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Green Colonialism
“We need a policy for both the climate and nature”

A reindeer herd in the Finnmark region in northern Norway. The Finnmark is the largest and also most sparsely populated province in Norway. The majority of the Sámi live here.
A reindeer herd in the Finnmark region in northern Norway. The Finnmark is the largest and also most sparsely populated province in Norway. The majority of the Sámi live here. | Photo (detail): Patrick Pleul © picture alliance

Is green energy worth going for against all odds and even if it means destroying nature? What sounds pretty contradictory is often the reality when it comes to installing wind parks. Aili Keskitalo is not willing to accept this. The president of the Sámi Parliament is fighting the Norwegian government’s plans to increase the number of wind energy farms in areas that are important reindeer habitats and essential to Sámi reindeer herders.

By Martina Vetter

Ms. Keskitalo, most people seem to think the construction of wind turbines that produce renewable energy is a good solution for preventing climate change. Why are you fighting such projects? 
To understand why, let me explain something about my people. Sámi are Indigenous people in the arctic. We live in the north parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. We have traditionally lived in and from nature and reindeer herding is one of our most important livelihoods, which requires rather big areas. The reindeer herders are semi nomadic: Because the sparce arctic vegetation does not provide grazing in the same area year-round, they have to move continually. But their livelihood is in danger now because many of the reindeer herding areas are considered attractive for wind turbines. In these areas there is a lot of wind, which is also very important for reindeer herders, especially in the summer.
Why is the wind important for reindeer herding?
Because of the wind it is cool even in summer, and reindeer like it cool, as they are artic animals. The strong wind also blows the insects away and we have a lot of mosquitoes in the arctic summer. So that is why the areas that are perfect for reindeer herding are also attractive for the wind energy industry.
And both cannot work together?
The reindeer need vast areas to roam and they need peace and quiet places so they are not stressed when they need rest. Not only the noise of wind turbines disturbs the animals; the movement of the huge turbine blades irritates them too. Recent studies have shown that reindeer do not only avoid being near wind turbines; they also try to get away from the shadows cast by the turning rotor blades. That problem is even worse in the arctic summer, as we have sun around the clock. But also in the arctic winter, huge wind turbines are a problem, because snow and ice freeze on the blades. And when they circulate, clumps of ice can be catapulted into the surrounding area. That makes it very dangerous for people and animals to be around the wind turbines. 

Couldn’t the reindeer herders just take another path further away from the wind turbines?
That is what they will do, as no one wants to force the animals to pass near the wind turbines. But you see, that causes another problem. Then the reindeer overuse other grazing land and that is not sustainable if you think long term.
The Norwegian constitution guarantees the conservation of the Sámi culture. Does that not include the protection of their traditional herding land? 
No, there are no protected areas. Even though the Norwegian government has signed a lot of conventions, they have not proven protective enough to save our land from wind power production. We have to fight these plans project for project, which is really a challenge for the small family groups of Sámi people that have no strong financial means. 
You talk about green colonialism when referring to the construction of wind power plants on your land. What do you mean by that?
The wind industry is purposely hiding the fact that it is a very invasive industry. It is green washing what has been done to date. Just think about the term wind park, which suggests that wind power plants are peaceful, green and quiet spaces. They are not. And the wind industry is currently invading our land. If wind energy is really to be green, it should be established closer to the areas where it is being used and closer to already established infrastructure. Let me give you an example: A wind power plant has been proposed here in Norway in the middle of eastern Finnmark. The project is called the davvi vindpark. To build that wind power plant, they will have to establish a 130-km road system in what is unspoiled nature today. Wind power is an industrial activity, and it is not just about a small area of land where the wind turbines are placed. It is part of a big industrial project that requires road systems, power lines and transformers and huge solid foundations for the wind turbines. Sámi people have water and wind power plants on Sámi land already. We have the biggest wind power plant in northern Europe in Fosen. But there is a limit and we have reached that limit. No more wind power plants on Sámi land! 

How are you going to stop the government’s plans?
The Sámi Parliament is trying to influence the licensing processes. Sometimes Sámi family groups have to go to court to protect their grazing lands. In the past, it has been hard to get people to understand the consequences of wind power production. But in the last two years, debate about wind power plants has started in Norway and the government has been challenged by public opinion. This makes it easier for Sámi people to explain our view of the consequences. And more critical thinking about wind power will probably make it easier to stop future projects.
What will it take, from your point of view, to prevent climate change and protect nature at the same time?
We will have to rethink our own consumption and live a more sustainable lifestyle and not just think about how we can produce more green energy. That is not the solution. You see, the Sámi are modern people, we use cars and computers, live in houses and so on. But our value system is based on a belief in the circular economy and a kind of frugality: You are not supposed to consume more than you need and you are not supposed to take more from nature than you need. The overuse of resources has created the climate crisis, and we cannot also risk a nature crisis. We need a policy for the climate and nature; we need to think about the next day, the next winter, the next generation. That is why I am so happy that the circular economy is becoming more important in people’s minds. It gives me hope.