6 Lessons learned from the Indigenous Sami protest in Norway against Fosen Windmills

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book

Picture credit: Alf Simensen/NTB Scanpix via AP

There has been a historic protest in Oslo, Norway in the past week week.  See my previous article Norway: Indigenous & Environmental Youth Occupy the Ministry of Energy over Human Rights Violation for the details.

The protest went from 15 indigenous and youth activists occupying the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum on Thursday 23rd of February to over 2000 who met in person 8 days later in front of the Royal palace in Oslo, and many more thousands who supported the protest from home. The Norwegian Ministry went from being quite arrogant (refusing to acknowledge the violations, speaking in a very blurry and political way when asked simple questions, not making time for this issue and booking other travels during the protest) to accepting humbly that the violations occurred and are still ongoing, with the Prime Minister taking time to meet the protestors in the end.

The protestors did not get what they wanted, since the government has not said they will to take down the windmills, but they have achieved a great deal, and lessons learned from this historic protest are numerous. What have we learned from this historic protest of Sami people in Norway?

  1. Apparently it is very hard for a Norwegian politician to say “I’m sorry” to Sami people

You would think that after a ruling of the Supreme Court of his own country, a Minister would easily back what the ruling says, i.e. that the rights of indigenous Sami people were violated. Nope. Despite Norway being a champion in bringing up democracy, good governance, human rights, peace on Earth and all the rest to every domestic debate or international conference, the words just could not leave the Minister of Petroleum and Energy’s lips when asked about it by a journalist on a tv debate. It took a full blown political crisis and the realisation that this “problem” was not going away and was costing them votes, that the party in power (Labour Party) woke up.

Eventually the Minister and even the Prime Minister apologised and acknowledged the violation of indigenous rights. It wasn’t that hard, was it?

What appears clear with this whole case is that Sami peoples’ interests is not something any government in Norway has been taking seriously. The Sami claims on their lands in Fosen 20 years ago were not taken seriously, the decision of the Supreme Court was not taken seriously. And then of course the protest of 15 Sami people was not taken seriously. It just goes on, and therefore the fact that it was so hard for the Minister of Petroleum and Energy to take this protest seriously is not surprising.

2. Norwegians politicians will too remember this protest as historic

They won’t remember because they care so much more about Sami rights now, let’s not get too ambitious here. They will remember that the Støre government, like any other government would have probably done, underestimated 15 Sami and environmental youth occupying an office. They carried them out by force in the middle of the night thinking it would go away, and they came back stronger and more numerous every day.

You might have noticed, but absolutely no politician who was involved in giving the permits has come forward to explain why Sami rights were overlooked when this windmill park was approved. Fosen Vind did not come forward either to explain why the built the windmills despite the Sami activities on the land. Politicians let the Minister of Petroleum and Energy Aasland, and Prime Minister Støre deal with the hot potato alone.

With this protest and its outcome, suddenly overlooking Sami rights is a much higher political and financial risk.

So hopefully politicians will remember that 1- you should never underestimate youth activists, especially if they are right in their claims, 2- you should never underestimate the consequences of violating Sami rights. The political and financial risk of violating Sami rights just became much higher. Will politicians and state agencies deal with Sami claims in a project in the same way? I would hope they’d reevaluate the risks.

3. Putting climate justice on the agenda

Many international newspapers like the Washington Post did not talk much about the Sami rights, but rather about Greta Thunberg demonstrating against windmills. Norwegian media also asked her about this. “How can you fight for the climate and demonstrate against windmills?”.

This gave her and many others in the Norwegian environmental movement the opportunity to explain what climate justice means in practice. It does not mean green energy at any cost, it does not mean violating human rights, whoever they are and wherever they are. It means fighting climate change by redistributing resources in a just way, and respecting rights.

I think the complexity of the case, yet the clarity with which the activists answered questions from journalists made it a very good case for climate justice.

