Norway's largest wind farm violates indigenous rights. Why aren't the authorities taking action? -

Norway’s largest wind farm violates indigenous rights. Why aren’t the authorities taking action?

In October 2021, Norway’s Supreme Court ruled that a wind farm built on the country’s west-central coast violated the protected cultural rights of indigenous Sámi by encroaching on their reindeer-grazing lands. On June 3, 2023, exactly 600 days after the ruling, the $1.3 billion Vossen wind farm was still in operation. On the occasion of the anniversary of the court’s decision, members of the Norwegian Sami League’s Youth Committee, known as NSR-N, demonstrated outside the Norwegian Parliament. On June 26, Motvind Norge, an organization that opposes wind power on conservation grounds, blocked the entrance to the Fosen wind farm, shutting down the facility for a week.

The police successfully cleared the protesters, imposing fines on many of them. Meanwhile, there is no indication that the government or the company behind the wind farm will take action to comply with the court’s decision, or respond to demands from Sami leaders to remove the wind farm entirely. As the two-year anniversary of the court’s decision approaches, NSR-N organizers say they will intensify their protests if the government fails to take action.

Civil disobedience began in February of this year, when 13 young NSR-N noblemen began occupying the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy in Norway’s capital, Oslo, to celebrate 500 days since the Supreme Court’s ruling. Within a week, they were joined by nearly 200 human rights activists, including members of Young Friends of the Earth, Norway’s largest environmental youth organization, and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. By the end of the protests, 10 ministries had been closed, and 2,000 supporters had joined the NSR-N organizers as they ended the peaceful occupation at Norway’s Royal Palace. In response to the February protests, the Minister of Petroleum and Energy, Tirje Asland, issued an apology to the Sami reindeer herders.

A young woman in a fur hat and dark blue cloak stands in front of a sign on the back of the earth
A Sami protester stands in traditional clothing as climate protesters block the entrance to the Norwegian Ministry of Energy in February 2023 in protest of wind turbines on land traditionally used for reindeer herding. Oliver Morin/AFP via Getty Images

“License decisions violate human rights,” Asland wrote at the time. “The Sami reindeer herder of Füssen has been in a demanding and inconspicuous position for a long time. I’m sorry about that.”

Fossen wind farm, Norway’s largest wind project, has faced resistance from Sami reindeer herders and human rights advocates since it was greenlit in 2010. The farm is located near Trondheim, in Sapmi, the traditional homelands of the Sami people that stretch from Norway through Sweden to Finland and Russia. The turbines are built in legally recognized reindeer herding areas that two Sami communities, known as Siidas, need access to to survive.

“My mood, my state of mind, my personal life and my career: everything has been affected in a negative way by wind energy,” said Terje Haugen, one of the reindeer herders affected by the Fosen wind farm. “I still have reindeer, but they don’t want to get close to the wind turbines and have separated into smaller herds and spread out along the coast. It’s a big problem that they’re scattered in small herds, which makes it very difficult to keep track of them.”

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Appeals from the Sami before construction were ignored. The reindeer herders filed suit in 2013 against Fosen Vind DA, a joint venture that holds majority ownership of Nordic Wind Power DA, a European energy company, and Statkraft, a Norwegian state-owned energy company. But as the case went through the courts, the developers continued to build the wind farm, and in March of 2021, the turbines came online. In the fall of 2021, Norway’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that licenses for the Fössen wind farm were invalid because the construction violated “the right of Sami reindeer herders to enjoy their own culture” and their own human rights.

“It is illegal to exploit areas that reindeer herders are entitled to use without permission from the reindeer herders themselves or a confiscation permit from the authorities,” said Eric Kisrud, a highly regarded Supreme Court attorney with experience in reindeer trade law and criminal procedure.

Two reindeer stand near wind turbines
Scattered reindeer roam near wind turbines at Norway’s Storheia wind farm.
HEIKO JUNGE/NTB/AFP via Getty Images

But the ruling did not include any requirement to take action, such as demolishing the wind farm, setting a deadline for the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy to find a satisfactory solution, or imposing sanctions on the government.

“Developers have the ultimate responsibility to decide whether they are entitled to use someone else’s property in conflict with the rights of others,” Kisrud said.

Sami observers say there has been no noticeable change in Fosen since the Supreme Court ruling, and that wind farms continue to produce electricity.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Elisabeth Sather said: “We have made important steps forward and I am committed to making further progress.” “The Minister of Petroleum and Energy has begun mediation between reindeer herders and wind energy concessionaires, with the aim of reaching an agreement that guarantees the rights of reindeer herders and is acceptable to both parties.”

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Norway’s wealth relies heavily on oil and gas extraction, which is mainly exported to the European Union and the United Kingdom. Energy, including oil and gas production, accounts for nearly a third of Norway’s economic output. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, rising energy demand from Europe has resulted in nearly $100 billion in Norwegian oil and gas profits as Russia has cut its gas exports. Norway is now the main supplier of fuel to Europe – and has agreed to increase natural gas exports by 2 billion cubic meters to alleviate Europe’s energy shortage.

Meanwhile, nations are rushing to fulfill their pledges to combat global warming by switching to renewable energy sources.

According to Statskraft, Norway, a country of about 5 million people, produces about 154 terawatt-hours of electricity annually—enough to power nearly 15 million American homes for a year. Roughly 98 percent of that electricity comes from renewable sources such as hydropower and wind power, and in 2021 nearly 26 terawatts were exported, with the majority sent to Denmark.

“The fact that they call wind turbines a necessary tool for the green transition is like putting makeup on a corpse.”

Torbjørn Lindseth, founding member of Motvind Norge.

Norway has pledged to transition from fossil fuels to greener energy sources in order to combat climate change, and this “green transition” reflects a long tradition in the country: Norway has relied on hydropower for more than a century, and in the past 20 years, wind power has become a major energy source with huge potential for expansion. In that time period, the Norwegian government has granted nearly 100 licenses for new wind farms, many of them in Sapmi. There are currently 53 wind farms in the country, including those under construction.

Tom Christian Larsen, Managing Director of Fosen Vind DA, said that the lack of energy in the region necessitated the construction of the wind farm, as well as the need to limit the rise in energy prices. “Production also contributes to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and provides energy for industries to support their climate goals,” he said.

The Sami wind farms amount to green colonization, said Selje Karin Mutka, speaker of the Sami Parliament.

“New wind power plants are often justified by reference to sustainable development,” Motka said. “Developing a wind power industry in reindeer herding areas could mean destroying the possibility of reindeer husbandry. In Füssen, this means wiping out an entire culture, bit by bit, all in the name of sustainable electricity.”

Fog obscures wind turbines on a snowy hill
Fog rolls in near wind turbines at the Storheia wind farm in Nowary, one of Europe’s largest terrestrial wind parks.
Jonathan Nakstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Statkraft said the company is optimistic about the future mediation and is committed to finding an amicable agreement between the state, Fosen Vind DA and Sámi.

“I sincerely hope the Supreme Court ruling will be carried out,” said Hogan, the reindeer herder. “It is outrageous: 20 judges said no to the wind park to stay in business. It is very tragic that Norway no longer has the rule of law.”

For Sami, the only satisfactory scenario is the complete removal of the Füssen wind farm. NSR-N and its supporters are currently planning to work in Oslo in September to highlight the second anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling.

“Human rights defenders … use the most powerful means of action that individuals have – civil disobedience,” said Motka, the speaker of the Sami Parliament. “They are aware of the consequences.”