Published July 13, 2018
When people talk about Iceland’s economic boom days, they are largely referring to the greater Reykjavík area. Roads are repaired and renewed, construction cranes are everywhere, new businesses are opening all the time, and both city and national authorities work overtime to keep up with the pace of expansion, as planning proposals regarding housing and transportation are set to transform Iceland’s capital region.
Árneshreppur is a part of the other Iceland: there is little to no infrastructural development in this northwest shire of roughly 53 people, job growth is non-existent, young people are fleeing the area, and what few people remain are almost all well into their old age. The general sentiment of this community is that they simply don’t matter to Reykjavík or the national government, and have essentially been abandoned to wither away.
In a small community like this, social harmony is paramount, and disagreements can cause rifts that last years. Hvalárvirkjun, a proposed hydroelectric project for the region, has become a flashpoint issue for Árneshreppur. Its supporters will tell you it will bring jobs, road infrastructure, and greater electrical power to the region, thereby increasing their self-reliance and saving the community. Its detractors will tell you Hvalárvirkjun will destroy the natural beauty that draws people to the region, will not generate any positive returns in time to actually save the community, and will benefit a power company owned by foreign interests far more than anyone else.
It’s quite easy for those of us who live in Reykjavík to speculate on what’s best for a far-flung community like Árneshreppur, but what do the people living there actually think? We traveled north to spend time talking to people within this community about Hvalárvirkjun. What we found is that pressure to maintain social harmony has played just as much a role in how people feel about the project as the facts concerning the project itself. It has already caused a rift in the community that will take a long time to repair. Meanwhile, everyone on all sides of the issue agree: it didn’t have to come to this.
What is Hvalárvirkjun?
The project is being spearheaded by VesturVerk, a contracting company owned by the power company HS Orka and the investment company Gláma. HS Orka, in turn, is majority controlled by Magma Energy Sweden A.B. That company might sound familiar to Grapevine readers, as it’s the same company that was involved in gaining control of geothermal energy rights in southwest Iceland in 2010, with its charismatic CEO Ross Beaty engaging in questionable practices in his communications with the media, both in Iceland and abroad, and being criticised for his use of a Swedish puppet company to get around Icelandic laws about non-Scandinavians owning natural resources in the country. Magma Energy Sweden’s parent company, Alterra, (FKA Magma Energy) is based in Canada). Today, Beaty is chairman of HS Orka.
The project itself is not a single dam but a series of dams: one at Vatnalautalón, one at Hvalárlón, and one at Evindarfjarðarlón, all of them natural reservoirs in the Highlands of the Westfjords that feed rivers that run through Árneshreppur. When the dams are completed, the project is predicted to be a 55MW plant with a rated capacity of 320 Gigawatt hours (Gwh) of power per year, while VesturVerk estimates the total power needs for the entire Westfjords is about 260 Gwh per year. The project also aims to connect to the national power grid. Construction, if ultimately approved, is estimated to begin in 2020, with completion and first operations beginning no earlier than 2024.
The right to live where you want
As we head off the well-maintained Route 1 to reach these northern shores, the first thing we notice is the roads immediately decline in maintenance. Potholes abound, paving is old and uneven. Road conditions are actually a pretty fair indicator of when you’ve reached a truly rural region of the country, as poor road conditions have been endemic of smaller rural communities all around the country. It’s one small example of what people in these areas mean when they say they’ve been ignored by the national government.
Our first stop is Hólmavík, a village in the neck of the Westfjörds, an important junction for the central Westfjörds and home to 375 people. Here, we spoke with Ingibjörg Benediktsdóttir, one of five people on the municipal board for Strandabyggð, the region where Hólmavík resides.
While emphasising that she hasn’t received “public proposals from neutral parties or anyone who’s against the plant,” Ingibjörg takes a practical approach to the matter.
“As it is today, I want to get this plant, because I know we’ll get a lot out of it,” she says, referring to the frequency with which the local school and public pool have to rely on diesel-powered generators when the electricity fails. “But I don’t know what we would gain from a national park, for example. No one has told me that. I’ve just taken a look at Snæfellsnes and what they’ve gotten out of their national park. I also haven’t heard how we can have both a plant and a national park.”
Ingibjörg sums up local sentiment with a statement that we would hear many times from plant supporters: “This is about being able to continue living in the countryside. This is why people feel as though they need to support this project. No one has shown us any other choice. We want to build up a society, we want to attract industry, we want more jobs, but we can’t offer anything.”
The northern shore
Once we climb over Route 643, driving becomes considerably more challenging, and descending into the area, you get a clearer idea of just how sparsely populated it is up here. Only 53 people live in these 707 square kilometres, and it shows: a farmhouse and barn are mere specks on the floor of a sweeping valley; tall, steep mountains wall in a deep fjord, conveying so much majesty you don’t at first notice the two or three tiny clusters of buildings along the shore.
