Sep 03 2007

Defending the Wild in the Land of Fire and Ice – Saving Iceland Takes Action

Jaap Krater
Earth First Journal
3 August, 2007

Summer of Resistance in Iceland – an overview

This year, Iceland saw its third Summer of direct action against heavy industry and large dams. In a much-disputed master plan, all the glacial rivers and geothermal potential of Europe’s largest wilderness would be harnessed for aluminum production (see EF!J May-June 2006). Activists from around the world have gathered to protect Europe’s largest remaining wilderness and oppose aluminum corporations.

Icelanders were joined by activists from Africa, South and North America, and Europe for an international conference entitled, “Global Consequences of Heavy Industry and Large Dams.” Organized by Saving Iceland, the conference looked at the effects of large dams on ecosystems, climate and communities. It also focused on the role of aluminum in the arms industry and on the green-washing strategies of large corporations. Activists recognized the remarkable similarities in manipulative and ecologically destructive corporate strategies between their different countries and continents. The next activist conference will be in Trinidad and Tobago, where local communities oppose an Alcoa aluminum smelter (see EF!J January-February 2007). Other campaigns that were presented included Brazil’s Movement of Dam-Affected People and India’s Save the Narmada Movement.

Reclaiming Reykjavik

The resistance against heavy industry and large dams in Iceland has heated up—and not just because of global warming. Activists set up camp about 10 miles north of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, and built a dam in front of the prime minister’s office. Reverend Billy, of the Church of Stop Shopping, held a sermon in Reykjavik’s largest mall, connecting heavy industry to consumerism. A public meeting was held with the people of Thorlakshöfn (the site for two planned aluminum smelters) and activists from anti-heavy-industry struggles in South Africa and Trinidad.

On July 14, Bastille Day, about 100 people danced all over Reykjavik’s ring road in a carnival against heavy industry. Iceland’s first Reclaim the Streets action began cheerfully as a clown army danced to music into the city center. This Rave Against the Machine was organized by Saving Iceland to “reclaim our public areas and make it a space to be free to dance, free from dreary industrial car culture and free to throw a festival in opposition to the grim industrialization plans for Iceland.”

When the rave reached Reykjavik’s town center, police blocked the road and a stand-off ensued. After an hour, police attacked the raving protesters. The filth was all too happy to use all the techniques they learned from training with American SWAT teams, such as foot-cuffing. YouTube removed videos of police brutality without explanation, possibly at the request of the Icelandic government.

Direct Action

On July 18, Saving Iceland closed the supply road to Century Aluminum’s Grundartangi smelter and the Icelandic Alloys steel factory. Two days later, Saving Iceland invaded Reykjavik Energy and raised a huge banner accusing the electricity company of supplying energy to war-mongering corporations Rio Tinto Alcan and Century/RUSAL. Two days after that, another banner was dropped over Reykjavik’s City Council, which owns Reykjavik Energy.

Then, on July 20, the Icelandic consulate in Edinburgh, Scotland, was painted red under the slogan “Iceland Bleeds,” and locks were glued.

Not even a week later, on July 24, Saving Iceland blocked the gates of Rio Tinto Alcan’s Straumsvik smelter in Hafnarfjordur. Previous protests against Alcan have been successful. Recently, in Kashipur, India, Alcan had to give up its participation in a bauxite mine because of protests against its human rights violations and environmental devastation. Alcan has been accused of cultural genocide in Kashipur because mining and dams have already displaced 150,000 mainly tribal people there.

In Iceland, the people of Hafnarfjordur have stopped the expansion of the Straumsvik smelter with a referendum, but the mayor of Hafnarfjordur and representatives from Alcan are hinting at expanding the smelter anyway. They say that the referendum only applied to a certain spot by the existing factory and that it could not stop the smelter expansion being built on a landfill on the other side of the factory. Locals continue to protest these plans and dropped banners stating “No Means No” and “Nietzsche Killed God, Ludvik [the Mayor] Killed Democracy.”

On July 26, Saving Iceland invaded Reykjavik Energy’s construction site for expansion of the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant in Hengill. People locked themselves onto machinery, climbed a giant crane and blockaded the entrance roads. The action must have been successful, since Reykjavik Energy has announced its intention to sue the protesters for losses caused by stopped work on the site.

Finally, the Earth Liberation Front struck Rio Tinto in England, in solidarity. “In the early hours of July 30, saboteurs struck at Smurfit Kappa, a plastics factory owned by Rio Tinto Alcan in Chelmsford, Essex. The gates were locked shut, office doors and loading bays were sabotaged with glue, and a message was painted on the wall. Vehicles belonging to Rio Tinto were also sabotaged,” read the ELF’s statement.

Myths About Geothermal Power

“The goal of enlarging the Hellisheidi power plant is to meet industries’ demands for energy,” states the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The energy is needed particularly for the Century expansion at Grundartangi and possible new Alcan and Century plants. The current Icelandic government says it opposes more smelters, but the Hellisheidi power plant is still being expanded. Once the expansion is completed, this will force Iceland to build more smelters, because the electricity needs to be sold to get the money from investments back. In the meantime, farmers pay twice as much for electricity as Century does.

Even without the smelters, the Hellesheidi and other geothermal power plants are not as green as Reykjavik Energy suggests. Hot and toxic waste water is disposed of by pumping it back into the borehole, commonly increasing the frequency of earthquakes in this very active fault zone or by pumping it untreated into streams and lakes, wiping out valuable ecosystems because treatment is considered too expensive. The northern end of Lake Thingvallavatn, which is near Hengill, is already biologically dead in parts due to wastewater pumping and must be protected from more damage.

