Altakautokeino Demonstrations

On August 27, 1970, some 400 Saami in the small community of Masi in Finnmark, the northernmost county of Norway, carried banners protesting the Norwegian authorities' announcement for a new and vast hydroelectric development project of the Alta/Kautokeino River—plans which at that stage also involved the flooding of the entire settlement of Masi. In the demonstrations to prevent the Norwegian government from damming the river, large numbers of political activists of different convictions joined forces to save a significant monument of nature. After the demonstrations, the chant "Let the River Live" resonated among most Norwegians. To the Saami people, the case represented a turning point in Norwegian indigenous politics.

Along with the river Tana, the Alta/Kautokeino is one of the major watercourses in the county of Finnmark in Norway. In 1970, the Norwegian Water Resources Electricity Board /Norwegian Hydro announced plans of a hydroelectric project on the river. The project met with tremendous opposition not just among the indigenous population. In 1974, an official report commissioned by Norwegian Hydro and the national electricity board warned of the dam's "catastrophic" consequences for reindeer pastoralism. The following year, national Saami associations, Norske Samers Riksforbund (NSR), Norske Reindriftssamers Landsforbund (NRL), and Samenes Lands Forbund (SLF) publicly voiced their resistance against the project. The government responded to these signals by legislating a reduced project in 1978. The revised plan included a 100 m tall dam of reinforced concrete to be built across a canyon downstream from Masi. For construction purposes, a 36 km road was to be built from nearby Stilla. For the 150-200 workers, a camp was planned near the construction site.

In response to the government plans, Saami reindeer herders affected by the proposed project filed a lawsuit against the Norwegian government. The landscape around the Alta/Kautokeino is open tundra providing 60,000 reindeer with pasture. Referring to the 1974 assessment report, the reindeer herders argued that the government had only focused on direct damage to Saami interests—the flooding reindeer pastures. The reindeer herders demanded a study of the impact of the project in its entirety, including the construction of the road and the camp, reindeer herding, as well as the impact upon the Saami of Masi and Kautokeino.

At the same time, two action groups were formed: a Saami Action Group (SAG) and a Peoples Action Group (PAG) (Paine, 1985). PAG activists left for Stilla to keep the bulldozers from clearing the road through acts of civil disobedience. In the weeks to follow, as many as 5000 people passed through the PAG camp at "Ground Zero" (Paine, 1985).

When the government in June 1979 reaffirmed its decision to start the construction of the road to the dam site, SAG took to more extreme measures. In Oslo, a lavvo (Saami tent) was positioned on the lawn outside the parliament building. From this position, a group of SAG members demanded that the government rescind its authorization to the electricity board concerning the Alta/Kautokeino River until Saami status and rights were settled by the courts. If no positive response was given, SAG would start a hunger strike that would not end until the government acceded its requests. On October 9, 1979, the government rejected SAG's demands and the hunger strike began. In response to the hunger strike, appeals were made by the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). SAG's demands to the government were repeated by the Saami section of the Nordic Council.

During the next few days, the strikers were repeatedly placed in custody. Their tent was confiscated. As soon as they were released, they would return to the same place, erect another tent, and continue their demonstration. The hunger strikers received massive support from the general public. After two days, the police removed 200 demonstrators from Eidsvolls Plass, in front of parliament. Charta 79, a newsletter, sold 8000 copies, and 20,000 people signed their petition. After three days, the government retreated and withdrew its authorization for the project.

For the Saami, these events had a positive outcome. In 1980, the Norwegian government appointed a commission to carry out an inquiry into Saami rights, the Saami Rights Commission, with representatives of the principal Saami organizations included in the commission. Saami optimism did not last long. Shortly after, the parliament recommended that the construction of the access road be reauthorized as soon as the district court in Alta had made its decision.

In December 1980, the district court rejected the plea. The plaintiffs immediately appealed to the Supreme Court. The government did not want to make further concessions. Instead of waiting for the Supreme Court to hear the appeal, the construction work resumed.

Soon after, in January 1981, with temperatures of -33°C, PAG protesters chained themselves to constructed ice barriers at Stilla. This time, however, the police had learned from their 1979 experiences. Over 500 police were brought in to aid the local police in their efforts to remove the 800 activists. The construction went ahead.

Later on, the Supreme Court unanimously supported the decision of the Alta District Court. The court decided that there had been no faults or defects in the way Saami interests had been handled.

Although the dam on the Alta/Kautokeino River was built, the ethnopolitical drama played out around it had important consequences for the development of Saami politics. New Saami political visions were created, Saami needs were brought to the attention of the general public, and the Saami Rights Commission started a development toward the greater recognition of Saami rights, which has not yet been completed.

Gro Ween

See also Finnmark; Norway; Reindeer Pastoralism; Saami

Further Reading

Bj0rklund, I. & T. Brantenberg, Samisk reindrift—norske inngrep, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1981 Paine, R., Dam a River, Damn a people: Saami Livelihood and the Alta/Kautokeino Hydro Electric Project and the Norwegian Parliament, IWGIA Document 45, IWGIA, Copenhagen

-, "Ethnodrama and the Fourth World: the Saami Action

Group in Norway, 1979-1981." In Indigenous Peoples and the Nation-State, edited by Noel Dyck, Social and Economic Papers No. 14, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1985

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