The War Against Iceland’s Highlands

Proposed dams threaten Iceland’s isolated, ecologically sensitive interior

As massive protests erupted in Iceland earlier this month over the prime minister’s secretive offshore investments, another storm is brewing in the country’s central highlands. Energy companies are pushing the center-right government to build a slew of dams through the country’s interior, an isolated and ecologically sensitive region home to vast glacial rivers, remote lakes, and the world’s largest nesting ground of pink-footed geese.

Photo of Highlands in IcelandPhoto by Steinar Kaldal Skjálfandafljót, Iceland. Energy companies have proposed several new dams in Iceland’s highlands, which would cause irreparable damage to the region.

If built, the dams would pave the way for IceLink, a proposed undersea cable that would funnel electricity from Iceland to the UK. While Britain trumpets IceLink as a vehicle for green energy, the damage done to the highlands, which have already been impacted by dams, would be irreparable.

Though Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned on April 5 following the Panama Papers scandal, his center-right coalition is still in power and continues to support the project.

“The government that’s now in power is very extreme,” pop icon Björk said last November at music festival Iceland Airwaves. The singer, who is herself Icelandic, has taken a strong stance against the proposed dams: She notes that the government immediately put up plans to harness the highlands for electricity when it took office in 2013.

In recent months, Björk had become Gunnlaugsson’s bane, hammering the head of state over his plans to dam the highlands, and drawing public attention to the issue. The government elite, she says, “think they are superior to nature and that they should have control over it.”

Iceland’s government, meanwhile, still styles itself a land of “pristine nature” in a bid for tourism. Environmental groups are quick to point out the hypocrisy: heavy industry already consumes 77 percent of Iceland’s electricity, as the country has drowned massive swathes of land in order to power a handful of aluminum smelters. Developing the highlands into an industrial zone, many fear, would be a death knell for Icelandic wilderness.

The highlands’ ecological uniqueness stems in part from the fact that they were never settled by humans. When Vikings landed in Iceland in the ninth century, they settled along coasts and rivers where fish were plentiful, never venturing more than a few miles from shore. The steep crags and glaciers of the highlands, by contrast, were unsuitable for crops or livestock. Landvernd, an Icelandic land conservation organization, claims that the highlands are one of the largest never-settled areas in Europe.

During the 20th century, as Iceland modernized, the highlands underwent a cultural transformation from barren hinterland to scientific frontier. Biologists, geographers, and hikers flooded into the region to chart deserts, wetlands, and mountain ranges. In recent decades, tourism in the highlands has been steadily ticking upwards, and 90 percent of visitors believe industrial development would defeat the region’s appeal.

Iceland’s ruling class, however, considers the highlands primarily in terms of economic output. Landsvirkjun, the national power company, recently labeled the country’s rivers and geothermal wells “underutilized.”

For many, Iceland’s aluminum saga is ample warning to leave the highlands alone. From the 1970s through the early 2000s, the country courted multinational corporations like Alcoa and Rio Tinto, promising the “lowest energy prices” in Europe. Then, under the auspices of growing the economy, Landsvirkjun constructed several massive dams to produce the electricity that smelting demands. Though Iceland possesses no bauxite, the raw ore used to make aluminum, its rivers appealed to government planners and engineers who saw the rushing water as an asset to be developed. By 2008, when the Icelandic banking collapse toppled the economy, dozens of dams had drowned some of the country’s most unique ecosystems and its foremost archaeological sites.

Photo of Highlands in IcelandPhoto by Steinar Kaldal Hólmsársvæðið, Iceland. “The land has to be protected from the politics of greed,” says Hallfríður Ragnheiðardóttir, a scholar of Icelandic literature.

The Kárahnjúkar dam alone, completed in 2006, destroyed 60 waterfalls and submerged more than 14,000 acres of land. All told, the project impacted over three percent of Iceland’s landmass — the equivalent of the US flooding the state of Arizona virtually overnight.

“In Iceland, people don’t understand the effects of industry,” says Andri Snær Magnason, a prominent Icelandic writer and poet. “We just want a job or something to do for the machines.”

Kárahnjúkar, says Magnason, served as a wake-up call for a sleeping public. Once the size and scale of the dam became clear, thousands demonstrated in the streets. Sigur Rós even put on a protest concert. But the activism came at the eleventh hour, and, at the end of the day, the bulldozers won out.

Magnason, whose 2006 book Dreamland lambasted the island’s dam-building fever, says that too many Icelanders were apathetic in the face of the aluminum industry. Part of the problem is cultural: Despite foreigners’ perception of Icelanders as nature-lovers, a vast gulf exists between people and the land.

Magnason has, however, made an impact. Dreamland crossed political lines and became an instant classic, endorsed by the country’s Young Radicals as well as the Young Libertarians. Within a year, it sold 18,000 copies — the equivalent, in US terms, of 18 million books given Iceland’s population of just over 330,000. And the environmental movement spawned by the book pressured the government to protect significant landscapes: In 2008, ministers announced the creation of Vatnajökull National Park, the country’s largest, which includes all of the mammoth Vatnajökull glacier as well as extensive surrounding areas.

But vast tracts of the highlands remain unprotected. In a sign that the political landscape has shifted since Magnason published Dreamland, many Icelanders are rallying against the dams, power stations, and high-voltage pylons that threaten the heart of the country.

In March, more than 20 businesses, tourism groups, outdoor clubs, and environmental nonprofits formed a coalition known as Hálendið, or “Highland,” that advocates for the entirety of the highlands — roughly 40 percent of Iceland’s landmass — to be safeguarded as a national park. This would foreclose the possibility of hydroelectric dams in the region.

Advocates are quick to point out that the highlands proffer more than just hiking trails: The area also provides critical habitat for salmon, arctic fox, reindeer, and dozens of bird species.

Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson and Rósa Sigrún Jónsdóttir, who lead group hikes throughout Iceland, note that places like the highlands are a shrinking and limited resource in the world. “This treasure belongs not to Icelanders alone,” Ásgeirsson says. “We share it with the rest of the world and have a special duty to protect it. It is absurd to sacrifice rivers and nature reserves to produce electricity for some smelter or another.”

Hálendið is already attracting wide support. Its online petition for the national park has garnered over 12,000 signatures. But the group still has heavy lifting to do: Government documents released in 2014 proposed eight new dams across Iceland, several in the highlands. In total, fifteen regions of the highlands are slated for energy production. Iceland’s Master Plan for Nature Protection and Energy Utilization, to be published by the government next year, will ultimately determine the highlands’ fate.

At the moment, several politicians are campaigning for a national park. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, founder of the Pirate Party and a member of parliament, has made a park in the highlands a political priority. The Pirate Party, founded on a platform of direct democracy, transparency, and civil rights, has transformed in the past two years from a radical fringe group — it garnered just five percent of the vote in the 2013 elections — to the largest political party, by support, in Iceland. Since April 2015, it has been the only Icelandic party to poll above thirty percent.

Public ire is also turning many Icelanders toward Hálendið, especially after 2015 revelations that Alcoa, one of the aluminum corporations, has never paid taxes to the state.

On New Year’s Eve in 1970, Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness published an essay entitled “The War Against the Land,” warning of government schemes to sacrifice some of Iceland’s most pristine lands to hydroelectric development. With another storm on the horizon, Icelanders may yet heed his words.

Clarification: This story has been modified since its original positing. The story originally reported, “To recruit support for a national park, Hálendið is enlisting the help of opposition parties.” Campaigners point out that Hálendið is not actively recruiting the support of the Pirate Party. The story now reads, “At the moment, several politicians are campaigning for a national park.”

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