Gálgahraun lava field and the new Álftanesvegur road
On the Álftanes peninsula, a good ten kilometres from downtown Reykjavík, lies a unique lava field called Gálgahraun. The towns of Hafnarfjörður, Álftanes and Garðabær were all built around the 8,000-year-old lava, which is on the Nature Conservation Register and was immortalised on canvas by celebrated Icelandic artist Jóhannes S. Kjarval. Gálgahraun was widely considered to be one of the few spots of unspoilt nature left in the greater metropolitan area, but it isn’t any more, as a big highway that cuts the field in two is currently under construction.
The road is being built to accommodate the people of Álftanes, a town of 2,500 that was incorporated into neighbouring municipality Garðabær in 2013. Justifying the massive and expensive construction, Mayor Gunnar Einarsson says that the current Álftanesvegur road is too dangerous, featuring a blind head and ten other roads that merge into it. “It doesn’t meet the requirements of the neighbourhood that will be built in the near future,” he says, insisting that his experts deem the road to be not only absolutely necessary, but also the only viable solution.
The road has been on the town’s agenda since 1995, with parliament in 2009 approving plans to build a six-lane highway that would accommodate up to 50,000 cars per day, ten times more than currently use the existing road. “The people of Prýðishverfi [a newly built luxury neighbourhood on the southern edge of Gálgahraun] bought their houses under the assumption that the new road would be built.” Gunnar says. “The matter had gone through all the appropriate committees and processes—the only sensible thing left was to go ahead and build the road.”
Enter the elf conservationists
This construction was firmly opposed by environmental conservationist group Hraunavinir (“Lava Friends”), who claimed it would cause irreparable damage to the scenic area. Agreeing that the current road is hazardous, the group spent the better part of 2013 providing the Álftanes council with alternative solutions that were less costly while making the current road safer, all the while preserving the lava field. One such suggestion included adding roundabouts where other roads intersected with the old one, which would slow down traffic and do away with the need for extra traffic lights.
The suggestions were uniformly turned down, and despite protests, rallies, petitions and an injunction filed against the Icelandic Road Administration, the contractors started their work in October. With no alternatives left, the conservationists took to the field to protest the construction.
After 25 protesters (many of whom are senior citizens) were forcibly removed and arrested for obstructing the bulldozers, the international media showed an interest in the story. Unfortunately for the conservationists, however, an article by the Associated Press focused on the elf enthusiasts that had joined the protests to stop the new road from passing through an “elf church,” a rock that hidden folk purportedly congregate in. The article, “Iceland’s Hidden Elves Delay Road Projects,” was picked up by numerous news outlets, including The Guardian, Huffington Post and AOL, ultimately portraying the very serious protests as nothing more than a comical farce—while perpetuating the myth that all Icelanders believe in elves.
Artist Tinna Þorvalds-Önnudóttir says the foreign press completely missed the point. She was there to protest an absolutely unnecessary destruction of nature, and was one of nine activists charged with disobeying police orders. “I was sick and tired of capitalistic authorities acting like dictators, having their way at everyone else’s expense,” she says, “and it’s not clear who’s going to benefit from this new expensive road being built when there are better alternatives.”
Pride and prejudice
Hraunavinir board member and musician Gunnsteinn Ólafsson echoed Tinna’s sentiments, agreeing that the town council had acted belligerently. He says the council made the process seem transparent, as if they were seeking a solution that everyone could agree on, but ultimately proved absolutely unwilling to cooperate or entertain alternative viewpoints. At no point did the mayor invite Hraunavinir to participate in the decision process, even though the Aarhus Convention (ratified into Icelandic law in 2011) guarantees them that right, and obligates authorities to take their views into account before making a final decision.
Gunnar, on the other hand, claims he respects the opinions of Hraunavinir and the protesters, but says their assessment and solution are utopian and out of touch with reality. “We’ve already planned the whole neighbourhood around the old road,” he says. “The only way to avoid going through the lava field would have been to build an underground tunnel, and that’s not economically viable.”
Gunnsteinn confesses he did not expect the matter to go as far as it did, from his simple verbal protests to ending up in jail charged with criminal conduct. He was also surprised, he says, that the police were so heavy-handed in their arrests, tightening their zip tie handcuffs so much that they wound up injuring two protesters. “Thankfully I wasn’t hurt, but if my hands had been damaged, I would have been unable to work and provide for my family. We don’t believe the police have the right to walk over citizens in this manner, and we will seek our justice from the courts.”
He continues to say that he is surprised that the Icelandic Road Administration decided to sink 1.1 billion ISK (around 1 million USD) into this new road, money that could have been used to fix several roads around the country that need urgent attention.
The road forward
At this point, there is nothing left for the conservationists to do with regards to Gálgahraun—the damage is already done. Gunnar says two lanes of the road will be completed around 2016, after which town authorities will decide upon any further expansion.
The nine arrested protesters are still awaiting their day in court, but Gunnsteinn says they have legal proceedings of their own in process. In addition to suing the Icelandic state for not allowing them to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right of peaceful protest, the group also has another case before the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) court, concerning the state’s disregard of the Aarhus convention.
Moving forward, Gunnar says the town has taken the utmost care in protecting the “elf church” from harm. “I’ve been in contact with Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir, a psychic who can communicate with elves,” he says. “We’ve walked through the field together and talked to the elves, and they have started to prepare to move out. We’ll move the church soon, so they won’t be bothered by the construction.”
Tinna says the worst part about the AP article is that it makes the town council look like the good guys in the story—after all, they save the elf church. “That’s all fine and dandy for the elves, but they are absolutely not the heart of the matter.”
The Gálgahraun lava field was formed 8,000 years ago, when the mountain Búrfell erupted. It lies by the municipalities Álftanes, Garðarbær and Hafnarfjörður, ten kilometres from Reykjavík.
Gálgahraun is pristine no more. Despite heavy protests, the bulldozers rolled through Gálgahraun in October of 2013.