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Why Greta Thunberg is protesting wind farms in Norway

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg joins climate protesters as they block the entrance to Norway’s Energy Ministry on Tuesday. (Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)
4 min

When Swedish climate advocate Greta Thunberg and other activists protested at several Norwegian government ministries this week, they weren’t demonstrating against new petroleum refineries or tax incentives for Big Oil. Instead, they were standing against wind farms, often seen as a key tool in fighting climate change.

But the two wind farms at stake are built on land in central Norway that is traditionally used by the Sami people to herd reindeer, a prized animal that has long provided them with food, clothing and labor. While the turbines bolster Norway’s green ambitions by powering thousands of homes, they do so at a cost activists say is too high: by disrupting the daily life of the Sami people and frightening the animals they rely on for their livelihood.

Activists representing Norway’s Sami community have for months been calling for the wind turbines to be demolished, accusing Norway of “putting profit over Indigenous rights.” Last week, activists sitting shoulder to shoulder began a protest occupation of the entrance to Norway’s Energy Ministry in Oslo.

International scrutiny of Norway’s practices mounted Wednesday, when Thunberg was twice “moved” by police after she and other protesters blocked the entrance to the country’s Finance Ministry and later that of the Ministry of Climate and Environment, Oslo police said in a statement. Authorities had already forcibly removed protesters early Monday, according to an Instagram post shared by Thunberg.

The activists point to a decision by Norway’s top court, which ruled in 2021 that the wind farms violated Sami herders’ cultural rights. Nevertheless, the infrastructure, part of a $1 billion-plus project, remains in operation.

The Energy Ministry said in an emailed statement Wednesday that the Supreme Court ruling had not determined what should be done with the two wind-power parks. “As the wind turbines are already constructed and in operation, the first thing we must do is investigate whether there are solutions that make it possible for reindeer herding and the wind turbines to operate side by side,” State Secretary Elisabeth Saether said, citing the need for a “sufficient basis” to make a decision.

The Norwegian wind farms consist of 151 turbines, which became operational in 2019 and 2020.

Statkraft, a Norwegian state-owned company and the partial owner of the wind farms, acknowledged in a statement Wednesday that “the current situation is demanding for herders operating in the southern Fosen territory,” adding that “the affected Sami population should be allowed to continue their cultural practice.” But the company said it did not want to “anticipate the outcome” of assessments to determine what steps it should take.

One mayor in central Norway told the NRK public broadcaster that the wind farms would provide jobs and renewable energy and that he hoped an agreement could be reached.

The Sami people number between 50,000 and 100,000, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, with as many as 65,000 of them located in Norway. The United Nations has documented how Nordic countries have long suppressed their language and customs, though more recent Norwegian governments have moved to protect their culture, experts say.

As countries race to reduce carbon emissions, the struggle over the wind turbines highlights the difficulties faced by those whose land, resources and cultural life are implicated in climate solutions. The Sami people’s predicament is echoed by villagers in southern Thailand who watched as a new biomass plant interrupted their water supply, according to news reports. Activists in Mexico who cited abuse of Native rights managed to stop what would have been one of Latin America’s largest wind farms from being built on Indigenous land in Oaxaca.

In an ancient reindeer forest, one woman has found a way to slow climate change

Indigenous rights must “go hand in hand” with climate action, Thunberg told Reuters in Norway. Action “can’t happen at the expense of some people. Then it is not climate justice.”

The number of rights abuse allegations related to renewable energy projects has increased in recent years, according to a 2022 report by the U.K.-based Business and Human Rights Resource Center, which said the most serious and frequent charges were linked to not respecting Indigenous land rights.

Although Norway owes much of its current wealth to the exploitation of vast oil and gas deposits off its shores, the independent Climate Action Tracker rates Norway’s climate efforts as “almost sufficient,” adding that Oslo’s policies are “not yet consistent” with what is needed to cap the Earth’s warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Wind power, which generated about 8.5 percent of the country’s electricity in 2020, is seen as a key asset.

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