Yet the physical distance between Árneshreppur’s hamlets and villages is deceiving. This is actually a very tight-knit community. Few know this better than Eva Sigurbjörnsdóttir, who is not only the owner-operator of Hótel Djúpavík, where we stayed; she is also the head of Árneshreppur’s five-seat municipal council, and the strongest advocate in the region for Hvalárvirkjun.
She sees Hvalárvirkjun as the key to not just meeting the current needs of the region, but building it up for further development.
“There are already people standing in line, waiting to opening companies, who need the electricity. We can’t develop if we don’t get more electricity than we have now,” she says. When asked why the national government simply doesn’t build more lines connecting the region to the national power grid, Eva, who has lived in Árneshreppur for over 30 years now, says: “Yeah, why haven’t they? They should have, a long time ago. If they have ever put us higher up on the list than they do. We are too few to be bothered with,” again echoing the Us vs. Them sentiments that have dominated so much of the discussion about Hvalárvirkjun.
Eva firmly believes that the plant is really the only option to save the region. Shutting down a site of heavy industry, such as an aluminium smelter, somewhere else in the country? That would kill jobs. Build more and stronger lines to the national power grid? That would take too long. The urgency she places on the need for the project is palpable.
“We are isolated here for months in the winter,” she says. “Roads are closed from January 5 to March 20. We know, and hope, this will be better once they start building a power plant up here.”
Hvalárvirkjun is also a matter of self-preservation for Eva.
“Why shouldn’t people live here?,” she says. “People living in Reykjavík, they really don’t understand it. If we all move away from here, it will surely, in a few years, hit us back. There so many things that would go down the drain if everyone moved away from here and it was only occupied in the summertime.”
“They just want to be against something”
Pétur Guðmundsson owns a large tract of land in Ófeigsfjörður, where some of the construction for Hvalárvirkun will take place. Despite being a part-time farmer on this land, he is one of the plant’s staunchest supporters.
Pétur received national attention when he parked one of his tractors across a stretch of road going into the region, as an act of defiance against plant opponents.
“I did this to draw attention to the issue,” he told us. “I’m not blocking access for regular tourists. Not at all. I’m just sending out the message that people who come here and behave like fools that they’re not welcome in the north, to put it bluntly. But regular tourists are all welcome.”
Opponents of the plant are a sore spot with him, as he sees the opposition as coming from a small monolith of people.
“This has gone through endless delays, both from government offices and from people who don’t want a single rock moved in the countryside,” he says. “This is the same group of people who were against the Kárahnjúkar dam project. These people are talking nonsense, and don’t know what they’re talking about. They just want to be against something.”
He concedes the point that there are people who oppose the plant who actually do live in the region, but he has his own vested interest in the project getting off the ground — namely, money he will be paid by VesturVerk for use of his land. While admitting this is the case, he downplays the importance of the pay-out.
“I’m just getting a percentage,” he says. “It would be strange if I wasn’t paid anything. And I intend to put the money to good use. But I haven’t sold anything. I’m renting out the land, for 60 years. It’s not a really large amount. That’s the big misunderstanding about this, with people talking about my getting 100 million per year. It’s not going to be that much.”
Old church, new church
When it comes to hearing the opinions of those who oppose the plant, people were often a little less than forthcoming. Granted, a total stranger knocking on a farmer’s door, claiming to be a reporter and asking for their opinion on a hot button issue is not likely to get a straight answer, but even a few people who had previously gone on the record with Icelandic-language media told us “no comment.”
One great example of why this is would be the village of Árnes.
Árnes is a smattering of farms that is home to two churches: one an old fashioned Icelandic church, and the other a more modern building, each just across the lonely two-lane road from the other. At one time, there was just the old church, but then a group of people began pushing for a new, more modern church. The issue sharply divided the community; it became a struggle between preserving what they have, and developing something new. Ultimately, a compromise was reached in having both churches, but it remains a hot issue to this day.
As a number of people told us, the situation is comparable to what’s happening now regarding Hvalárvirkjun. Although public opinion on the project is more or less an even split, it was the plant supporters who ended up winning all five seats on the municipal council last spring. There are winners and losers. The winners are quite eager to share their points of view, but the losers, who still have to work, shop and socialise with the winners every day, are decidedly more reticent.
We were, however, still able to find plant opponents — or perhaps, plant skeptics — who were willing to go on the record.
It always starts with coffee
Eyri við Ingólfsfjörð used to be a hub of herring processing. Today, it is barely a hamlet, comprised of three family homes and a concrete shell of a building that attests to its one vibrant past.
Sveinn Sveinsson’s family is from here. We approach the tiny inlet to find him and Guðjón Ingólfsson, who was born and raised here, having a discussion as they mow down the tall grasses around Sveinn’s family home. We tell them who we are and why we’re in the area. The two look at each other a moment, and then Sveinn says, “Shouldn’t we start with a cup of coffee?”
