Protests against the project so far have mostly been a few peaceful, largely ignored, demonstrations. One group, SavingIceland.org, is appealing to protestors both in Iceland and abroad to come together this summer to take part in a camp that will be situated in one of the areas of the highlands expected to be flooded by the Kárahnjúkar dam. If the group is successful in even getting the camp occupied – let alone stopping the Kárahnjúkar project – it will be the largest instance of civil disobedience in Iceland’s history. With the dam project well underway and the government already in the planning stages to build another such dam in the north of Iceland, Grapevine wanted to find out why this group should choose to focus on Kárahnjúkar. We spoke with Ólafur Páll Sigurðsson, one of the key organizers of the upcoming protest.
There are people who say this project will create much-needed jobs for people in the east of Iceland. How do you respond?
Smári Geirsson [Chairman of the Association of East Iceland Municipalities] said that this project will create 800 jobs, but the figure is actually close to 470. Now it turns out that the majority of the workers that will build the factory will be foreign. And at the dam site 80- to 85% of the workforce are foreigners. They’re hiring these foreigners because they want cheap labour, not Icelanders.
I think the jobs he was referring to are supposed to be in the aluminium smelter.
Last autumn, Alcoa once set up a course in the east of Iceland for people who want to learn how to work in an aluminium smelter, and only two Icelanders showed up. Icelanders are sick of working in primary industries. It shows the limited ambition the government has for the Icelandic work force that they want them to be working in this type of industry. It’s beneath them.
Last year, Alcoa announced that if Icelanders don’t want to work in the factory, they will hire foreigners. Apart from the temporary satellite jobs the grand job creation scheme for the people of the east is turning out to be empty promises. Also, people are losing their jobs in the fish industry in Reyðarfjörður, and up north and in the west because of the effects of the project on the currency. It’s hurting the economy of Iceland.
[According to the Icelandic Directorate of Labour, unemployment in Iceland actually dropped from 3.5% in April 2004 to 2.3% in April 2005.]
Iceland could be the spa of the world, with people leading healthy lives and working in knowledge-based industries instead of being factory slaves.
What is it you’re planning on doing?
We’re doing what we should have done. People went up there two years ago and planted some flags in the ground in front of the bulldozers, because the law says that if you let the Icelandic flag touch the ground, you can be sentenced to up to two years in prison. I guess people didn’t have the stamina for direct action.
And how many people are you expecting?
Hundreds. Recent polls show that half the Icelandic nation believes the Kárahnjúkar project is a big mistake and only ten percent want more heavy industry. Lots of people who write to us are the typical “Íslandsvinir,” you know, people who’ve been here, love this country, and are heartbroken and furious over the environmental damage that this project is doing.
Do you think the police will do anything to stop people from coming into this country, or stop people from going up to the camp?
We always have reason to be worried that the government will do stupid things. People have been praying for it. The UN recently criticized Iceland’s anti-terrorist legislation, as they said it was open-ended enough to allow for abuse by the government against legitimate protestors, including foreigners. I would hope the government learned something positive from the Falun Gong incident, [wherein courts recently ruled that police had falsely arrested people in 2002 who protested the arrival of the Chinese president].
Tell me what the camp will be like.
There will be lots of artists, theatre troupes, and workshops centering on mostly environmental things and culture. We’ll be out in the land where people don’t have to listen to noise or breathe in dust. It will be an opportunity for them to get to know this land before it’s too late. Many environmentalists have never been there. Icelanders are unfortunately lazy when it comes to exploring the highlands. We’re going to try to stay there the whole summer, weather permitting. And then of course we will use direct action, which will maybe contribute to the abandonment of this mad venture.
As I understand it, there won’t be one person or small group organizing this event.
It’s not being organized formally. It’s just a bunch of Icelandic people bringing together other people. We make the camp possible, and people will just come. It will be more or less spontaneous. We’re just sending out the word. There are people still very ignorant when it comes to the effects of damming.
Why have you decided to take this action now, instead of two or three years ago?
There’s been a lot of apathy in Iceland, and this is caused by many things. It can be caused by a loss of hope, of those who’ve spent a lot of time and energy fighting this. It seems like it’s on the shoulders of a few. There’s also ignorance to blame, and of course the manipulation by the media. The media has shirked its duty to inform the people. It has systematically quelled or ignored environmental voices. Fréttablaðið has been reporting on the labour situation up there recently, and the effect this project will have on the economy. And when the shadow Minister of the Environment for the Liberal Democrats in the UK used tough wording to call for the British government to condemn this project, it received two mentions on [state-run radio] RÚV at seven and seven-thirty in the morning, and an e-mail interview with [environmentalist webpage] SavingIceland.org was also put as a small write-up in Morgunblaðið.
That seems odd, considering that both RÚV and Morgunblaðið are known for taking a pro-government position.
The Morgunblaðið piece was very small, and was hidden in the back of the paper. It was a very sly way to avoid giving it the space it deserved.
I know that there are many people who’ve said, “You won’t be able to stop this project anyway, so why bother?”
People who think like this should think a little bit more about the issue. Kárahnjúkur is only the beginning. There will be more to come, and there will even be dams in protected areas. Is that the future people want? What better place to start than at Kárahnjúkur? You have to start where they start. We will repeat this next summer, and the summer after that, and continue to alert the international community. So, why fight Kárahnjúkur? Because if we can show that we can stop the biggest project, they’ll know that we can stop all of them.
How do you think the Icelandic government has reacted to the notion of bringing protestors into the country?
Smári Geirsson and some Reykjavík academics said that we would be bringing “the worst criminal element into Iceland,” that these people were violent protestors, and they actually used the term “professional protestors,” as if there are people making money off of protesting. They’ve said that they would leave no stone left unturned.
What actually will be your tactics?
Well, we’re going to have it as fluffy as possible [referring to a more “friendly” form of civil disobedience – “fluffy” – as opposed to “spiky,” which is an angrier form of civil disobedience] but of course we can’t talk a lot about what we plan on doing.
How can people get in touch with you if they want to participate?
We recommend that they go to our website, www.savingiceland.org, and get more detailed information on this issue and learn what we’re planning on doing and how people can get involved. I want to emphasize that you don’t have to be an activist to take part.
The issue of foreigners coming here isn’t really the main point. What we’re trying to do is bring people out to show how they feel about this. We have to stop this defeatist attitude because we can stop them; we can even stop the Kárahnjúkur dam.
UPDATE: At the time of this writing, Director of the Office of Immigration Hildur Dungal has said that she sees “every reason” to follow the activities of the protestors in the camp in order to prevent vandalism and human injury. Helgi Jensson, proxy for the county council of Seyðisfjörður in east Iceland says that police have been notified of the protestors and will be following their activities closely.