4. The activists were incredibly smart and strategic

The alliance of indigenous movement and environmental movement started in Alta, 40 years ago. During this time the world has evolved and we are seeing a new generation of hyper connected, communication-smart and politically strategic young activists.

With very little money and 15 (visible) people they have managed something any well established NGO filled mature adults with high education and long CVs could only dream of.

They created a nation-wide supported campaign which got international media attention, got the most famous climate activist come to travel to Oslo to support them (Greta Thunberg). They raised substantial funds for the cause. Most importantly they got the protest to become a relatable cause even though one is neither Sami nor young (speaking for myself). It is a universal cause to fight against injustice, especially when one has used the justice system as they have. If the state does not take into account its own democratic processes, who will?

They used social media extensively, filming and photographing each other being carried by the police, enchained to the ministry. They got the support of all left parties of Norway with leaders coming to make speeches for the media in front of the peaceful sitting, as well as the formal support of all major environmental organisations in Norway.

They use civil disobedience, peaceful protests which cannot be attacked by journalists or politicians as being violent and therefore worthy of taking down by force. Even when the police came in the middle of the night to carry them out of the Ministry by force, they took pictures and shared it on social media to make sure they would not go down quietly.

But they were also smart to stop. I cannot imagine how tired they were after 8 days of protests, being out in the cold, being carried away never knowing when the police would act. Støre only gave an apology, but as Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen now the work of the state giving remedy for the violations can start.

5. A star is born

Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen was a star before being part of this protest. She is a singer, just acted in a movie, and has been vocal in the media about her engagement for the environment and Sami rights. But seeing how she spoke, especially calling on the Minister’s blurry political talk to try to get them to leave the Ministry, is an inspiration not only for other young people, for Sami people but also for people like me who are neither young nor Sami. There is a power in being right and fighting for justice that she carried on her shoulders.

I don’t think any politician will underestimate her in the future, whichever cause she decides to fight for.

6. Hatred against Sami people is strong

The extremely worrying development since the end of the protest is that a huge wave of Sami hatred has come onto the most visible protestors. I will try to write soon an article on the backlash of this protest on Sami people.

7 thoughts on “6 Lessons learned from the Indigenous Sami protest in Norway against Fosen Windmills

  1. I have been following your blog since forever, mainly because i was working for a french company in Massey/lysaker, and found your blogs highly entertaining. now your blogs seems to have turned more «political», which i see as maybe less interesting.

  2. Thank you for a very informative article about the Sami protest. Young people like Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen and Greta Thunberg are smart, strategic, and are winning battles for important causes. I look forward to following their work to make our planet a better place.

  3. What am I missing here?
    From this article I had no idea WHY the Sami were protesting. I then read your previous article, but am still none the wiser WHY reindeer can’t eat near a windmill.

    Sorry, I’m neither a windmill or a reindeer expert.

    1. While the reindeer herds run by humans are technically “domesticated”, they’re closer to their wild relatives than cows and sheep. Reindeer are skittish, and reportedly won’t go into areas with windmills. They also do not live in cushy, warmed barns with free access to food during winter, they graze year-round.

      The windmills in questions are in what I think is the one remaining spot in the area where it’s possible for them to graze in winter (Norway being f-ing cold and all).

      One counter-argument is that the reindeer might get used to the windmills, but this will take time, and they need food. And it doesn’t make it less of a violation.

    2. I think it is not necessarily so much about the windmills. My feeling is that it is much more about governance of the land. Raindeer pastures have been organised on different principles than centralised governments, they are organised more as commons, where its sustainability has been ensured by the people that use these areas.

      Windmills, like the Alta dam, is coming in with decision making processes that tries to override the entire decision making process of the users of the land.

      I suppose it is possible that windmills and raindeer pastures could have co-existed, but the decision making had to be organised as part of the decision making that was already going on, not as part of a centralised Oslo-driven process. It is really a lost opportunity that that wasn’t done, if it had been, we would probably not have ended up here.

  4. Thank you for writing about this important human rights and climate justice issue. I am in the US and wanting to learn more about social justice happening in Norway as that is my work here.

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