In Iceland, any matter that needs discussing must be precluded by coffee. The pre-discussion coffee is a ceremony. It denotes that we are all about to have a civil, adult conversation with a casual atmosphere, and the tradition is especially strong in the countryside. Every conversation we had with the locals began with coffee, and talking to Sveinn and Guðjón was no different.
“I’d prefer the plant come later, not necessarily now,” Sveinn says. “There’s about 50 people who live here now. We don’t have to use hydropower. We could get electricity from sea or wind power, too, instead of damming up the falls and flooding the beautiful land up there. It’s a point.”
Sveinn also casts doubt on VesturVerk’s intentions; or at least, who exactly would stand to benefit.
“There’s only 20 people who live there in the winter, and they’re the ones who made the decision to build this plant, which some foreigner owns,” he says. ”So where does the money go? The profit goes somewhere else.”
Guðjón is of much the same mind as Sveinn when it comes to the natural beauty of the region, which is the biggest draw for tourists coming to the region.
“Here is an unspoiled wilderness, especially when you go north of here,” he says. “It really has an effect on you. The silence, and the nature. It grips you, and touches you deeply. People come up here and are changed by it. Especially people from distant, crowded cities, where you can’t find that. And it’s getting ever harder to find that.”
Guðjón is not alone in his reverence for the Icelandic natural landscape. An opinion from the National Planning Agency in April 2017 states that the Hválarvirkjun project would result in “extensive degradation of uninhabited wilderness and a changing appearance of the proposed construction site and its terrain”.
But he also has his doubts about Hvalárvirkjun being able to bring returns to the community, given the demographics and the amount of time it will take for the plant to even begin to produce electricity. As the population is aging and the children have all but left, who will be there to receive Hvalárvirkjun’s returns when all is said and done?
Where the money goes
Norðurfjörður, about a half hour’s drive up the coast from Djúpavík, is home to a restaurant, a guesthouse, and a shop called Kaupfélagið. It is here that we met Sif Konráðsdóttir, an independent lawyer and the former lawyer for the Icelandic Environmental Association. She remains an opponent of Hvalárvirkjun, and has dug deeper into the issues surrounding the project than anyone else we’ve spoken to.
“Hvalávirkjun certainly won’t help Árneshreppur,” she says. “It will speed up the decline in population, because it brings nothing to the community. It brings no jobs, nothing.”
Sif also takes considerable issue in just how representational last spring’s elections were. She points out that the voting system has led to lopsided representation. In many smaller rural municipalities, there are no political parties running; every person living there automatically becomes a candidate for the municipal council, with some conditions for exemption. During a single-issue election like last spring’s in Árneshreppur, voters and candidates alike divided into two camps: for and against. In the final tally, 24 voted for in-favour candidates and 19 voted for those opposed to the plant. However, because those in favour voted in a unified block, the five-seat council was stacked with those in favour of Hvalárvirkjun. Those opposed, despite comprising nearly half of all voters, have no representation.
But there is also an echo of Sveinn’s question, “Where does the money go?” Sif cites Karl Ingólfsson, formerly also of the Icelandic Environment Association. According to his research, HS Orka is buying electricity from Landsvirkjun during high-demand times for HS Orka’s clients, and that likely costs them a lot of money. HS Orka deals almost entirely in geothermal power; Landsvirkjun, almost entirely in hydropower. Both he and Sif cite the actual planning for the Hvalárvirkjun project to underline their point of who the plant is really supposed to benefit.
“There is nothing to indicate that they want to connect with Ísafjörður, which is where you would go if you wanted to update the regional grid,” she says. “That’s where things are happening. Everybody knows that it will be decades before this whole thing is viable. It’s always been clear that connection is from Hvalá to the main grid; not Ísafjörður.”
The project, in short, despite its great expense, is likely intended to pay for itself in making up for the premium electricity HS Orka would normally have to purchase from Landsvirkjun, to the benefit of their clients.
What can save the north?
Sif is just as convinced that this community, despite current trends, should and can be saved.
“This is a unique society,” she says. “But the majority of the people are very old, and no one even foresees that there will be children in the coming years. There was one student in the school last winter. So the inevitable will happen, but you may be able, with a strategy to preserve this area, to make jobs around that; around preserving the area itself. I think the future lies in preservation of wilderness and what is special for Iceland. I’ve seen too many people who come and find a hidden waterfall to not know that this is a great asset. It’s just one of the greatest assets that Iceland has.”
We say our farewells in Kaupfélagið’s parking lot. The harbour is quiet; poor weather was predicted, so there is no fishing today. I take a last moment to enjoy the quiet, possibly while it lasts, before we take the road back south.
On our way back to the well-paved Ring Road, our photographer spots an almost glowing white object on the sea’s distant horizon. We pull over, under a swarm of enraged Arctic terns in the shadow of a questionably rocky and steep hillside, to take a closer look. Through the telephoto lens, the white blob is definitively an iceberg — a vanishingly rare site in Iceland. We both sit in silence as we watch this distant, brilliant island of ice, and consider that with time, even this will be no more.