‘The Limits of Allyship?’ Notes from ‘Hot Air Rising: Doing Intersectional Climate Justice’, #StopHatredNow, 17 May 2021.

‘Hot Air Rising’ was a discussion and mapping exercise held as part of #StopHatredNow 2021 (Monday 17 May), an intercultural and anti-racist platform organised collaboratively by several art and cultural organisations in Helsinki. I was invited to participate as a representative of Black Earth, a Berlin-based climate justice collective concerned with how ecological violence interacts with oppressive structures of race, class, gender, colonialism and ablism. We respect and recognise the rights of Sámi people as the indigenous inhabitants of the Sápmi area which is currently occupied by the colonising states of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. The session, co-facilitated by Ki Nurmenniemi of Punos, concerned a case study of a proposed wind energy facility at Rastigaisa Fell which was presented by Sámi activist and politician Beaska Niillas.

Niillas began by stating that the ‘green business model’ is in conflict with Sámi interests, particularly over reindeer grazing land. He outlined a business model by which companies, he described as ‘adventurers’, sought prospecting permissions from Sámi communities which they then sold. One such company, Grenselandet AS, which translates as ‘Borderlands’, is collaborating with St1, a Norwegian oil company that is diversifying into ‘green’ energy. Alongside the Norwegian companies Vindkraft Nord AS and Ny Energi AS, they are seeking to develop a wind power plant named Davvi in the Rastigaisa Fell, an area of immense significance to Sámi people. If successful, the wind farm would occupy 78 square kilometres of what is one of Europe’s largest unbuilt great fell regions, and would render up to 150 square kilometres unsuitable for reindeer grazing.

‘Windpower destroys grazing land’, Niillas summarized. He explained that reindeer would avoid the turbines, and while acknowledging that some young bucks might venture closer, Niillas stressed that these were exceptions. Thus, images of reindeer grazing near turbines circulated by supporters of the development were ‘greenwashing’ the issues underpinning the proposal, which arguably boils down to Sámi rights and self-determination.

Niillas disclosed that Rastigaisa Fell is one of the most sacred areas for Sámi people, many of whom have expressed their willingness ‘to die for it.’ He explained that sacredness is a taboo topic in Sámi culture, but the Davvi proposal compelled people to discuss the significance of the area. While the proposal is in the courts in Norway, Beaska claimed that the Norwegian Government ‘don’t follow their own rules’. In another report, South Sámi researcher, activist and radio producer Eva Maria Fjellheim (2020), addresses the court hearings concerned with the development of a cluster of wind power plants on the Fosen peninsula. While the legality of the development license are still being determined, construction is near completion and one third of the estimated ‘green’ energy production has already been sold. As Niillas advised, culturally the ‘polite’ thing to do would be to consult with Sámi people first about developments that would affect their livelihoods, culture and country. In the case of Rastigaisa, there had been more than ten years of planning and investments of tens-of-millions kroner into the proposal. Indeed, Sámi people only learned of the development via the media.

As a turn towards renewable energy is crucial to stave off temperature rises and irreversible climate change, the proponents of Davvi are able to present themselves as the ‘good guys’. Nevertheless, Niillas emphasised, wind power is pitted against Sámi culture. In a recent statement Aslak Holmberg and Oula-Antti Labba (2020) declared that the proposed wind farm was opposed by the Sámi Council, the Sámi Parliaments in Norway and Finland, and the reindeer-herding communities in the area. Yet, Niillas expressed concern about developers attempting to ‘buy off’ reindeer herders by offering them large sums of money to support the development, a tactic that is surely familiar to many frontline communities opposing industrial developments around the world.

Niillas observed that organising opposition to the proposed wind farm was largely ‘grass roots’ and based around ‘peoples’ action’. ‘The only wrong thing to do is to do nothing — but do it right!’, he cautioned. As the Sámi are a small population they depend on ‘allies’ to leverage their struggles and concerns. Yet, problems arise when people speak on behalf of the Sámi without first consulting. ‘Nothing about us without us’, he declared.

Niillas gave another example of Karelian Diamond Resources, (KDR) an Irish company that sought to develop a mine inside the Kevo Nature Reserve and were provided licenses in 2014 by the Finnish mining authority, TUKES. He spoke of Sámi activists (Anti-Mining Coalition of Deatnu Valley) buying a place in London stockmarket forum, and then on 20 March 2015 personally delivering a letter of appealing to several Finnish ministers, including the Finnish Prime Minister. He emphasised how a Sámi personal presence and engagement with financial and parliamentary institutions of power engaged the media who reported on the case and shaped public opinion. Such efforts contributed to KDR’s withdrawal from the project soon after.

