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Saving Iceland Activists visit Rossport; report, interview & photos
Wednesday March 08, 2006 20:20 by EC / Terry - RSC
Four activists from the Saving Iceland campaign visited Rossport this week meet with Shell to Sea campaigners from the area and the solidarity camp.
Saving Icelanders at the Bellanaboy the gas refinery site
Four activists from the Saving Iceland campaign visited Rossport this week meet with Shell to Sea campaigners from the area and the solidarity camp. The Icelandic and English activists, who are currently on European tour before the opening of their month long action camp in Iceland this July showed a film and gave a talk in Glenamoy community centre on Monday night which was attended by around thirty residents and campers, and was followed by a discussion about both campaigns. On Tuesday the visitors went on a tour of the sites pertaining to the Corrib gas project and visited Willie and Mary Corduff. They also visited the newly re-opened Rossport Solidarity Camp.
Terry from Rossport Solidarity Camp interviewed Oli, Mark and Arna of the Saving Iceland campaign.
Terry; Could one of youse tell me a bit about whats happening in Iceland and what your campaigning against.
Oli; Well the Icelandic government some while ago basically announced to the international aluminium industry that Icelandic energy, that is to say the energy of the numerous glacial rivers in the Icelandic highlands, is up for grabs for a very very low price and this of course entails a massive build up of heavy industry in Iceland. So we are both resisting the aluminium industry corporations invading Iceland and Icelandic society and the massive ecological disaster of the daming of the glacial rivers and the pollution of the aluminium smelters.
Terry; Perhaps you could tell us a little about what effect last years camp had on the campaign.
Oli; well basically what had happened after they started the Kárahnjúkar dams was that Icelandic environmentalists were in complete shock, there was a position but it was just very ineffective and the media it is completely controlled by the heavy industry bosses, and there was actually very little discussion going on about the pros and cons of going into this massive transformation of Icelandic society. People seemed just silenced and the first impact of the camp was that we completely reinvigorated the discussion that was going on, suddenly masses of articles started to appear with and against the dams and heavy industry. We also did something that the Icelandic environmentalists had hesitated for quite a while to do. They felt it was too much of a political issue to actually take a complete stance against heavy industry. So they confined themselves to trying to stop the daming of all the glacial rivers. So it was all very much on environmentalist terms that they were opposing this but what we emphasised very much that we were against the daming of these rivers for heavy industry and against this policy of heavy industrialisation of Iceland because Iceland has so far escaped the, you know, massive heavy industry. Because of the nature of the Icelandic environment, the very sensitive sub-Artic vegetation, Iceland is not suited to heavy industry in the first place. We managed in a very, very, short time to shift the focus onto heavy industry and that actually worked wonders because then like a lot of people from the financial sector started stepping out and actually voiced their opinions that heavy industry was, in fact, not suited for the Icelandic economy either it was already this incredibly expansion, unhealthy expansion with the building of the dams was causing was damaging or hurting the Icelandic economy and that heavy industry didnt bring in the money that it was supposed to into the Icelandic economy in the first place and the corporations are foreign and this is only primary industry so there is no production. And what we also pointed out was that Icelandic people themselves according to all polls are not interested in heavy industry they are far more interested in low impact high tech industry.
Terry; What would you say to the argument that from a global warming perspective hydroelectric power is good?
Oli; Yea that what Alcoa which are building this massive smelter which the Kárahnjúkar dams are supposed to drive they are very much a strong example of a big corporation, a heavy industry corporation doing everything to kind of slither out of having to put any specifically effective pollution controls on their factory, are priding themselves by the fact that they are using hydro-energy which is a complete travesty because in the first place dams whether there are glacial rivers or freshwater rivers they actually, some dams its been proven contribute more to greenhouse gases than even fossil fuel plants simply because of the rotten vegetation. In the case of glacial rivers the environmental damage is so massive. For example the water levels fluctuate constantly and glacial rivers carry an immense amount of silt in them. As the levels fluctuate the silt gets to dry on the banks of the reservoirs and turns into this fine powdery dust, which the winds then carry for hundreds of miles and devastate the remaining vegetation, including rural areas. The Kárahnjúkar dams are an incredible environmental apocalypse both to vegetation, the atmosphere, and a massive amount of animals, but a very new study has been conducted that actually proves that glacial rivers are infact utilised by nature itself in combating greenhouse gases in the way that silt that it brings to the sea transforms the CO2 into calcium and as such these glacial rivers are at this crucial time in history when the greenhouse effect is becoming so dangerous they are actually counteracting it so if you dam a glacial river you completely take out this effect.
Terry; The camp last year was intended as an international camp. How did you go about organising that and how well are you networked internationally?
