Dec 24 2007

Saving Iceland – The Annihilation of Europe’s Last Great Wilderness

stop ecocide

Interview with Siggi by Kristin Burnett
Strip Las Vegas Magazine
August 2007

In July of this year, I traveled to Iceland for the first time. This elusive and secluded island in the northern Atlantic is right on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Having traveled extensively since the age of three, I had experienced many beautiful places, but this was something entirely different; something I�d never seen or knew existed. Iceland is the most extraordinarily beautiful, untouched wilderness left in the civilized Western world. It is truly a gift. While visiting Iceland, I came across a flyer entitled, �Iceland�s Globalization � The Annihilation of its great wilderness for Heavy-Industry Energy�, with the dates of an international conference and protest camp. I was immediately curious and questioned a group of Icelandic college students I�d met at a local coffee shop. The more I learned about what was happening to this pristine land, the angrier I became, and the more I wanted to get involved. Upon returning to work in the U.S., here at the magazine, I continued to do research on the damage that companies like ALCOA were doing to the world and specifically to Iceland. Only because I was actually in Iceland, did I become aware of its looming environmental issues. It made me wonder how much exposure this activist group has actually raised and whether people in the U.S. are aware of what is happening. I contacted the organization�s Web site responsible for this direct action movement, called Saving Iceland, and requested an interview, and I got it! This is my attempt to raise awareness in my circle of friends, Las Vegas, the United States and ultimately, the world. The following interview is with the Saving Iceland�s spokesperson, Siggi, short for Sigurdur.

SLV: When did the Saving Iceland campaign begin and who started it?

SIGGI: In 2004, a man, named Olafur Pall, who had been watching how environmental activists were fighting against increased heavy industry in Iceland � and there was this one, especially big dam, Karahnjukar. It was built solely to power an ALCOA aluminum smelting plant, in a fjord in East Iceland. The plant raised an ongoing discussion and argument for many years � and the logic was that we need more jobs in the small villages in the East, and this big factory would provide jobs. Saving Iceland believes that it�s stupid to have one factory providing everything for whole communities and this big dam is also in the highlands in Iceland. The very beautiful highlands area has no humans.

SLV: Yes, and that is rare. There is really no place left like Iceland.

SIGGI: Not in Europe, exactly! And that is what we are fighting to save. They are attacking the last great wilderness of natural Europe, and all you have left is the glacial Greenland, maybe. So after that had begun, the environmentalists here were already giving up the fight, because they had already started destroying the land at Karahnjukar. Their energy was gone and we didn�t know what we could do. But Olafur Pall finally got together a group, because the opposition had to be continued. The lobbyists were losing and it was time to turn to direct action. In 2004, 2005 and 2006 he also went campaigning in mainland Europe, among environmentalists and activists there who had been fighting against more highways and using direct action against them, like stopping work and chaining themselves to machines. Groups of these activists came to help Olafur here in the summertimes in the highlands. They went into the work areas and stopped the work, chained themselves to trucks and climbed cranes at the work sites.

SLV: Has Saving Iceland found any other tactics to be successful and why did you choose to be a direct action group, instead of a peaceful protest?

SIGGI: People had been writing letters and suing and doing all the legal stuff for years and years, yet still it is going on, this big dam. And now there are more dams planned and more aluminum plants planned and being worked on�and it doesn�t seem to matter how many people are suing them, lobbying, and voting for green left or whatever�the destruction still keeps on. As we speak, there are numerous places being drilled for geothermal energy, and it is only for more aluminum plants and heavy industry.

SLV: Is ALCOA the only corporation involved?

SIGGI: It was ALCOA for Karahnjukar. Now there�s ALCAN, that has just been taken over by Rio Tinto. And then you have Century Aluminum, and they are now partially owned by the Russian aluminum industry (RUSAL).

SLV: Are they working together?

SIGGI: They are competing for Icelandic energy. This is totally a capitalist market about the energy�and the National Power Company and the Reykjavik Energy Company are providing the energy dirt cheap for them.

SLV: Icelandic government is in full support of this heavy industry?

SIGGI: Yes, the government is supporting this.

SLV: Are there any government figures that agree with Saving Iceland?

SIGGI: No, they�re mostly against our position.

SLV: Are they allowing this because they want another export, besides fish (your main export of the past hundreds years)?�and now that there�s aluminum� all of these foreign countries are fighting for your cheap energy? Do they feel it is going to boost the Icelandic economy to compete with the rest of the Western world?

