When the Activists Stop the Mine; The Battle over Norwegian Fjord

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When the Activists Stop the Mine; The Battle over Norwegian Fjord

As the Heathrow 13 escape prison after direct action to stop a 3rd runway, climate activists in Norway face a lawsuit for blocking a mining company’s drilling site. Civil disobedience is quickly becoming an important tool for the environmental movement.

Protests have been loud and growing, even before Nordic Mining – a small prospecting company with less than a handful of employees – got green light to carry out their plans to process mineral ore from Engebøfjellet and deposit mine tailings in the basin of the local fjord arm near Vevring, Western Norway. Yes, the local municipality voted in favour of an impact assessment and remains positive about the prospect of jobs, but the decision has not silenced a strong group of locals who are not so happy with the fate of their fjord. Many people use the waters for fishing and other activities, and are concerned about consequences for the marine fauna, particularly the fish stocks whose spawning grounds are in the area.

The scientific community is also deeply concerned, and the Institute of Marine Research has explained several times why they are critical towards the models used in the impact assessment. One of their main concerns is that the fine particles in the mining waste will spread with the movement of the water in the fjord, and pollute a much larger area than Nordic Mining claims.

“Join in the folk song army, guitars are the weapons we bring”, sang Tom Lehrer in one of his iconic, ironic songs about the social movements of his time. But in this area, local residents and chanting teenagers have done much more than simply sing: for three weeks, their blockades have managed to stop the company from prospecting for mineral ore, turning this into one of the most controversial mining cases in Norwegian in history. Many claim this is the biggest environmental protest in Norway since the epic battle for the Alta river more than 30 years ago.

The drama currently unfolding has included everything from art exhibitions to petitions and feasts with seafood caught locally in the fjord, and strong alliances between locals and other protestors. When Young Friends of the Earth Norway pledged a promise to chain themselves to the drilling machines if plans went ahead, their list of signatories grew to over a thousand and is now around 2000 people. Last April, YFoE central board member Tina Andersen wrote in the New Internationalist that if all else fails, they were prepared to stop the mine illegally.

It should come as no surprise that they stayed true to their word. Political support from locals, central politicians and parts of the scientific community have been immense. The leaders of four youth parties travelled across the country from Oslo to show their support. Three of them chained themselves to a machine and face the same legal charges as all the other protestors. At least one of the actionists is over 60 years old. In total, more than 80 persons have taken direct action and been fined a total of 900 000 Norwegian kroners.

The mining company, on the other hand, has played with two faces; their CEO Ivar Fossum was amongst the first to come with coffee and a polite praise of the actionists in the first week, but emphasized it was his company that had the law on it’s side. But as protests lasted not only a few days, but a full three weeks and costing the company large sums of money, it seems he has changed his tune. Yesterday, Nordic Mining told the media they were suing the protestors individually for the losses incurred from the delayed drilling. “A disgrace”, claims the leader of YFoE, Ingrid Skjoldvær, and says the moral conviction of the protestors comes from a responsibility to future generations, rather than the company’s short-term hunt for profits concentrated on very few hands.

It’s the individual protestors who face the charges, and who will have to stand in court to defend their actions. But though it might hurt individually, the case is lifted to a level of much greater attention. In the UK, the Heathrow 13 court case has challenged the logics of a profit-driven system where ecosystems and communities are subjected to economic calculations. Their great success in court has been to put the wider issue of climate change solidly on the agenda. YFoE, and the locals who joined them, can likewise turn the threat of a lawsuit into a platform to project their concerns to a wider audience, and to make a logical, rational case for their actions. This is not only about a single case, but will set a precedent for how plans of mining plans involving others Norwegian fjords, including Repparfjord in Finnmark, where not just fishing, but also indigenous Sámi’s rights to reindeer herding and use of land is at stake.

These peaceful armies of direct action are not only strumming guitars, but hitting right in the centre of the companies and their profits. Despite the charges levelled at them, their insistence on direct action and civil disobedience to protect the interests of current and future generations is not only heard, but also felt where it hurts business interests the most. With the majority of current fjord activists being young people in high school or university students, the blow to Nordic Mining’s reputation is also at stake. And if the protestors use their platform to promote long-term sustainability in the management of our common resources, we might all be better of in the hundreds of years to come.

Ragnhild Freng Dale

Ragnhild Freng Dale

Ragnhild Freng Dale is a theatremaker and PhD candidate at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. She studies the dynamics of conflict and consent around extractive industries in Sápmi and the Norwegian North.

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