Norway’s green energy drive isn’t going as planned. The issue? Reindeer

February 21, 2022, 11:09 AM UTC

Norway’s blustery Fosen peninsula is a long way from anywhere, its mountains sustaining the Indigenous Sami and their reindeer for centuries. These same peaks are vital to the kingdom’s wind energy plans, and native herder Lena Haugen says her people pay the price.

Snaking through the snowy terrain are dozens of sky-high wind turbines, built on Sami land by state-controlled Fosen Vind. When the machines came, the reindeer left, spooked by the cacophony of construction and the whoosh of spinning blades.

For the Sami, that migration threatened a core part of their culture and subsistence economy. So they pushed back, and last year the nation’s highest court sided with them, ruling that 151 turbines in traditional grazing patches violate the Samis’ human rights under international law.

Haugen and her people want the machines torn down, but they still whir. The new government — which has promised to make Norway a leader in respecting Indigenous rights and to foster green industries for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 — says it’s researching solutions.

“We did win in the Supreme Court, but as long as nothing is done as the verdict says, we will never be heard,” Haugen, 27, said. “There is no victory. It is quite clear that Norway does not value the Indigenous population very highly.”

The case is a bellwether for wind power in this oil-dependent nation, which needs to supplement vast hydropower resources if it wants to reduce emissions and prep for the electrification of everything.

Norway is an electricity exporter, but that surplus could evaporate by 2026, opening a lane for wind installations. The gusty North Sea is right there, and the coastline is the world’s second-longest after Canada’s.

Yet the onshore industry is faltering, and this ruling won’t help. Authorities haven’t issued permits since April 2019, partly because of public concerns about the blight on pristine lands, and the government is considering taxing onshore production to essentially fund bonuses for communities hosting turbines.

“For any investor still considering onshore wind investments in Norway, this might have been the last straw,” said Isabelle Edwards, an analyst at BloombergNEF. “The risk of having a license revoked once the project is built will likely send investors elsewhere.”

Reverberations may be felt beyond the borders, as well, since the outcome could inspire limits on exploiting Indigenous lands in the name of combating climate change, a practice derided by activists as green colonialism.

Fosen Vind, controlled by state-owned Statkraft AS, built six wind farms in the region with a combined capacity of 1,057 megawatts, making it one of Europe’s biggest onshore projects. The two biggest, in Roan and Storheia, use land where the Samis have grazing rights.

During the process to determine how much compensation Fosen Vind would pay, the herders argued that their Indigenous rights were being violated, and they would only accept disassembly and repatriation.

After the case ping-ponged through lower courts, Norway’s Supreme Court ruled in October that the two farms breached the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, specifically Article 27 stating that minorities shouldn’t be denied the right “to enjoy their own culture.”

Disrupting the reindeer husbandry “without satisfactory mitigation measures” does just that, so the turbines’ permits are invalid, the court said. But that’s different than declaring them illegal, so the government doesn’t have to order the machines dismantled.

“There is nothing in the ruling that imposes this, so I will not draw that conclusion,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said in an interview.

Statkraft, Europe’s biggest producer of renewable energy, is applying for new licenses, a process likely to take years.

Fosen Vind is proposing various studies of the reindeer husbandry, but the herders aren’t on board, Chief Executive Officer Tom Kristian Larsen said in an interview.

“What we hope to arrive at is an understanding of some mitigating measures so it’s possible to continue operating the facilities without being in violation of human rights,” Larsen said.

TronderEnergi AS, which now controls the Roan farm, said that the government approved continued operations after the supreme court ruling while mitigation measures are being worked on.

The Indigenous Sami have lived “for time immemorial” on lands in Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden, and their population is estimated to be about 80,000, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a 2019 report.

Their herding heritage can be traced to the 16th century, at least, with the separate Fosen groups managing as many as 2,000 reindeer.

The animals, some weighing more than 500 pounds (227 kilograms), are raised primarily for meat, but the Sami don’t waste the rest: the hides become clothing, shoes and seat covers; and the antlers become knives, handicrafts and coat hangers.

“This is part of the culture, and it is passed on from generation to generation,” said Terje Haugen, 60, who is Lena’s father. “It has always been the case that we’re only borrowing nature.”

Still, many in the community hold second jobs to make up for the lost income.

Lena Haugen lives in Namdalseid, about an hour’s drive from Roan Mountain. The wind turbines there are 87 meters high, or taller than a 20-story building.

She wants to take over the family business, but she fears there may not be anything left if the turbines remain.

“I really hope that my two sons can experience the same things as I experienced when I grew up,” Lena Haugen said. “This lifestyle is pure magic. But if this continues, I doubt it will happen.”

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.