SIGGI: Yes, of course, it brings lots of money in for the sub-contractors, but it is also overheating the economy and the energy prise is so low that the Karahnjukar dams are already running at a loss.

SLV: But isn�t the government worried about what is going to happen to the natural beauty and stability of the land?

SIGGI: They say there is always more natural beauty whatever we sacrifice. And even though some areas will have to be destroyed, they say it is good for the economy and they want to continue living the rich lifestyle.

SLV: Iceland is very unique, in that all life is lived exclusively on the coast, because the interior is uninhabitable. Therefore these aluminum plants will be built on the coast, because people will be running them. So this will obviously destroy the visual beauty of Iceland. But won�t it also create less space for the population to grow?

SIGGI: Yes, the population also has to be on the coast because they need the harbors to export the aluminum. The power plants are built in the inland highlands and the aluminum plants are on the coast. 90% of all the houses in Iceland are kept warm with geothermal energy. There is no oil or gas burned for any energy here.

SLV: This is possible because Iceland sits half on the American continent and half on the European continent, creating extreme pressure and volcanic activity; thus a whole lot of natural energy�correct?

SIGGI: Yes, and because there is so much natural energy, this is why heavy industry is here�because it is cheap energy in abundance. Also in the U.S., ALCOA is having problems because there is more strict legislation about the aluminum industry, but that sort of legislation doesn�t exist in Iceland. When huge amounts of money are put into these smaller economies, what has happened here in the last few years is that smaller companies that are exporting all kinds of products made in Iceland have had to move abroad, because the Icelandic currency was too strong and expensive in comparison to the dollar. So now they can�t export. They can�t sell their goods anymore, thanks to this narrow minded policy of heavy industry.

SLV: When I was there, it was difficult to purchase a burger and fries without spending at least $40.

SIGGI: Inflation keeps going up. A lot will happen in fifteen, twenty years� and of course, the prise of aluminum fluctuates like everything else.

SLV: How did you first get involved with Saving Iceland?

SIGGI: I became involved last year, when I was living in Holland. I organized benefit concerts to make money for food for the summer camps we have. Then this year, I got more strongly involved, because I moved back to Iceland, which is where I was born and where the farm was that I grew up on. Unlike most places, we are only like two teenagers away from being just a fishing/farming community.

SLV: The one smelting plant that has been around for a long time�did that plant ever close?

SIGGI: No, that one smelting plant has been here since 1975. This plant wanted to expand onto a popular road, but was voted against by the local population of Hafnarfjordur. So they now want to build another plant on a landfill at the same site or somewhere else. That is the thing with aluminum plants�if you have one, in five years, they will demand an expansion, and if you don�t expand, they will threaten to leave, and then there will be lots of people unemployed. The unemployment in Iceland is less than 1 percent, but still everyone was saying these plants are good: �We need our jobs, we need our jobs!� It keeps being the lame excuse. It is just what politicians do�they create jobs and keep everything running on high speed. There is no slowing down, even though it is partially on the Kyoto agreement on CO��

SLV: Yes, the CO� exhaust, released from cars.

SIGGI: Aluminum plants pollute much more than any cars�and we have a limited quota on CO�, and if they build one more aluminum plant, that quota will be filled.

SLV: What kind of environmental effects and damages have the smelting plants had on the land and the wildlife so far?

SIGGI: The big problem in Iceland is soil erosion and now we have a huge reservoir where the water level is going up and down according to the waterflush from the glaciers. So the banks of the reservoir are made of fine dusty silt. So now there there will be more dust blowing over the interior highlands than before. The smelting plants themselves are also highly polluting. Then of course the extraction of geothermic energy devastates the unique and highly valuable geothermal fields. Not to mention the rigging of electric pylons all over the country. They are real eyesores.

SLV: The interior of Iceland is more or less like a Sahara�lava and sand only. This poses a serious threat to the vegetation of the island and very few plants and trees can grow in Iceland, because of the harsh climate, correct?

SIGGI: Yes and no. The area at Karahnjukar that has been sacrificed for ALCOA actually had the densest continual vegetation north of Vatnajokull glacier, 3000 sq kms, all the way to the delta of the two dammed rivers. The kind of vegetation we have is of a very special sub-arctic type. It does not grow high from the ground but all the same it is quite unique in biodiversity but very fragile at the same time.

SLV: Is the Saving Iceland organization run like a non-hierarchical movement?

