Indigenous Sámi Win Landmark Case against Wind Power Company

Norwegian Supreme Court finds renewable energy projects violate reindeer herders’ rights.

In a landmark victory for Indigenous Sámi reindeer herders, the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled in October that the government should never have granted licenses for two wind farms recently constructed on traditional Sámi grazing lands. It found these licenses interfere with the Sámi’s right to cultural enjoyment, in violation of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Storheia farm is one of six wind power developments located on the Fosen peninsula. It is the largest, with 80 wind turbines — each 262-feet-high. Photo by Leif Arne Jåma.

Leif Arne Jåma, a Sámi herder and one of the plaintiffs in the case, was almost incredulous about the victory. “I did not have great expectations, because if we had lost completely, then the disappointment would have been great,” he says. “Now we are excited to see what the next move by the ministry for oil and energy will be.”

Jåma and his siida (the Sámi word a herding community, usually a group of relatives) have for generations used Storheia mountain, the location of one of the wind farms at the heart of the lawsuit, as winter grazing territory for their reindeer. They were no longer able to graze their animals there when the turbines were built a few years ago.

The Storheia farm is one of six wind power developments located on the Fosen peninsula. It is the largest, with 80 wind turbines — each 262-feet-high. The entire peninsula development, known as the Fosen wind park, is made up of 277 wind turbines, and is owned and operated by state-owned utility Statkraft, power company TrønderEnergi, and Nordic Wind Power, an international consortium created by Credit Suisse Energy. It is the largest onshore wind energy project in the whole of Europe and has been fully operational since the beginning of 2021.

Just a few years ago, wind turbines were nowhere to be seen on the peninsula. “This is what the whole area looked like before,” Jåma told me, standing atop of Storheia and pointing at the vast, seemingly deserted stony valleys down below. “I don’t think investors realize they are destroying our livelihood.”

Seen from the top of the mountain, the undulating landscape on the jagged coast of central Norway looks wild and primordial, as though it had just resurfaced from the thaw of the last ice age. But when you turn your head, the sight of the turbines and the distinctive whoosh of their turning blades takes you right back to the twenty-first century and the rapid changes that have made the region unsuitable for reindeer.

“Reindeer are very shy, and a bit wild, too,” says Jåma. “The animals steer clear of the turbines because they are disturbed by their view and noise. On top of that, in the coldest months large chunks of icy snow can be thrown into the distance as the blades turn. It is dangerous for humans and animals alike.”

The Sámi, internationally recognized as the only Indigenous people of mainland Europe, live mostly above the Arctic circle, scattered across Scandinavia as well as in Russia’s Kola peninsula. Their culture is closely tied to reindeer herding. Their total population is roughly estimated at 80,000 to 100,000 people, about half of whom live in Norway.

Southern Sámi people, who have their own distinct language, account for a small fraction of the population, about 2,000 people between Norway and neighbouring Sweden combined. They are also among those most impacted by Norway’s burgeoning wind power industry because pretty much their entire community still living in the area is in one way or another related to reindeer herding. (Jåma and his siida are members of the Southern Sámi people.)

Though wind power production was negligible in the country just a few years ago, today, Norway has 53 onshore wind farms which account for 10 percent of production capacity, and is planning on investing in floating wind farms as well.

The Sámi cannot graze their animals near wind turbines because the turbines disturb the animals and also pose a danger in the winter months when large chunks of icy snow can be thrown by the blades. Photo by Per Harald Olsen.

For a country whose fortune is based on fossil fuels exports — Norway is among the top producers of both oil and gas in the world — the transition towards a green economy is a crucial turning point. As pressure grows to cut oil and gas production, the Scandinavian country is looking to boost its export of renewable energy. Hydroelectric power has traditionally been abundant enough to supply virtually all of the country’s own energy needs, but expanding wind energy production would facilitate this effort.

While decarbonization is essential to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, in the global race towards a carbon-free future, the Sámi, and particularly the small Southern Sámi community, feel they are succumbing to “green colonialism.” Members say Norwegian authorities ignore their rights and endanger their cultural survival in the name of sustainability.

“Reindeer husbandry is a business based on cultural practices, with a very small climate footprint,” Jåma says. “It is not we who should be held accountable for all the carbon emissions which have led us to where we are now. We should not pay the price for it when they come and take our grazing land to produce renewable energy such as wind power.”

Maja Kristine Jåma, Leif Arne Jåma’s niece and newly-elected member of the Sámi parliament, believes that a lack of knowledge of Sámi culture among the general public could be contributing to the situation.

“Reindeer husbandry is not only an industry in the form of meat production: it is the mainstay of our Southern Sámi identity — in it lies our language, tradition, and culture,” she says. “It’s what we know best and grew up with.”

The Sámi of the Fosen peninsula have fought the wind development for roughly two decades. In 2018, the Sámi Council, a supranational NGO which protects Sámi interests across borders, even took their case abroad, complaining to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which called on Norway to pause the construction of the site.

Norwegian authorities disregarded this recommendation, and the project was completed in 2019.

But a local court of appeal in June 2020 found that the Sámi had lost their grazing land as a result of the two wind parks, and ordered Fosen Vind to pay the herders what was considered a strikingly large sum of money: 90 million NOK (10 million USD) to buy fodder for the animals for the foreseeable future.

Interestingly, both the Sámi and Fosen Vind appealed that sentence to the supreme court. For the former it was a matter of principle: they thought the concession was outright illegal as it violates their rights as native people, and found a financial settlement insufficient. Fosen Vind, on the other hand, considered the compensation excessive and disproportionate. The Norwegian government, worried that the case might set a precedent and deter potential foreign investors from applying for wind concessions elsewhere, sided with the joint venture company in its appeal.

The Supreme Court has now overturned the local ruling on the grounds that the concessions for the wind farms are invalid and should never have been granted. The judges cited Article 27 of the UN Covenant on Covil and Political Rights, saying that “in those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist,” the latter should not be denied the right “to enjoy their own culture.”

Traditional reindeer herding is a fundamental part of Sámi culture, and should therefore be protected. The wind parks have made it impossible for the Sámi to continue their herding activities in that area, which makes the licenses invalid. The Petroleum and Energy Ministry will now evaluate the ruling and decide on next steps.

“If the concession is invalid, this means the wind farm is outright illegal. And when something has been built illegally, it has to be removed,” says Leif Arne Jåma.

While the Sámi would like to see the parks decommissioned and the turbines taken down, it’s still not entirely clear what the future will bring. What is clear is that the case creates a precedent that similar concessions might also be found invalid if they encroach upon the Sami herders’ territory.

“I think that after this sentence, it will be very difficult for wind farms to acquire reindeer grazing land,” says Leif Arne Jåma. “In case, they will have to get the green light from the Sami herders.”

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