Researcher and artist Maija Lassila (2019) notes that while Yle Saame and The Irish Independent reported on this incident, it received little coverage in the Finnish media. Beaska also expressed that ‘international’ media outlets were often more interested in Sámi activism than their Finnish or Norwegian counterparts. Potentially, international media interest is a point of leverage.

Giving another example of a copper mine that was dumping waste in fjords, Niillas described how Sámi activists traced the sale of this particular resource to a German company. They then worked alongside activists in Germany to lobby the company. Such organising takes a lot of energy, time, material and commitment to ‘work with many moving parts’. Reflecting on the map that remains from the session, I was struck by the suggestion of a ‘common calendar’ raised by one of the participants as one possible tool for organising more efficiently across geographies and capacities.

Niillas emphasised the importance of networking and making friends, and indeed ‘allyship’ was a theme that emerged during this and other discussions I attended at #StopHatredNow. While I am aware of (Finnish) cultural organisations aligning themselves with indigenous struggles, Niillas requested potential allies first educate themselves about Sámi struggles, using resources that are available online.

During a panel discussion on the following day, ‘New Horizons in Intersectionality Part 2’ with
Maryan Abdulkarim, Petra Laiti and Nitin Sood, Laiti emphasised the power of social media in ‘mainstreaming the Sámi question’. She described how recent ‘rights erasures’ such as fishing, and as implied in the non-renewal of the Sámi Parliament Act 2016 and the proposed Arctic Railroad (recently overturned), became opportunities to raise Sámi concerns on social media rather than the proper means of the Finnish parliament. These efforts prompted those on social media to align with Sámi activists and thus shape the court of public opinion.

Laiti described a previous era in which Sámi were not included in discussions about racism in Finland. She recalled an ‘older conservative’ opinion that racism did not exist here because ‘we are all white’, and that such concerns were imported by more recent diasporic communities. This lead me to query ‘whiteness’ in the Finnish context. Taking cues from Maija Lassila, might this be an ontological issue of how to be in the world, relative to the European construct of ‘modern man’? Lassila (2019) writes:

The idea of nature as a mere mechanical resource is linked to wider historical structures of inequality and hierarchy that continue today and to which Finland is also linked. The dualistic division between nature and man in the modern knowledge system and way of being was historically expressed in the hierarchy that the white European man, the only true member of society, imposed on nature, which also included other people, enslaved peoples. While for Europeans colonialism was about finding abundant resources and getting rich, for countless people colonialism has meant the end of their worlds. (translation with DeepL)

While Niillas and Laiti endorse social media activism in Finland, I would add that crucially this requires a public who are willing to listen and engage, and who are significantly predisposed to ‘doing the right thing.’ While I understand ‘green’ or ‘carbon free’ ideology is notable in Finland, and may have even become an aspect of national culture and pride, I wonder what will play out as more proposals to address climate change come in conflict with Sámi concerns. Will the climate emergency become a mechanism to over-ride indigenous interests and self-determination? Áslat Holmberg (2020), a Vice President of the Sámi Council, reminds us that Sámi people face a double burden; the effects of climate change are the most severe in the Arctic region, threatening Sámi culture and traditional livelihoods, and now Sámi lands are being marked for major renewable energy projects, often by the same industries responsible for climate change. Indeed the Davvi proposal is an example of what is described amongst activists as ‘green colonialism’ or ‘CO2-lonialism’.

As Lassila (2019) notes, there is a fundamental struggle about who gets to impose their ‘meanings’ on land, environment and ecologies:

When a mining company seeking private profit can simply declare its presence in any area of Finland and define the land for future exploitation, it is an abuse of power. (translation with DeepL)

These discussions lead me to think about the limits of allyship in the cultural sector; as culture becomes a strategy for industries with considerable funds and political influence, and as national cultural policy serves to legitimise neo-colonial interests. Such designs on the cultural sector may well seek to limit critical art to gestures of representation rather than constructing alternative, more just futures.

Fjellheim, Eva Maria, 2020. ‘Honourable Court, Let The Mountains Live!’ The Right To Be Cold: Climate Justice for the Arctic, Goethe Institut.

Holmberg, Áslat & Labba, Oula-Antti, 2020. ‘Rastigaisa fell area must not be turned into an industrial area ‒ St1’s Davvi wind power plant faces Nordic opposition across borders’, Saami Council, 30 November.

Lassila, Maija, 2019. ‘Suomi ei voi jatkaa maasta ottamista antamatta mitään takaisin’, Nessling Säätiö, 5 April.