Above photo: Alf Simensen.
From the end of February to the beginning of March, over a thousand youth protested against the construction of wind turbines on Sami land.
This movement represents the birth of a militant, Indigenous-led environmentalist movement.
On March 3, the largest civil disobedience action in recent Norwegian history came to an end. 16 Sami activists occupied the lobby of the Oil and Energy Department, and over 1,500 demonstrators attended in Oslo, including around 100 activists partaking in the occupations. Beginning as a single day occupation to spread awareness about the illegal construction of wind turbines on Indigenous land, the demonstration ended as a burgeoning, semi-mass movement.
Although the movement forced the current government to meet with movement’s leaders, unfortunately nothing was won; the demonstration ended without the government agreeing to a single demand or concession. Despite an apology and recognition of their violation of human rights, the government has made clear that they will continue constructing wind turbines. But the movement did not end entirely in defeat: a militant, indigenous-led environmentalist movement able to mobilize thousands across the country was born. The lessons of this movement, both positive and negative, are of international significance for the creation of such an alliance elsewhere.
Greenwashing of Norwegian Colonialism
Internationally, very little is known about Norway’s role as an imperialist and colonialist power. Thanks to the reformist Left, many American socialists view Scandinavia as the model for socialism today. While it is true that Norway has a high standard of living, a welfare net, and some nationalized industries, this does not mean that capitalism has been abolished. The “Nordic model” is simply capitalism with a welfare state, which has largely been gutted since the 90s. This romanticization of Norwegian capitalism also provides left cover for the historic colonization of Sápmi, a tragic historical event that this movement has brought to international attention.
Sápmi is the traditional territory of the Sami people, an Indigenous peoples whose occupied territory lies between Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The colonization of Sápmi by Norway, Sweden, and Denmark began in the 16th century. While the Scandinavians had traditionally occupied the South and the coast, the Sami traditionally occupied the North, center, and inland areas. As capitalist relations began to emerge, the ruling classes became more and more interested in exploiting the “untapped” North. Sami people were forcibly pushed off their traditional lands to make way for settler communities to open up mines, mills, and fisheries. The Sami people were forced into hard unpaid labor in mines, as well as guiding settlers in hunting, cutting trees, and any other difficult jobs settlers did not want to do. A process of forced assimilation ensued with the goal of eliminating Sami culture, the traditional values and economy of which stood in the way of the primitive accumulation of capital.
The government hides behind concessions made to the Sami community throughout the twentieth century to present modern Norway as a “post-colonial” state. Despite certain legal, social, and political concessions, the same fundamental colonial relationship exists. In the past decade, massive industrial expansion on Sápmi has been cynically sold as environmentalism. It is this “green colonialism,” as Sami activists have called it, that is at the heart of this conflict.
The main focus of the protests is over the construction of over 270 wind turbines in Fosen, of which 150 are currently in use. Fosen is a coastal area in Trøndelag, a municipality consisting of most of central Norway, overlapping with the furthest southern territory of Sápmi. When it is finished, it will be the second largest wind turbine project in the whole of Europe. As ruled by the Supreme Court in October of 2021, these windmills were illegally constructed on traditional reindeer herding territory. Not only is reindeer herding the main source of income for many families, it is also a traditional cultural practice for even more. That the Norwegian state can continue this development against the ruling of the Supreme Court shows that, no matter what symbolic gestures or reforms they make, they will always override the self-determination of Sami people in favor of profits.
Despite the paper-thin excuse of environmentalism, that is what this turbine park is about: profits. The European market is in desperate need of energy. The market for oil and gas has been volatile throughout the pandemic, and especially now, due to the war. The cost of production of wind energy is now cheaper than that of oil and gas. Not only do the turbines themselves come at great environmental cost, destroying the landscape and disrupting ecosystems, but the markets they are sold into are far from clean. The government has discussed the energy shortage in Europe, as well as the need for energy for industrial development in northern Norway, predominantly on Sami land, as a justification for the turbines. These industries include gas and oil refineries, mines, battery and hydrogen factories, and many other fossil fuel intensive industries.
For several years, the greenwashing of capitalism and colonialism had divided the Norwegian environmentalist movement. The Norwegian Left has also been divided on whether to support the construction of turbines. While the Sami people in Fosen and elsewhere have always been clear, the mainstream environmental movement and, with some exceptions, “socialists” have ignored them. Even among those who opposed the turbines, declarations of solidarity rarely extended beyond the local level. But this latest movement, organized entirely independently of the established parties, shows a massive layer of youth not only breaking with the arguments of green capitalism, but also embracing a much more militant strategy in opposing it.
Eight Days that Shook Norway
On February 23, the occupation began. To mark 500 days since the Supreme Court’s ruling, 16 Sami activists planned a one day symbolic occupation of the Oil and Energy Department’s (OED) offices in Oslo. The key organizers were three leading Sami members of Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth, NU), Norway’s largest environmentalist organization, which also represents the Left wing of the environmentalist movement. The goal was to direct media attention to the issue itself and their demands: a stop to further construction and the removal of all existing turbines.
