Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for January, 2013

When locals blew up a dam …

When I went to work at the research station at Lake Mývatn in North Iceland in 1988, I was told how in 1970 the local people there had blown up a dam that would have had dire results on the ecology of the area. No one (or rather everyone) took responsibility for the action. Yesterday I saw a remarkable documentary called Hvellur (which literally translates as “Bang”) about the action. For anyone in Iceland reading this, I am sure it will appear on TV in the not-too-distant future. For others, here are a few interesting snippets:

  • They used dynamite that the company building the dam had left behind here and there in the area, so no expenditure was needed to buy that.
  • One person said he’d read a book the previous winter by Alistair Maclean which had included blowing up a dam with dynamite. They used that information.
  • The action happened long before the days of mobile phones, and in fact at that time one had to go through a switchboard in order to phone someone and this made it easy for phones to be tapped, say the locals. So the practical aspects leading up to the actual event were organised by word of mouth (well, whispering) at a funeral wake of a popular woman in the area.
  • One person (who has since died) finally admitted in the film that he and two others, who he named, were the ones who had detonated the explosive. Prior to this, everyone knew who had done it but there was a feeling of joint responsibility, so that around 60 people were eventually fined for the action although no-one paid the fine and non-payment was not followed up.
  • No one regretted taking part in the action.

A few years after the action took place, the first nature conservation institute was established in Iceland.

It would be good if the film could be translated. Lake Mývatn gets lots of tourists, and I’m sure some of them would be interested. And of course the film is also inspiring for environmentalists.

Update: The film has now been translated and is actually called “The Laxá  farmers” and is available in DVD from bookshops. This page also has a clip of it.

Bio-oils cause problems in Icelandic roads

In Iceland, using substances derived from oilseed rape or from waste fish oil instead of turpentine in asphalt emulsion seemed a good idea at the time, but has now caused problems. Wintry conditions and frequent changes of weather have resulted in parts of the main road in Northwest Iceland breaking away in clumps and sticking to vehicles. After researching the composition of road surfaces in the affected regions, the Road Authority has concluded that the use of the rape and fish oils instead of turpentine was most probably to blame. They have admitted that further research should probably have been carried out before the substances were used.

They say that the bio-oils had not been a problem up till now. But a lorry driver in East Iceland disagrees, saying that problems were found in road sections there in 2009 and that parts of one road have been like a skating rink in summer, so that the Road Authority sprinkled sand over the road to alleviate the problem.

Has anyone else experienced this kind of problem? Research had been carried out in Iceland before these materials were used, but as often happens, this was not done over a long enough period of time.

The Road Authority has said that their insurers will pay for damage incurred.

Regular protests begin again in Iceland

Tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of the daily protests that brought down the Icelandic government that was seen as being responsible for the banking crash. A birthday party will be held outside the Althingi (parliament) to celebrate the event.

But yesterday a new series of regular demonstrations was initiated by the man who led the “incompetent Government” protests four years ago, this time to try and make sure that the long-awaited changes to Iceland’s constitution are passed by the Althingi before the parliamentary elections in April. A group of 25 people were elected by Icelanders two years ago to make changes to the constitution and did so – but the changes have been under discussion ever since. A public referendum was held last October on the issue, when the overwhelming majority of those voting voted for the new constitution. But the Conservative and Progressive parties have been filibustering and some fear that the new constitution will not be passed in time. Hence the start of the protests. Watch this space.

Disgraceful lack of action over child sexual offender

The Icelandic media this week have focused on sex offenders and the lack of legal action taken against them. The issue was sparked by the current affairs programme Kastljos, which devoted Monday’s programme to the doings of Karl Vignir Þorsteinsson, who had started his sex offending about 50 years ago and has molested well over 40 children, some over a long period of time. Every so often he was found out and fired, or asked to stop volunteering at a church, or visiting one children’s home where he used to entice children into an office, give them sweets and then molest them. But he was rarely prosecuted, apart from once or twice when he got a 3-month suspended sentence. “He’s such a nice person, and so good with children”, people said.
He volunteered at one church but was asked to stop after his child molestation was covered in detail in one Icelandic newspaper in 2007. And yet, the same church awarded him in 2011 for his volunteering! And the whole media coverage would never had occurred if it had not been for two women who had been at the Kumbaravogur children’s home which Karl had visited frequently. These women went to confront Karl with a hidden tape recorder in 2009, and released their material to the media and the police soon afterwards. No one took any notice, until Kastljos asked them to go again with a hidden camera in December last year.
Karl was taken for questioning by the police the day after the Kastljos programme was aired. And another renowned sex offender has been remanded in custody for a recent sex offending case.
Since the first Kastljos programme went out, other people have come forward and charged Karl with molesting them, and some of these are new enough to be prosecuted. The organisations that deal with victims of sex offences say that their phones have hardly stopped ringing.
But the police do not have a particularly good record in sex offences. One of their number has a sex offence charge pressed against him but he has not been suspended from work in the meantime. And the anonymous author of a book called Launhelgi Lyganna, which was published about 10 years ago, went to the police after she and her sisters had been repeatedly abused by her policeman father but was effectively told “he’s one of us, we’re not going to do anything”.
It seems that new legislation will be put through to ensure that sex offenders are monitored after leaving prison. But legislation is one thing, enforcing it is another. The police do very little in regard to prosecuting buyers of prostitution, despite a law on this issue. I am not sure whether the case of Karl Vignir and similar offenders will fare any differently.

Food waste

A new British report called Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not has documented that, globally, 30-50% of all food is wasted, equivalent to 1.2–2 billion tonnes of food. The report, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, says that the reasons for this are inadequate storage facilities, bulk-buying by supermarkets (and the ensuing “Buy one, get one free” ploy), cosmetic defects, fussiness of consumers and over-strict adherence to “Sell by” dates. It says that up to 30% of crops grown in Britain are left to rot in the fields because of cosmetic defects and that up to 50% of food bought by European and American consumers is thrown away. The report also points out that 550 billion m3 of water are used for growing crops which never reach the consumer, and that it takes 20-50 times more water to produce one kg of meat than one kg of vegetables.
In the past, some people have responded to claims by agro-industrialists that we need genetically modified crops or more pesticides to feed the world by pointing out that it is not a lack of food that is the problem but rather the distribution of it. Now it seems that we also have to work on changing mindsets, concerning consumers, food buyers for supermarkets and food manufacturers. And encourage people to buy locally.