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Who the green movement leaves behind 

We should be learning from indigenous people such as the Sámi. Instead, in the rush to embrace green energy, they are being forgotten.

By John Burnside

Around 1970, the Norwegian government revealed plans for a huge hydroelectric dam on the Alta river, in the far northern county of Troms og Finnmark. This was a shock to the indigenous reindeer herders and fisherfolk who lived and worked around the village of Máze, which was scheduled to be “displaced” by the project: shock that turned to outrage when they realised that the authorities had never once felt any need to consider their rights. At that time, the Sámi, or Lapps, were considered second-class citizens (the term “Lapp” is derogatory), vestiges of an outmoded culture, doomed to wither away as the modern world advanced. And, as with so many other indigenous peoples, they had been mistreated for decades: habitually swindled by corrupt officials, abused and victimised by the justice and education systems, and their cultural traditions condemned as “sorcery”, for which brutal penalties could be exacted.

It was no surprise, then, that the attitudes of their oppressors had been internalised by many Sámi people. The artist Hans Ragnar Mathisen (whose Sámi name is Elle-Hánsa) was separated from his parents and placed in a Norwegian school, where his native language was prohibited. Years later, he noted: “It took decades of our lives to overcome the feeling of ethnic shame and indigenous inferiority versus the dominating societies… To deny a child the use of its mother tongue is an irreparable crime.”

In the 1970s, however, there were Sámis who refused to accept this status quo and, over the next decade, they waged a campaign of resistance that reverberated among the world’s indigenous communities. To this day, the Alta dam rebellion is remembered as a turning point in the politics of “survivance” – a term used to describe the conjunction of resistance and survival. Joined by environmentalist groups, the Sámi resisted the spoliation of their homeland using a variety of non-violent techniques, including legal action, civil disobedience and hunger strikes, all under the banner: La elva leve (“Let the river live”).

The government’s response was ruthless: in January 1981 a police force of more than 600 officers was charged with putting down the protests (it appears that the government also drew up plans to send in the army) and eventually the dam was completed, opening in 1987. Nevertheless, the protesters did succeed in extracting some environmental concessions, and they managed to prevent the complete destruction of Máze.

Now, after 50 years, much has changed, especially with regard to Sámi culture. In 1989, a Sámi Parliament was founded at Kárášjohka, Norway, followed by Swedish and Finnish equivalents in 1993 and 1996 respectively. Then, when the great Sámi poet-musician Nils-Aslak Valkeapää died in 2001, he was given a state funeral. Through the years, Sámi musicians such as Mari Boine, Iŋgor Ántte Áilu Gaup and Ulla Pirttijärvi have achieved significant recognition, while the 2022 Venice Biennale showcased Sámi artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Anders Sunna and Máret Ánne Sara.

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In cinema, Nils Gaup’s 1987 film Pathfinder (Ofelaš), was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and he has continued to create work based on Sámi history and myth. More recently, the Southern Sámi director Amanda Kernell’s debut, Sámi Blood, presented a subtle and sensitive exploration of the racism directed at an indigenous girl in a 1930s Swedish boarding school. Disney incorporated Sámi-ish themes and characters into Frozen II (which also features a pleasing, if somewhat wishful, scene in which giants destroy a large and very ugly dam).

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[See also: Winter Reflection: Fellowship of the flock]

Political progress was made with the 2005 Finnmark Act, which appeared to offer a degree of self-determination by transferring ownership of 95 per cent of Finnmark’s land to the people. However, this gesture has often failed to provide the protection that many were hoping for, as conflicts over mining, invasive energy projects and the appropriation of Sámi culture by outside tourist industries persist. Very recently, the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, has been obliged to apologise to Finland’s Sámis for delays in implementing new indigenous rights legislation that the United Nations has repeatedly demanded.