Oli; In autumn 2004 the situation was clearly so desperate for Icelandic environmentalists, as I said earlier we were just in complete chaotic retreat, and the defeatism that pervaded our ranks was absolutely terrible after they started the current events. The big international NGOs like WWF, WWF the US part of it, was bought out by Alcoa, with Catherine Fuller becoming president of it, incidentally also director of Alcoa and completely withdrew support for us. Greenpeace just played this completely cynical game of dealing with the Iceland government over a few whales and promising them to build up the Icelandic eco industry, patting them on the back saying things like the Icelandic government is one of the most ecologically sound governments in the world, I mean what an incredible lie. This government are basically slaughtering the last great pristine wilderness of Europe. So we had no option but to circulate an international SOS and we did so at the European Social Forum, in fact Iceland environmentalists are absolutely awful at forming international links. And NGOs, which are not very powerful anyway in Iceland are not exactly a help, have actually become a rather deadly force on the grassroots. Just before the Kárahnjúkar dams we, the grassroots, managed to stop another offensive dam very close to Kárahnjúkar and that was completely the grassroots who did that through very fluffy direct action but, you know, it worked. Thats why they shifted over to the Kárahnjúkar dams. But the Icelandic NGOs have really no interest in encouraging or nurturing the grassroots. So we kind of circulated this international SOS and quite a lot of people turned up to the camp, all in all around 200 people. But the Icelandic situation is with this government thats now being in power for 15 years, has managed to create such an atmosphere of fear in Icelandic society. There are people who are afraid of voicing their opinions and yea sure with good reason because for example people who have been opposing the dams have been, for example scientists who have refused to have their surveys and findings falsified by the national power company and other agencies, they have found themselves out of jobs or difficulties to find new jobs, not being paid for their work and so on. The national power company acts like a state within a state. The whole international camp idea was engineered in order to invigorate the Iceland grassroots and during the camp that was actually not the case. Icelanders chose to sit on the fence and wait and see what would happen. So we were at the end of the summer pretty disappointed in how Iceland people reacted to us, but lo and behold last autumn we started seeing that the seeds we sowed last summer were having an effect. We crossed thresholds and widened the boundaries so that people suddenly felt empowered and not scared to voice their opinions and more and more people started speaking against the dams and against the heavy industry policy and that has kind of evolved in the last few months and culminated in this big international benefit gig in January. In fighting the Kárahnjúkar dams were are fighting all the other dams. There is this huge master plan to harness all the other glacial rivers.
Terry; Could you tell us a little bit about farmers opposing a pylons development from one of these dams to an aluminium smelter.
Oli; There are numerous farmers, the Kárahnjúkar dams are basically in the eastern highlands of Iceland, so they have to build pylons above ground, they say its too expensive to bury the wires in earth so they are building pylons all across the highlands and into the rural areas and over ridges of mountains into the fjord where they are building the Alcoa factory and that obviously crosses a lot of farms and the national power company, as it tends to do, offered no negotiations with the farmers involved where the lines go. They were just told the lines go across here and incidentally yes they go across your home. So a lot of farmers opposed this so the national power company reacted with demanding a requisition of their land. There were a few farmers that budged and then it turned out that, the national power company realised that they were getting a lot of bad PR out of this. They managed to get some [of the farmers] to take what they were being offered and offers they gave up on; the ones who wouldnt give in. A lot of these farmers are also being affected in other ways by for example the silt storms we mentioned. Farmers who are in the delta of the two rivers their land is going to be in danger and actually their lives because the Kárahnjúkar dams are going to be built right on a cluster of geological fissures, so theyre basically in an earthquake region. If those dams crack they will drown, those farmers. Theyve been told they have between 15 and 45 minutes to scramble for their lives.
Terry; So what struck you about your visit to Mayo?
Oli; I found it extremely interesting in terms of the struggle of the local people, that is the farmers both in the east of Iceland and in the central south. In the central south people have been struggling against the damming of wetland regions listed by the international treaty of Ramsala as an absolutely invaluable wetlands of very rare and endangered bird species. They have been basically under siege from the national power company for 35 years. That was one effect that our camp had in shifting public opinion it was that we basically managed it seems to stop the national power company to dam the Tyrse river but in the east their struggle has been much shorter but certainly very, very intense. People havent been taken to prison because of their struggle against the dams in Iceland but everything like the Rossport five were saying was so similar, it was like a blueprint, completely the same blueprint of the way that the corporations are approaching them and treating them. You recognise the same clichés and the same phrases, the same contents in letters they received the threats they received, the promises they received, the misinformation, the lies, the complete reluctance to accept the environmental danger to their health and so on its all the same. It affects their lives in the same way also. It takes over their lives; the struggle takes over their lives, the pressure from being in this opposition in their private lives, the constant pressure they receive from the corporations is all so similar.
Terry; Ive noticed theres a sharp difference in your propaganda and our propaganda in that your propaganda is very much focused on the effects on nature basically and our propaganda is very much focused on the effects on communities which you have just outlined. Why do you think that is?
