At one time in the 1920s, international companies wanted to buy land near Gullfoss, in the southwestern quarter of Iceland, and build a hydroelectric plant there. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of a local farmer, helped lead the opposition to the plant. As a protest she walked all the way to Reykjavík and even threatened to throw herself over the falls if the sale went through. Although the government did not intervene, she and her fellow opponents prevailed, and the land was given over to a nature preserve.
Iceland's scenery has been shaped by fire and ice: it is a frozen land that is always letting off steam. More than 200 volcanoes, U-shaped valleys, jagged lava fields, hot springs and geysers and the largest icecap in Europe – bigger than all the mainland European glaciers put together – go to create a rugged, bizarre landscape unlike anything else on Earth. About 80% of Iceland’s land is lava desert, glaciers or lakes; the only arable areas are on the coast. Of the 300,000 or so Icelanders who sparsely populate this island, some two-thirds live in the capital, Reykjavik.
Until recently, the Tómasdóttir story was a one-off. Icelanders have been so used to having clean air, clean water, clean everything that they scarcely noticed when these marvellous assets were threatened.
Things Are Changing – For Worse
The colossal $3 billion Kárahnjúkar dam, due to be completed this year, will submerge under 150 metres of water a hitherto untouched 57 square km of wilderness, boasting gushing rivers, thundering waterfalls, multi-coloured mountains and mossy highlands ablaze with flowers. The project, designed solely to drive an aluminum smelter further down the valley at Reydalfjordur, has government support and will be paid for by Landsvirkjun, the national power company. The hydroelectricity it generates is contracted for sale for 50 years to the American aluminum giant Alcoa, which is closing two smelters in the US and relocating to Iceland as a cost-cutting measure.
After what it claims were extensive community input and environmental studies, Alcoa is fast completing construction of the Fjarðaál ("aluminum of the fjords") smelter, which is expected to create hundreds of jobs in Iceland, both in the facility and in supporting industries. Late in March this year, the first ship carrying cargo for the smelter arrived in Reydarfjordur. The Pine Arrow was bringing nearly 40,000 tonnes of alumina from Western Australia, after a voyage of 44 days. It takes almost two tonnes of alumina to produce one tonne of aluminium.
So far so good, it may seem. Four hundred jobs, an addition to the economy and the harnessing of natural power.
But a movement called Saving Iceland, a coalition of groups opposing further development, is up in arms. The area of the dam is one of the main breeding grounds for reindeer. It is a protected nesting ground for thousands of pink-footed geese and a favourite haunt of the snowy owl, ptarmigan and the majestic gyrfalcon. The rock formations – red, black and all colours of the rainbow – are a unique record of 10,000 years of geological and climatic change, providing clues to scientists worldwide, studying, among other things, global warming. All this is to disappear under water. The environmental impact of the project spreads much wider than this highland wilderness and the fjord below. Other rivers will be disturbed, the habitat of animals such as seals will be destroyed and an officially protected area, Kringilsarrani, will be damaged. Many geologists fear catastrophic flooding may result from frequent glacial surges and eruptions in Kárahnjúkar's catchment area. They also question the wisdom of building a huge dam on a substructure weakened by geothermal fissures.
“It is a very rare nature that we are the guardians of, ” says Olafur Pall Sigurdsson, one of the organisers of Saving Iceland, “and we are squandering it. ”
Last September, Omar Ragnarsson, one of the country’s most respected television reporters, announced that he could no longer cover the Kárahnjúkar project with impartiality and would campaign against it. Answering his call, more than 8,000 people attended an anti-dam rally in Reykjavik. In 2006 Andri Snaer Magnason, a poet, playwright and novelist, published Dreamland, an overwhelmingly convincing book that puts Iceland’s environmental issues into a global perspective.
Alcoa acknowledges that any human development cause changes within the environment. It claims to have a team of 60 people, all experts in their field, working to design the project in keeping with Alcoa’s long-term goals for sustainable development.
What about Iceland’s long-term goals? It is hard to reconcile Alcoa’s words with the reality of this monster, which dominates the landscape – the main dam 190m high, 730m wide and 53 km of tunnels, the largest structure of its kind in Europe. Nor is it much consolation that Alcoa has launched its “Ten Million Trees” programme, starting with the planting of seedlings in the Reydarfjordur area. True, Iceland’s is a stark landscape, so deforested that the government used to (and perhaps still does) supply tree seeds to residents and ask them to scatter the seeds from their cars wherever they went.
Can Alcoa Forest possibly make up for Alcoa’s forced violation of the land?
Sensitive eco-tourists can contribute to Iceland’s economy and well-being, without doing damage, by travelling lightly, taking only photographs and leaving only footprints. AwimAway’s Iceland Gold tour (www.awimaway.com) takes in all the magical wonders of Iceland in a green and environmentally friendly way.
© 2006 Harish Kohli.
Harish Kohli is an avid traveller who likes to share good experiential or adventure holidays for you . Visit http://www.awimaway.com to see what's new on line.