Oct 12 2006

A Sheffielder’s Account of the 2006 Protest Camp

Sheffield activists were amongst the many people who headed out to Iceland this summer to support the protest camp against the Kárahnjúkar Hydroelectric Project, and the Icelandic governments dam building and industrialisation programme more generally. This dam building programme is threatening some of the largest and most incredible pristine areas of wilderness in Europe. The Kárahnjúkar dam is north of the Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s biggest glacier. The protest camp was set up in the affected area and activists from Iceland, other parts of Europe and North America took part in a series of actions over July and August.

The protest camp came to an end this summer. The Kárahnjúkar dam doors shut and flooding the valley began on the 28th September. A historical number of Icelanders – around 15,000, took to the streets the day before to protest the flooding. The international campaign against the destruction of Iceland’s wilderness continues with a march in London on 27th October. The march will also be against the impending destruction of rain forest in Trinidad to make way for two more Alcoa aluminium smelters there. There will also be a campaign gathering in the Netherlands 3-5 November.

In advance of this summer’s protest camp people in Sheffield had been raising funds to support the campaign. The cafe collective at the Matilda Social Centre held a successful benefit food night and the gig space collective raised more funds over the course of their events.

The Kárahnjúkar dam plans, which are destroying the most stunning and unique environment imaginable, were initially rejected by Iceland’s National Planning Agency in 2001 on the grounds of “substantial, irreversible negative environmental impact”. However the government pushed ahead, and work is progressing on the $1bn mega-project, which is designed solely to power just one aluminium smelter, to be built by US multinational Alcoa. Not one kilowatt of the power will go into the national grid for domestic use. Other aluminium corporations are now lining up for the cheap energy supply promised by future hydro-electric dam projects planned all over the Icelandic highlands. Even the most hardened environmental activist could not fail to feel shock when actually seeing the sheer scale of the destruction at Kárahnjúkar.

Many activists travelled out to Iceland by ferry from the Shetland Isles, via the Faeroes to the east coast of Iceland, which was an incredible trip in itself. The protest camp started with a family camp below Iceland’s highest mountain Snaefell, at an official campsite from 21st-31st July. There was a protest walk around the affected area on the 22nd July which attracted about 150-200 people. The protest walk ended with everyone holding hands in a symbolic action forming a line opposite the construction site at the level where the water will rise to. Once the family camp ended the decision was made to move the location of the camp to to an unofficial site closer to the dam site to facilitate more actions.

After much bad luck with vehicles breaking down, around 60 people and tat were moved to the new site at Lindur, within easy walking distance from the dam site. The real fun and games with the police now started. The roads down to the site were blocked, resulting in an hour’s walk to get to the main road from the new camp. Vehicles linked with the protests were on the first day prevented from getting near the road blocks, because of an illegal exclusion zone that had been implemented, which allowed tourists or work vehicles through. Not to be thwarted in getting food to the protesters, those outside the camp based at a small logistic camp that had been set up, worked with supportive tourists to smuggle food into the camp. The police tactics became one of attempting to starve the activists out of Lindur. Despite this the camp carried out a number actions at the dam site, stopping work by locking on to site vehicles. By Icelandic standards, the policing was aggressive, with people being violently arrested and attacked with batons. Arrested activists were bused out of mountains into town, and held in the local police station garage. All were eventually released without charge. Those working on the legal, media and transport side of things were routinely hassled by the police, followed and photographed, both in the mountains and in town, which in itself caused great controversy amongst the public and media.

Icelandic media interest in the protests were high and widely communicated the on-going violation of civil liberties by the police, from the following and filming of activists, denying them a supply of food, the made up “police law” they were invoking. There were many TV and radio interviews with activists. The media also began to get their first taste of this new type of policing, with a cameraman from the state TV station being pushed down the steps of the police station by the police. Journalists expressed outrage to some activists about this unprecedented behaviour, and how the police were trying to deny them access to the the protest sites. It seemed that the Kárahnjúkar protests were becoming as much about civil liberty issues as it was about the dam building projects and stimulating direct action. A member of the public tearfully apologised to one activist, when he saw him being forced to show their passport to a police officer outside of the local supermarket in town.

The camp at Lindur was finally evicted by the police on Monday 7th August, while many of the activists were on an early morning action stopping work at the dam site. The camp was encircled by police and people were ordered to take down the tents and clear the site. The police helpfully provided transport to move the tat and people, which given the on-going transport problems, did end up working in the camps favour, as many people were having to leave Iceland in the next few days and would have otherwise have had to hitch out of the mountains! Some of those on the action that morning had taken all their kit with them, also benefited from the lifts into town provided by the police. However, some local people who were staying at the camp and experienced the eviction were visibly shocked about the whole event and the way they were treated by the police.

A significant number of activists had to leave Iceland on the 10th August. The police made one last attempt to harass people by taking them away at the ferry port for questioning, which in some instances surely made for bizarre entertainment for the tourists waiting to board the boat. But a happy sailing home was had by all. Some activists remained in Iceland with local activists and undertook a further action, climbing cranes at the Reydarfjördur aluminum smelter. This summer’s protest camp finally came to an end on the 20th August.

Those travelling to Iceland this summer to act in solidarity with local activists helped to bring many issues to the fore in Iceland, including the industrialisation policy of the government, the entire dam building programme, the ability of people to take action to physically stop the construction, civil liberties and media access. One newspaper columnist finally starting making the links between the past and present. Years ago a women fought tirelessly to prevent Gulfoss waterfall, now a major tourist attraction, being dammed as part of a hydroelectric power scheme. Over the years she has become a national heroine. The columnist concluded that people should also see these modern day activists as heroes, daring where others wouldn’t, to fight to save Iceland’s natural beauty.

Finally, the activists themselves report that:

“Summer solstice in 2005 marked the beginning of a highly inspirational and unique event in the history of Icelandic activism. The international protest camps this year (2006) at Snæfell, Lindur and Reyðarfjörður attracted people from 18 different nationalities. Best of all, this summer saw many more Icelanders join the protests. We find that the camps and the direct actions of the last two summers have had a profound effect on Icelandic society by giving people the courage to make their voices heard after years of a repressive political atmosphere.

One of many effects the protests have had on the Icelandic nation is that people are now actually daring to change their minds about the dams. The protests have managed to get the heavy industry issue and its consequences back into focus. As mentioned above, many people working in the financial sector have raised their voices against the Kárahnjúkar project, pointing out that the aluminium industry adds very little to the Icelandic economy. We have managed to create a fresh new focus and dialogue in Icelandic society about heavy industry. Every day we see new demands that this unimaginative neo-Stalinist emphasis on build-up of heavy industry must be stopped. More young Icelandic people have joined the fight. Hope has been rekindled.”

Action Reports on this summers protest camp in IndyMedia:

(1) http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/sheffield/2006/08/346897.html
(2) http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/sheffield/2006/08/347915.html
(3) http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/sheffield/2006/08/348053.html

Closing statement from the 2006 protest camp: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/sheffield/2006/08/348773.html

Leave a Reply