Swedish court picks wind over reindeer herders

SWEDEN: A Swedish environmental court has given the all-clear in a landmark decision for the construction of 30 wind turbines on a mountain in northern Sweden, despite protests from local reindeer herders who claim the development encroaches on traditional grazing areas.

Reindeer herders say the Mount Glotesvalen wind farm encroaches on grazing rights

Swedish wind power developer O2 is set to begin construction on its Mount Glotesvalen project next year. The developer began preparing for the project, which is expected to produce an annual output of 270GWh once completed, in 2001. Now, after years of legal wrangling, the company expects the turbines to finally start spinning in late 2012 or early 2013.

O2's plans have been backed by the municipal council in Harjedalen, 500 kilometres north-west of Stockholm, but the environmental high court's decision in October flew in the face of opposition from a number of heavyweight public bodies. Among the most vocal critics is the National Association of Swedish Sami, a group representing an indigenous population with reindeer husbandry as its main source of income.

"There's a sense of resignation among the local Sami population," says Jenny Wiik-Karlsson, a Sami association lawyer who represented local reindeer herders in the high court. "When it came to the crunch, the court weighed different national interests against each other and found wind energy to be the most important."

In its verdict, the court cited Sweden's commitment to meeting the European Union's climate goals as one of its reasons for siding with O2. "I find it very strange that the court would base its decision on political goals rather than environmental aspects," says Wiik-Karlsson. "What's more, since this is our highest court, its decision will be seen as having set a precedent for similar cases in the future."

Dwindling habitat

Sweden's Sami population numbers around 20,000, with some 900 reindeer husbandry companies responsible for herding the country's 230,000 reindeer, almost all of which live in sparsely populated northern regions.

"Bit by bit, Sami herders are seeing an erosion of the lands available to them. We Sami representatives are not opposed to wind power in general, but we do feel there are more appropriate locations," says Wiik-Karlsson.

The court cited a report indicating that the development of the Glotesvalen wind farm would have a minimal effect on reindeer grazing - a finding contested by Sami representatives.

"Not enough research has been carried out to support the arguments of either side regarding the extent to which reindeer grazing will be disrupted by new roads, pipes and general construction work," says Wiik-Karlsson.

O2 project manager Jan Olof Dahlin strongly rejects this criticism. He says the project enjoys the broad support of local residents and believes the reindeer herders' response to be rooted more in emotion than concrete arguments.

"I think it's a real shame that the Sami are being so unreasonable in this case," he says. "I find it hard to see this being one of their more important areas. I suppose they feel hemmed in from different quarters, such as forestry, the tourist industry and so on. This has led to many of the Sami organisations just reflexively saying no to projects."

Other opponents include the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, which has argued that the new wind farm risks damaging the mountain's unique geological make-up, as well as disturbing the habitats of golden eagles and bears.

Similarly, the Swedish Legal, Financial and Administrative Services Agency slammed the original environmental court decision for failing to take into account the potential detrimental effects to the adjacent Sanfjallet National Park, home to bears, elk and lynx.