It took a week of protest demonstrations in Oslo, but Sami reindeer herders in central Norway finally received a long-overdue apology from the Norwegian government on Thursday. Two government ministers said they were sorry that construction of huge wind turbines in a reindeer grazing area have violated the reindeer herders’ human rights, and promised to make amends.
Oil & Energy Minister Terje Aasland, who’s responsible for the 151 turbines that were controversially erected at Fosen, said he and Agriculture Minister Sandra Borch had met with representatives from Fosen just before also meeting with the president of the Sami Parliament, Silje Karine Muotka. “In these talks I apologized on behalf of the government,” said Aasland, for the state permission granted in 2013 to build the turbines that violated human rights “because they have a negative effect on local Samis’ opportunity to nurture their culture.”
Aasland, who cancelled an official trip to London with the crown prince this week to deal with the Fosen crisis, acknowledged that a Supreme Court decision 18 months ago had determined that the licenses issued for the turbines were ruled invalid because the turbines can disturb reindeer. Aasland also admitted that the government has taken too much time to follow up on the ruling, claiming that “we want to find a solution as quickly as possible.” He still hopes there will be a way for the turbines and reindeer grazing to co-exist but stressed that the government won’t rule out any solution, even if it means rendering turbines inoperable or dismantling them.
Muotka was smiling and appeared relieved during a press conference immediately following her own meeting with Aasland and Borch. She said the government’s apology was “absolutely necessary” in order to move forward with efforts to settle the conflict over the turbines that set off a full week of demonstrations in Oslo. The peaceful demonstrations were organized by Sami youth and members of the environmental organization Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth), frustrated by the government’s failure to quickly address and respect the Supreme Court decision.
They’d started in the lobby of the Oil & Energy Ministry but quickly expanded as supporters joined in and blocked the entrances of several other ministries in Oslo including Finance, Agriculture, Climate and Environment, and Culture. Police started forcibly removing some of the demonstrators and, by Thursday morning, arresting them, which escalated an already tense situation. Police later announced that all those arrested were being released.
Demonstrators remained furious and had refused to speak with Aasland when he approached them himself earlier this week. Sami President Muotka soon arrived to support the demonstrators and continue efforts to get the government to act. She called the meeting with Aasland and Borch on Thursday “important” and agreed that there seems to be a new “common understanding” that “we must do something with the industrial facility” on Sami grazing land.
Muotka said she’d accepted the government’s “important” apology and confirmed “good discussions” with the two ministers. Borch, in charge of all forms of farming and livestock in Norway, went so far as to all but guarantee that reindeer will be able to graze on the mountain plateaus at Fosen. “We want sustainable reindeer operations,” she said at the press conference.
Aasland also noted that the government must “repair” the area to allow grazing. He stressed a need “to respect and understand one another,” adding that raising reindeer as part of the country’s meat industry is “also an important part of Norway.”
It only generates income of around NOK 300,000 a year at Fosen, however, compared to the hundreds of millions generated by the turbines for much-needed electricity in the midst of an ongoing energy crisis. The entire conflict has pitted a major source of sought-after renewable energy against Sami cultural issues, ironic because of the Samis’ own respect for nature and the environment and their support for renewable energy. Even climate activists like Greta Thunberg, however, have claimed that the need for renewable energy can’t come at the expense of human rights.
Demonstrations are due to continue at least through Friday, when a major event is planned in front of Parliament. Activists including Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, whose own sister was among those arrested on Friday, didn’t seem as satisfied with the government’s apology as the Sami President was.
“We hear that Aasland is apologizing several times,” Isaksen told state broadcaster NRK, “but we also hear that it’s still difficult for him to speak about human rights violations.” She’s still demanding that Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who’s been in Finland and Svalbard this week dealing with NATO and Arctic issues, gets directly involved: “He’s the one who needs to apologize on behalf of the government.”
Støre has earlier refused to do so, opting instead to tell reporters that he thinks it’s “unfortunate” that the conflict has risen to the point that “indigenous people feel their rights have have been violated. The Supreme Court has confirmed that, and we take that very seriously.” Støre flew back to Oslo from Svalbard Thursday evening, and headed immediately for a meeting with the demonstrators at a downtown church. He also invited reindeer owners to breakfast Friday morning.