Oli; Maybe in the first place because the Icelandic highlands are so vast and unpopulated; there is basically nobody who lives in the highlands so in terms of the highlands we are fighting to save animal life and vegetation and nature. Then when we go over into the heavy industry policy we are along the coast of Iceland, which is really the only populated area. Maybe it is a sign of this old reluctance to take on the heavy industry issue. Now that we have done so we will evolve more arguments for example the issue of health and aluminium pollution has been a non-issue in Iceland. The people in the fjords where the aluminium industries are are very effected by the aluminium smelters. In the east which is, you know, quite amazing to me coming here to the Rossport, Mayo is that how incredibly active the local community is in its opposition and this is not the case in the east in Iceland. There the corporations and the national power company have spent millions and millions on propaganda on bribery basically. Very superficial benefits in communities, endless promises, promises of jobs that are completely hollow. For example the Icelanders who were going to build the dams, its 3000 jobs, but turns out that its 90% cheap foreign labour. Icelanders were going to build a factory, 1,500 jobs, turns out that its imported Polish workers who are constructing the factory for Alcoa. It turns out that the Icelandic people in the area dont want to work in the factories so Alcoa announced that if the Icelanders dont want to work in the factories they will import workers and this is having a very bad effect.
Terry; Could you go into more details about that and about the working conditions of the immigrant labourers?
Oli; Almost every week there is a new scandal in terms of the working conditions of the workers at the dams for example. To begin with Portuguese workers, they are working in sub-artic conditions in the highlands, the nearest town is one and a half hours drive away, they live in absolutely squalid conditions, they are not even furnished with woollen socks to wear. Their housing is
I mean they wake up with snow in their beds and leaking roofs. Imprigilo, the Italian company famed for corruption scandals, they for example built a dam in Argentina which the Argentinean president called the greatest monument over human corruption. Imprigilo started complaining that the Portuguese werent disciplined enough. They started importing Chinese workers which I guess are supposed to be used to working under bayonets of the Red Army. They are also much more passive. Workers that came to the camp to talk to us told us about some horror stories and told us that even the conditions were so unbearable there that the workers were doing sabotage on the machinery as acts of revenge. Also they are not paid in Iceland, so they circulate the posts all over Europe and they pay them at one time what they would pay in Belgium and certainly Portugal constantly where they get the wages from. This makes it much more difficult to monitor the pay.
Terry; So the campaign has attempted to build links with these workers then if they were speaking at the camp?
Oli; Well to a certain extent, I mean, there is a certain level of communication between people in the camp and workers.
Mark; When we did a blockade at the dam site the intention of the blockade was to stop work there it was not to antagonise the workers and the protesters went to the extent of providing coffee and cake and cigarettes for the drivers of the trucks and in some ways the protesters showed an understanding of the conditions which the workers were working under. So there was quite a good atmosphere between the protesters and the day-to-day truck drivers.
Arna; In the beginning we had a lot of workers come to camp and some of them mainly Icelandic ones, one guy who I was talking to was telling me about conditions that he had tried to inform the media of and that the media hadnt done anything about abuse of workers, where there were incidents where people had been injured.
Mark; There were also stories of workers who had protested against the conditions they were working under and had been beaten up by management heavies and told to keep their mouths shut. I think in some ways some of the workers who visited the camp saw that maybe a protest at the Kárahnjúkar dam was also an outlet for them to speak out about the conditions, which they were having to work under.
Terry; Perhaps you would like to comment about what struck you on your visit to Ireland.
Arna; What struck me was the similarities between the way the corporations behaved towards local communities and like how the situation seems to be really parallel to what were facing in Iceland.
Mark; I think that its really important for campaigns not only in Ireland, in Mayo or in Iceland but also campaigns in Spain, in Italy, there is campaigns all around and I think that its really important that we work together and that we dont see ourselves as being isolated campaigns struggling to achieve what were trying to do in our own localities but also that this type of thing is happening everywhere and we need to network and we need to be working on there issues together, exchanging information and ways of doing things and looking at the ways corporations are putting the pressure on us and sharing that information so that we can go forward and win our struggles and in the future when things happen we can carry on and have a better idea of how to protest against these corporations.
Terry; What's planned for this year?
Arna; Theres going to be another international camp in the dam effected areas starting in July. Were sending another call out to the international community to join us and to protest whats happening in Iceland.
Oli; And basically an attempt to stop the Kárahnjúkar dams and so put an end to the policy of the government of this large-scale heavy industry.
Mark; From a wider point of view as well were spending some time travelling around Europe visiting various campaigns, and as I said before sharing experiences and information, networking and trying to create parallels and links between all these different campaigns that are going on and trying to help each other.
Terry; Ok, cool, thanks.
Visiting Willie and Mary Corduff
At the Shell compound
The areas to be affected by the dam projects in Iceland