In addition, extraction of underground fluids leads to changes in groundwater movements, commonly including the drying of unique hot springs and geysers and pollution of pure subsurface spring water.
Smelter Expansion

Alcoa, Rio Tinto Alcan, Norsk Hydro and Century/RUSAL are all scheming for new smelters in Iceland. Century Aluminum wants to build a second smelter, this time in Helguvik, with a projected capacity of at least 276,000 tons per year. The planned site is designed to accommodate further expansion. An EIA for the Helguvik smelter is currently under review by the aluminum industry’s foremost construction engineers.

It is absurd that an engineering company with a vested interest in the smelter’s construction could be considered to produce an objective EIA. The document makes idiotic claims, such as stating that air pollution is really not a problem because Helguvik is such a windy place that the pollution will just blow away.

This smelter will demand four new geothermal power plants on the Reykjanes peninsula (south of Reykjavik), as well as in the Hengill area, which has already been seriously damaged by the Hellisheidi plant. The EIA does not take these places into account, nor does it consider the impact of the huge number of power lines and pylons required. Also, the smelter’s required energy exceeds the natural capacity of the geothermal spots, which will cool down anyway in three or four decades. Century admits it wants the site to expand further in the coming decades. So, it is obvious that this smelter will not just ruin Reykjanes, but also need additional hydropower.

Expansion of Icelandic alloy and aluminum smelters considerably contributes to Iceland’s greenhouse gas emissions. If there are no further expansions of heavy industry beyond Grundartangi and Alcoa’s Fjardaal (a new smelter in the east), Iceland will emit 38 percent more greenhouse gases than in 1990. If other expansion plans continue, levels would rise to an incredible 63 percent above 1990 levels.

“This shows that all the talk about ‘green energy’ from hydro and geothermal sources is, in reality, a lie. Icelanders have to rise up against these transnational corporations,” says Saving Iceland.

Aluminum Equals War

One effect of this year’s actions has been to expose the dubious role of aluminum companies in the arms industry. Much of the aluminum produced goes directly to the war efforts of the US, Russia and elsewhere. Aluminum is the single most important bulk metal for modern warfare: It makes missiles, tanks, fighter planes and nuclear weapons.

“It’s as if Iceland is organizing a competition between Alcoa, Rio Tinto Alcan and Century/RUSAL—whichever has committed the most human rights and environmental crimes gets Iceland’s energy,” says Saving Iceland.

Alcoa’s links to the US military-industrial complex is well known. But until now, Century and Alcan have managed to stay out of the picture. Century is a subsidiary of Glencore, which is notorious for shady deals with apartheid South Africa, the Soviet Union, Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Glencore has merged with RUSAL, making the largest aluminum company in the world. RUSAL, the main aluminum supplier of the Russian military, contributes directly to the war in Chechnya, where at least 35,000 civilians have been killed with bombs and missiles made of aluminum. Glencore is also known to have recently massacred Wayúu people and local farmers in Colombia for mine expansion.

Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum alloys are sold for a whole range of military purposes. Alcan is the main supplier for the European Aeronautic Defense and Space company (EADS), producer of helicopters, jets and satellites. EADS is the world’s leading producer of missiles. Alcan also supplies to international arms manufacturers like Boeing in the US and Dassault in France.

Colonizing Africa

Rio Tinto Alcan recently signed a letter of intent with the government of Cameroon to expand its existing Alucam smelter to 165,000 tons per year and to build a new 165,000-ton-per-year smelter. The Lom Pangar Dam, to be constructed by the government, would provide power for this. Alcan has a large number of projects planned in Africa. Its Greenfield Project Pipeline will run through Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea, Madagascar and South Africa. “Greenfield” means that untouched nature will be destroyed for the planned smelters and the dams that would power them, as well as mines and infrastructure.

Alcan was active in apartheid South Africa between 1949 and 1986. Now, it wants to come back and develop a new smelter in the almost tax-free Coega Development Zone near Port Elizabeth. This would be powered by coal and nuclear energy delivered by Eskom, one of the world’s largest electricity companies. “Thirty percent of the poor communities of South Africa don’t have electricity, and now it will all be going straight to Alcan,” says Lerato Maregele, a South African activist.

Eskom is a sister company of Iceland’s national power company Landsvirkjun. Landsvirkjun can be expected to try to sell its expertise to Eskom’s various hydroprojects in Mozambique, Uganda and the Congo. It wants to have a role in damming the Congo River, a project twice the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam. This dam would have a devastating effect on the central African rainforest. In the meantime, Alcoa is planning seven new dams in the Amazon rainforest to power aluminum smelters.

Kick Them Out!

Aluminum corporations are posing a massive threat to wildlife, wilderness and people around the world. In Iceland, people have seen the destruction wrought by the Karahnjukar dam and are increasingly hesitant about bringing more heavy industry into the country. Stopping Alcoa, Rio Tinto Alcan and Century/RUSAL in Iceland will be a major slap in their faces, and it is definitely possible to win the struggle in Iceland if Icelanders continue to receive international support and solidarity. More and more, a global network against heavy industry is forming. Kicking these companies out of Iceland can be a first step in kicking the evil bastards off the planet.

Jaap Krater is a green anarchist writer and edits the Dutch quarterly Out of Order. He has been involved with Earth First! in the Netherlands and Britain since the mid-’90s, as well as the recent campaign against heavy industry in Iceland.

This article appeared first in Earth First Journal

Dutch translation of the article

See also articles on for more about the Icelandic Summer of Dissent 2007 with plenty of useful links:

Summer of Dissent in Iceland

Week of Direct Action in Iceland as Arms-Connections of Aluminium Industry get Exposed