SIGGI: Yes, it is more of a movement than an organization. We have consensus meetings, where we sit down until we agree. If there is someone in the group that totally disagrees with what we are saying, we have to change our idea until everyone agrees on it. In the summertime, we have direct action summer camps. This year we were close to Reykjavik and doing actions against the smelting plant. When you do an illegal protest, you get arrested, but our very first protest this summer we claimed the streets. We had DJs on a car and it was like a street party. The police tried to make us stop, and we said: �No. We are not stopping. We are just dancing.� After one hour of quarreling, they just attacked the group.

SLV: Was anyone hurt?

SIGGI: No, not seriously. There were no bones broken, but people were kept overnight and now there are people who have been into jail for a week, or two weeks, for what they were arrested for last year, and they are getting big fines, but deny paying them, so they go back to jail.

SLV: How many people are involved with Saving Iceland?

SIGGI: That is very hard to say. Last year we had over 200 people come. This year we had from 50 to 60, down to 20, but it functioned better with a smaller group�because there are more people there for doing things and not just for hanging out. This is the first time this is happening in the history of Iceland�direct action and protest camps! So we are making history here! It might be hard for you to understand, but I think of it as a village here. There are only 300,000 people living here.

SLV: Iceland is the size of Kentucky, roughly, and there are more people there than in Iceland.

SIGGI: Yes, that is about right. So through our direct action, we have got a lot of media attention. So environmentalists who had given up before, were very happy that someone was doing this again, and the police and government were very angry. I was the spokesperson this summer, and my phone didn�t stop. I was in the media everyday, talking about the issues, just because we were doing this direct action and we were a little bit arrogant. We were not shy. We were able to do this because of the experienced foreigners who came and taught us how. So now there are more Icelandic activists�where in the first year, there were only a few Icelanders and the rest were foreigners.

SLV: What would you like to see happen?

SIGGI: I think that we don�t need heavy industry. Iceland is one of the richest nations in the world. Everyone has a car and a house, and there is very, very low unemployment. Also, the products of aluminum, like many of the companies such as ALCOA, are U.S.-based industries and used for the arms industry and Coca-Cola cans, but there is no recycling program going on in Iceland and many other countries. If someone would put up a decent aluminum recycling plant, they wouldn�t have to destroy any more nature. First you have to go to Latin America, Jamiace or Australia and dig up the raw boxite. Then you import it to Iceland, where the cheap energy is�and it pollutes even more here�and then you make an airplane from it, instead of just doing a decent recycling of what you already have.

SLV: Why don�t they recycle the aluminum?

SIGGI: Because they make more money by not recycling. Money is the only thing that keeps it all running. ALCOA said when they first came to Iceland that the only reason they are here is because of cheap energy and low resistance against them. Because the Icelandic government is for heavy industry, the people have to pay more for the natural energy than the smelters.

SLV: Is the Icelandic government doing anything to counteract the damages these smelting plants are doing?

SIGGI: No. People were hoping for a green-thinking change in the elections last spring�but still, they say we will do some preservation of some areas, starting in two years, but in two years there can be so much destruction.

SLV: What is the projection and timeline of the damage to Iceland if all of the intended aluminum smelting plants open?

SIGGI: Well, there are many glacial rivers and a lot of geothermal areas where the plants can be built. It would be like this: Driving HWY-1 from the Keflavik Airport to the east shore, you would see a smelting plant every 100 kilometers�that is, if all the plants go through. The other thought is that it is good to use Icelandic energy, because it is natural and non-polluting. But that is stupid, because they are using it for a polluting entity, and the energy is neither “sustainable” or “green” contrary to the propaganda of the heavy industry lobby. The dams and geothermal power stations are destroying unique nature. Ultimately the dams will be filled with glacial silt and the resrvoirs will turn into deserts. The geothermal fields will be exhausted in forty years time and must then be rested for atleast the same amount of time. That is not “renevable” energy.

SLV: On the ALCOA Web site there is an environmental section and they talk about a 2020 framework of environmental education of ALCOA�s employees and the Icelandic people. With what you�ve seen, are they doing that?

SIGGI: If they are teaching about environmental issues, then they are teaching that aluminum is good for you, because it is better than having a heavy airplane etc.. This is just plain greenwash. They are destroying Europes’s last great wilderness for a quick buck, its as simple as that.

SLV: How can people get involved?

SIGGI: They can check out our Web site at and we are always looking for more people who believe in the cause and that are willing to step forwards and make a change.

[As this is a transcribed interview from an audiotape a few alterations have been made for clarity’s sake. Ed.]