become the main symbol of corporate power abuse and ecocide in Iceland.” Sigurðsson  added that it was “Very appropriate to use for our purpose the same film footage that was used by the Icelandic government in 2003 to dash people’s hopes of saving the Kárahnjúkar area from deeply corrupt forces of corporate greed and governmental stupidity. These same forces have learnt nothing from their past crimes and mistakes and are now lining up for taking power next year in order to continue their destructive rampage through Icelandic nature.”

A press release  from The Living Art Museum states the following:

Angeli Novi create a kind of a kaleidoscopic time machine, examining the plight of generations which, one after the other, become tools and puppets of economic and historical structures. Through symbolism and imagery, Angeli Novi examine the ideological backdrops of these structures, the variously substance-drained core values of occidental culture, as well as as the reoccurring themes of doctrines and clichés in the societal rhetoric, necessary for society to maintain itself.

You Can’t Stand in the Way of Progress opened on 29 September and will run until 2 December. The Living Art Museum is located on Skúlagata 28, 101 Reykjavík.

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.”

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

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

Sep 11 2011

Iceland’s Energy Master Plan Allows for Three More Kárahnjúkar Dams – Þjórsárver Protected, Þjórsá and Krýsuvík Destroyed


The equivalent of three Kárahnjúkar dams will be built in Iceland in the near future if the parliament will pass a proposition for a parliamentary resolution on Iceland’s Energy Master Plan, which the Ministers of Environment and of Industry presented three weeks ago. Despite this, Iceland’s energy companies and parliament members in favour of heavy industry have already started complaining – arguing that way too big proportion of Iceland’s nature will be declared protected, will the proposition pass. Among the power plants allowed for in the proposition are three dams in lower Þjórsá, which for years have been a topic of heavy debate and in fact completely split the local community and are more than likely to become the bone of contention between the two governmental parties as the Left Greens (VG) have, along with other environmentalists, voiced their opposition to the damming of Þjórsá.

The Energy Master Plan is a framework programme, meant to result in a long term agreement upon the exploitation and protection of Iceland’s glacial rivers and geothermal areas. Its making, which since 1999 has been in the hands of special steering committiees, established by the two above-mentioned ministries, reached a critical status in July this year when its second phase was finished and presented to the ministers who in mid August presented their proposition for a parliamentary resolution. Before it will be discussed in parliament the proposition will be open to comments and criticism from the public, as well as interested parties, energy and aluminium companies on the one hand, environmentalists on the other. Read More