The expectation was that the occupiers would be forcibly removed by the police within the day, which would spur the media to get involved. But the police did not come, and the occupiers stayed overnight. However, they did not have food, medicine, bedding, or anything else. A recent report from a Norwegian paper shows how the police and the OED weaponized this. For over 48 hours, the occupiers were denied the possibility of accessing food, medicine, water, or anything from the outside. The OED officially stated that this was for “security reasons,” but the activists described it as an “involuntary hunger strike,” with one occupier saying, “We felt like they were trying to smoke us out by denying us food.”
The next day, the police and OED allowed the activists one hour in which they could receive food, so long as everything going in was inspected by the police first. Most likely, this was to avoid the potential scandal of having forced the activists, who were steadily getting more media attention, into a hunger strike. Scandalously, the police finally decided to physically remove the occupiers at 1:30 A. on February 27, nearly four days after the occupation began. This was clearly done to avoid having the media take pictures of officers arresting the occupiers and tearing down their flags.
After being released from the police station in the middle of the night, the occupiers headed to the NU offices in Oslo to mobilize and escalate the action. Mobilizing their base, the movement quickly escalated: in the course of a few days, sixteen occupiers turned to one hundred, one occupied department turned to ten, and hundreds of sympathizers began to join in and rally in solidarity. Images and videos of Greta Thunberg being physically removed from the blockade alongside other occupiers brought, for the first time, international attention and discussion about the situation in Fosen.
After a week of struggle, the protesters had effectively blocked the government out of their departments. They forced the government to apologize for continuing the construction of wind turbines in Fosen, as well as publicly acknowledge that they are committing a human rights violation. Any government meetings had to be shifted outside their department offices due to the occupation. This forced Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre to meet with the lead organizers. In this meeting, the demonstrators put forward their demands:
- Tear down the turbines (Riv turbinene)
- At the very least: Stop the turbines (I det minste: stans turbinene)
- Change the ministry that is handling this case (Bytt departement som håndterer saken)
Since this meeting, the Norwegian Prime Minister has promised to take action quickly, but without any concrete measures. In a week after the meeting, when he was asked about the demonstrators demands, he stated contemptuously:
“It is not they who decide how this should be done. We must follow what we believe to be the correct procedure.:
This is empty politician-speak: the Labour Party will do everything they can to rhetorically agree with the activists to cover their betrayal.
At the end of the week, on Friday March 3, the demonstration came to an end. This decision coincided with a regularly scheduled dinner hosted at the Royal Palace between the Norwegian king and leading politicians. The organizers had discussed blockading the castle to prevent the meeting from happening, but decided against this in favor of a “symbolic blockade,” in front of the castle as opposed to physically blocking the Palace’s doors. An estimated 1500-2000 people showed up on the final day, marking the second largest civil disobedience action in Norwegian history. The demonstrators covered the street between Parliament and the castle with Sami flags and colors and gathered to hear the last speeches.
Although the action ended, the leaders of the action made it clear that the struggle was not yet over. Hætta Isaksen, one of the leading Sami activists, stated in her speech:
“It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to smile. Because what we have done, we should be immensely proud of. The government will never forget what happened here. They will remember the power we have in us, and we will keep an eye on them going forward. It’s decisive that they don’t betray us again. And we are ready to take action.”
Since the end of the action, the government has done nothing to follow up on its promises. In subsequent parliamentary sessions, Labour Party candidates have all but said that they will do nothing to stop the turbines. With a strong likelihood of further demonstrations, this movement will prove to be a school of struggle for this generation of Norwegian youth.
The Significance of this Movement
Unfortunately, the movement ended before any gains were won. The head organizers were scared of escalating the conflict, thus facing the full repression of the state, potentially isolating the movement and scaring off supporters. Especially without further efforts to consolidate and organize the thousands of people who joined in, this overreliance on spontaneity is a mistake. The willingness of people to struggle is not something organizers can turn on and off like a faucet just by calling further demonstrations.
While spontaneity is, overall, an ineffective strategy, it is a near inevitable stage in the birth of a new movement. It also has a healthy, progressive side. In Norway, there are two major socialist parties and one environmentalist party: The Socialist Left Party, the Red Party, and the Green Party. Apart from some statements and local participation in demonstrations, these parties have done next to nothing for the struggle in Fosen. The spontaneity of the demonstrations allowed for a necessary break from the bureaucratic-reformist leadership and strategy of these parties. The independence from these reformist parties allowed for the use of much more effective and militant tactics which would not have been permitted by these “socialists.”
This, in turn, allowed for the rise of a leadership which was not only more representative of the youth in terms of age and militancy, but also composed of Indigenous activists. All over the world, Indigenous land defenders are at the forefront of the struggle against climate change. It has been estimated that Indigenous land defenders are responsible for protecting up to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The reformism and, at times, chauvinism of the labor leadership, as well as the consumerist individualism of the environmental movement, has historically prevented an alliance between these struggles.
This movement shows that the unity of these struggles is possible, and can mobilize masses of people. But it is not possible without a break from strategies which do not confront the capitalist system directly. By studying the experience of these international struggles, socialists can learn how to make such a strategic break a reality here at home.