In the face of the daunting threat of climate change, and the crisis in Ukraine, it is becoming increasingly urgent to transition to clean, renewable and domestic sources of energy. In this regard, wind power has great potential. In the pursuit of this goal to transition away from polluting fossil fuels, large-scale wind energy projects are being developed in Nordic Arctic areas; for example, one of Europe’s largest wind farms is under construction in Northern Sweden. However, the negative impacts of wind energy on local communities, particularly indigenous peoples, can be significant and an often overlooked aspect of the conversation.

Global wind power capacity and the potential for development

Wind power capacity is rapidly increasing. Global capacity in 2021 was approximately 837GW, and it is forecasted to increase by 110GW annually over the next decade.  Wind power accounts for approximately 6% of global energy production. However, it is estimated that we need a further fourfold annual increase in capacity to reach the international climate agreements and limit the impact of climate change. Furthermore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to dramatic increases in energy prices due to supply shortages and exacerbated the need for domestic and reliable energy sources.

Wind power has several advantages. Firstly, it is an efficient, C02 free energy source. It can improve energy security and independence for a nation. Wind power can increase jobs and economic development. Wind power can be a key element for transitioning away from harmful and polluting fossil fuel based energy sources, to a clean and renewable source of energy.

All energy production has some issues, and wind power is no exception. Wind turbines, particularly during the construction phase, can interfere with local biodiversity and ecosystems. Turbines can affect the scenery in an area and have negative impacts on land-use, recreation and tourism. The construction and decommissioning can cause harmful emissions and pollute the environment, if not produced sustainably. For example, wind turbines require several rare earth materials that need to be mined and extracted. Currently, most of these materials are mined in China and exported globally. Finally, in remote Arctic areas, the harsh conditions can lead to an increased cost of development and maintenance, and increases the need for further infrastructure and costs of transmission.

Wind energy threatening the existence of Sámi culture and traditional livelihoods

The Sámi people state that the development of wind energy has severe impacts on the Sámi culture, which is traditionally dependent upon clean nature and natural resources. As an example, wind farms located in Sápmi, the Sámi homeland, hinder the possibilities to practice reindeer herding, which has further consequences for the community.

Reindeer herding is tightly intertwined with the possibility to continue and develop Sámi identity, cultural traditions and language. Therefore, the fragmentation of reindeer pastures and the decrease of grazing lands is not only a question of financial losses, but also an interference with the whole culture. To illustrate, a wind farm planned in Rástigáisá, Northern Norway, is right next to a holy fell of the Sámi. In addition to being a culturally critical area for the Sámi, Rástigáisá is valuable for reindeer herding as well. The wind farm would, for example, lead to fragmentation of grazing lands and prevent reindeer from using traditional migration routes.

The Sámi culture and livelihoods are already threatened by climate change, along with the passing of traditional knowledge from generation to generation. In addition, the traditional Sámi livelihoods are facing multiple challenges from competing land uses, such as forestry and tourism. Against this background, wind energy projects in Sápmi can be seen as part of a historical continuum of violations against the Sámi rights. The development of wind energy in Sápmi is referred to as green colonialism, because the projects are planned in the Sámi homeland without their adequate consultation and participation in the process.

The Sámis’ rights as indigenous people in the context of wind energy development projects on their lands

As an indigenous people, the Sámi enjoy rights under international law to protect their distinct culture and lifestyle. In accordance with this legal framework, states and companies have an obligation to consult with the Sámi before making any decision that might affect their interests. The Sámi must be involved in the decision-making process, including in the development of wind energy projects on their lands. Those consultations are held in the context of the licensing process of a project, based on the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment that the company is required to perform (studies evaluating the potential negative social and environmental impacts of a project).

The wind energy companies meet with representatives of the local Sámi communities, under the supervision of the state, to try to find an agreement regarding the planned wind energy project. Those agreements usually involve the adoption of mitigation and compensation measures to alleviate the harms caused by the project. The underlying goal of those consultation mechanisms is to ensure that indigenous peoples’ rights and interests are considered and protected. However, those procedures are often not sufficient to safeguard the rights of the Sámi reindeer herders who struggle to make their voices heard when negotiating with powerful multinational companies. The Fosen case in Norway is a good illustration of the limitations of consultation procedures to protect the rights of the Sámi.

Concluding remarks

Wind energy can be an important and reliable source of energy globally and within the Nordic Arctic area. It is a clean, C02-free source of energy that has great potential in the energy transition required to tackle climate change. In addition, it increases energy security and independence, which is particularly important in the transition away from Russian fossil fuels. However, it is crucial to address the negative impacts of those projects on Sámi rights in order not to sacrifice their culture in the name of the green transition. While this post focuses on Norway, the same challenges are also observable in other Arctic countries, for instance in the context of the development of the Markbygden wind park in Piteå, Northern Sweden.

Jamie Jenkins, PhD candidate, Helsinki University

Hilja Kurkinen, Master’s student, Helsinki University

Charlotte Renglet, PhD candidate, Vrije Universiteit Brussel


Read the original blog post at the UArctic Academy for Sustainability website.

UArctic Academy for Sustainability 2023: A cutting-edge initiative supported by a grant from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and organized through the UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Sustainable Resources and Social Responsibility.