Árneshreppur (pop. 53), a village on the northern shore of the Westfjords, has for the past year now been a flashpoint for some of the bigger questions facing Iceland as a whole: the nature of democracy, how urbanisation continues to eclipse the countryside, and balancing industrial progress with the preservation of the nation’s unique and unspoiled wilderness.
Hvalárvirkjun, a project involving multiple dams being constructed on the Hvalá river, is either a blessing that will bring power, infrastructure and jobs to this struggling community, or a needless money sink that would benefit a foreign company but do nothing to save Árneshreppur. It depends on who you ask.
When the Grapevine visited this community last year, opinions were sharply divided. Over the past month, however, opposition to the project has been growing, and has even manifested itself in the form of direct action.
The show must go on
Construction of the project falls mostly upon the shoulders of 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.). As Hvalárvirkjun’s fruition depends on VesturVerk, the company has been a focal point.
One of the most contentious subjects surrounding the project is the question of what the landowners where the construction is to take place have to say. In point of fact, the majority of landowners in Drangavík, where the bulk of the development has been slated, filed an appeal to the Ministry of the Environment to halt construction. Snæbjörn Guðmundsson, a spokesperson for these landowners, told RÚV that their ownership of the land can be traced back to 1890, and that they will never allow VesturVerk to go ahead with construction.
This would seem to scuttle any plans for development but, as history often teaches us, it is monumentally difficult to halt development once a company has set their sights on completing a project. True to form, it was then unsurprising when RÚV later reported that VesturVerk had opted to go ahead with construction anyway.
While many international readers associate protest in Iceland with Reykjavík in particular, there is in fact a long history of direct action in rural Iceland as well, from the mysterious dynamiting of a small dam on the Laxá river in 1970 to local resistance to the Kárahnjúkur dam project in the early 21st century. Continuing this sacred tradition is Elías Svavar Kristinsson. This man, who lives in Árneshreppur, believes that Hvalárvirkjun will destroy the natural beauty of the region, and so when he learned that VesturVerk was ignoring due process and moving forward with construction, he took matters into his own hands.
Part of this involved physically putting himself between construction equipment and the area where the backhoes and bulldozers want to go. He had a surprisingly courteous exchange with a backhoe driver, who eventually did stand down, with Elías telling Stundin, “He took this with an incredible amount of calm. He said: I don’t intend to work tonight, so I’m stopping and maybe it’s best that I stop. He was a polite guy, but I was maybe more wound up.”
What do the people want?
When a development project of this scale is pitched as something that will benefit the community, it stands to reason that what the people actually want should matter. However, who counts as “the people” can be an entirely different story.
A Gallup poll from last May showed that 40.9% of respondents favoured the project, while 31.4% were against it. However, this was a national poll, with many (if not most) of these opinions coming from people who do not even live in Árneshreppur.
As mentioned above, the majority of local landowners are against the project. In addition, in late June representatives of the Icelandic Environment Association submitted a petition of over 5,400 signatures to the Ministry of the Environment, calling upon the institution to expedite the declaration of the Drangajökull glacier region, where the construction is slated to take place, as a protected area.
What good will it do?
The benefits of the project are difficult to calculate definitively, but the National Planning Agency did weigh in on the subject.
By their estimation, Hvalárvirkjun would increase revenue for the region. Beyond that, the agency painted a fairly grim picture. They determined that the project would have a negative impact on the environment, an uncertain effect on plant and sea life, create zero jobs, and a negative effect on tourism.
We must bear in mind that there is considerable support for the project in Árneshreppur. Some of these locals regard opposition to being the work of out-of-towners imposing their romanticised view of the countryside onto the people who have to live there; people who desperately need a stable source of power to keep the community alive. That said, the regional will of the people of Árneshreppur is anything but unanimous, and as it stands now, whether the project will continue to go forward is in the hands of national institutions.
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