The story that best illustrates the continuing marginalisation of indigenous people is that of the Fosen peninsula, just north of Trondheim, on Norway’s west coast. Six years ago, this was the spot where developers decided to start building a 151-turbine wind farm, despite Fosen’s history of providing essential winter pasturage for local reindeer. The development was completed in 2020, just as a group of reindeer herders took their objections to the nation’s highest court, which found in October 2021 that their human rights had been violated.

A year ago, that ruling felt like something to celebrate in the endless battle to protect indigenous practices and the natural environment; clearly, such protection is long overdue. Because sub-Arctic winters are warmer now, reindeer are already under significant stress and any further loss of habitat could prove disastrous. But on Fosen, as one herder told reporters, “It’s impossible for the reindeer to come here now, with all the enormous disruptions caused by the turning and turning of the turbines, which scare them… There are also car parks, roads, crossings… Nature has been completely destroyed here. There’s nothing left but rocks and pebbles.”

Photo by Boyer/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Sadly, however, any relief that herders and environmentalists might have felt at the court’s ruling was soon crushed: one year on, the government has done nothing to enforce that judgment, and it shows no sign of doing so any time soon. Meanwhile, three weeks after the Fosen decision, plans for a new wind park on summer grazing at Čorgaš in Northern Norway were published, and developers seem confident that these, and further turbine installations, will go ahead.

After all, why would they not? A major player in such developments is the hydropower company Statkraft, which is owned by the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries. As Carola Lingaas writes, for the jurisprudence website Opinio Juris, the state wanted “a judgment favourable to the defendants, which was apparent by the third-party intervention of the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy on behalf of Fosen Vind. At the same time, [Norway] also has the legal responsibility to uphold and protect the human rights of the plaintiffs, the Sámi indigenous people. The balance in the present case seemed, however, to clearly tip in favour of economic interests… Put bluntly: the state chose money over people.”

There are those who argue that wind farms are A Good Thing wherever they are placed, which is a bit like saying that electricity is always a blessing, whether we use it to light a room or enforce the death penalty. However, as one Sámi herder put it, “I fully understand that we need a green transition… But I find it odd, to say the least, that a green transition should be done at the cost of nature.” This concern applies not just to wind farms, but to all manner of developments; for example, when two firms – St1 Nordic and Horisont Energy – presented a plan last year to co-develop a “green” ammonia project in Finnmark (yes, Finnmark again), their choice of location was very close to Rastegaisa mountain, which many Sámi consider a sacred site, and directly upon an important reindeer migration path. Will this application succeed? If it does, it will be one more example of money over people, where indigenous folk pay the price for the consumption habits of others.

Yet indigenous people, in Norway, in Finland and Sweden, and across the world, are arguably the best asset humanity has, faced with a dubious environmental future. Indigenous languages and cultures, developed over centuries in close relationship to specific terrains, contain a body of knowledge and wisdom about the land that is worth more than gold; yet they also contain something else, something intangible to resource managers and accountants.

It is hard to put into words, but it could be said that indigenous life frames a way of seeing, a way of listening and paying attention – in short, a way of being – that is sorely lacking in the industrialising world. We need to help indigenous people carry on those life-ways, not as museum exhibits, but as an essential presence in the land, one that we can and should learn from. The thoughtlessness that led to the imposition of the Alta dam and the arrogance that keeps Fosen’s turbines running are symptomatic of a society that sees its own toxic status quo as “developed”, while assuming that everyone else is “developing”, with no other aspirations than to be “rich” like us.

In recent years, the great PR achievement of energy interests has been to commandeer the climate argument, insisting that all our woes are caused by – and only by – climate change, and can therefore be solved by applying the right technology. Their technology. What seems more likely is that our woes derive from the way we live now: forever anxious, forever out of touch with the natural world, forever chained to perpetual “growth” and in dire need of help to find a way, not back to some non-existent bygone age, or forward into the techno-dreamworld of a stalled adolescent’s meta-vision, but to what is at hand. To the true wealth of here and now. To home.

[See also: Discovering Britain’s lost rainforests]

This article was originally published on 7 December 2022

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special