“It wasn’t just empty words on our part, we had resolved not to move.”
Jan Thorfve, Adolfström
The electricity company Vattenfall wanted to build
power stations and dams. Arjeplog Municipality wanted
to see jobs and said yes.
The villages of Adolfström and Gautosjö would end
up more than thirty metres under the water of the Laisälven river.
But the villagers rose, literally and metaphorically,
against the plans and said no. They refused to let themselves
and their homes be drowned, and their decision was unshakable.
“There were two sides: they wanted a dam, we didn’t.
There was nothing in between, no way to agree,”
Arnold Sundqvist explains.
It was a long, hard struggle, but in the end it was clear
that the villagers had achieved their goal, and the whole
plan to develop the Vindelälven was stopped
by a government decision on 1 April 1970.
- May, 15 2017
By Marianne Hofman
Translation from Swedish: Alan Crozier
The question that has been called Sweden’s first big environmental battle, and is said to have caused the first real media hunt, was perhaps settled here in Adolfström one day in August 1967.
That was the day when the resolute villagers welcomed the parliamentary committee to show them what was at stake when the matter was to be finally decided. They were supported by the forces of weather and the beauty of nature, along with some aces and jokers they had up their watertight sleeves.
The idea of building a power station on the Vindelälven had been suggested in 1945. But it was not until the end of the 1950s, when surveying began on the ground at the Laisälven, a tributary of the Vindelälven, that people in the valley began to understand what the consequences would be. A couple of years later, when they were invited to an information meeting in Suorssá, Sorsele, they understood that Vattenfall had plans to build a dam at Märkforsen and raise the water level in Gávttojávrre, Gautojaure, Gasskajávrre, Mitti-sjön, and Iraft, Yraft, by up to 45 metres.
“I grew up in the peace of the village, intending to stay on here, and I didn’t bother much about what was happening in the big wide world. It wasn’t till the plans to create an inland sea in Adolfström were presented that we all woke up,” says Kjell Johansson.
Their homes and farms would be sub-merged under 15 million cubic metres of water, and Harry Thorfve (1904–1988), who would later be one of the leaders of the struggle to stop the plans, declared that it was premeditated murder of nature.
Vattenfall’s plans involved eleven hydro-electric power stations on the Vindelälven, which together with a twelfth power station at the outflow of Lake Gautojaure, would produce a total of 2.8 billion kWh per year. The cost of this huge project was calculated at 900 million kronor.
The possibility of building big water reservoirs was deemed better in the Laisälven than in the Vindelälven, and therefore the regulation of the Laisälven became the key to the whole project.
A dam at Märkforsen, at the lower end of Gautojaure, would create a reservoir thirty kilometres long and ten kilometres wide, make the project profitable, and leave farms, arable land and forest at the bottom of a lake. Besides the Sami who lived in the area, there were nine households with a total of 28 people in Gautosjö and Adolfström who would be directly affected by the dam. An insignificant number, it might be thought. But the people in these nine households would turn out to be highly significant for the outcome. In an article in Svenska Dagbladet in 1967 Adolfström is described as “The separatist province in the great war over the regulation of the Vindelälven”.
There were no children in Adolfström or Gautosjö at this time; the two youngest inhabitants were 18 years old. But the average age was as low as 41. The people earned their living from farming, hunting, fishing and tourism. The villagers had no experience of waging war against economic interests and big cor-porations, and during the first years the battle gained little attention or success. There was no organized environmental movement to get help from, and local politicians gave no support. In fact, the local council unanimously approved the plans.
The justification presented in an audio recording from the meeting with the parlia-mentary committee was that local politicians had to consider the population of the entire municipality and the need to create new jobs. Over a hundred people per year had moved away from the municipality between 1960 and 1966.
In the same recording the municipal lawyer questions the right of the resistance people to express an opinion on the issue: “When it comes to the so-called general interests, nature conservation, tourism, the general interest in fishing, the case is pleaded in water courts, and that should also apply to the treatment in parliament, by the Crown Lands Judiciary Board. When it comes to local interests, perhaps primarily tourism, the municipality is entitled by law to plead the case. As for reindeer herding, the case is pleaded by the Crown Lands Judiciary Board and the individual Sami and their villages. And when it comes to the place, the effect on properties and private fishing and so on, the case is pleaded by the individual stakeholders.”
The lawyer then points out that the Crown Lands Judiciary Board will not contest the application on grounds of nature conservation, that the municipality reckons that special conditions will be used to pay compensation for damage to the tourist trade, that the Sami villages he represents will continue negotiations with Vattenfall and that at least they have not said no yet. He goes on to note that the Gautosjö area will be hard hit, and that one must of course heed what the inhabitants say: “But perhaps one also has to show some consideration for what people downstream from the reser-voir say, and there I don’t think there’s any great opposition… Not all the individual stakeholders who are affected or will be affected hard by the Vindelälven say no to it, it’s really only the people of Adolfström and Gautosjö. I understand their stance very well, but I’m not at all sure that those communities will survive very long.”
Jan Thorfve, who died while this was being written, described the struggle for the native district and this very difficult period.
“There was an unpleasant atmosphere in our relations with the authorities, and it was as if there was a dead man’s hand over the valley for ten years,” said he. But people young and old fought on doggedly, side by side, for the same goal, to save their homes by stopping Vattenfall’s plans.
“It wasn’t just empty words on our part, we had resolved not to move,” said Jan Thorfve to me at our last meeting.
Alongside the battle against the water, the villagers continued to live as they had done before. They went hunting and fishing, received tourists as far as possible. During these ten years there was no major investment or expansion, but still tourism grew slowly but surely. In a newspaper interview from the mid 1960s Jan Thorfve tells how the family fitted out cabins, old woodsheds and other rooms to provide as many as 25 beds for guests.
A survey conducted by S. E. Berg, Härnösand, shows that in 1966 the area had 170 beds
for hire. Fifty years later, in 2016, there are 316 beds in rental cabins, and over 100 caravan places. In addition there are many private holiday cottages.
In 1965 a delegation from Vattenfall came to Adolfström to invite people to a meeting at Majorsgården to give them information about the development project. Or, as Kjell Johansson put it, “They came here to make us see reason.” Everyone went there to listen, but when the Vattenfall representatives came to the item about buying their homes, something happened that none of the speakers had anticipated, or knew how to handle it. The villagers simply got up and marched together out of the room.
“Why should we have to listen to that? We had no intention of selling our homes and moving,” says Arnold Sundqvist.
Kjell Johansson remembers that a great deal happened on the quiet before this meeting, and describes a feeling that everyone was against them.
“Even the Environmental Protection Agency had dropped the matter. But we were united, and I don’t think that the people who made these plans understood what we mountain people are like. A real mountain person never gives in. And where would we move to? No, we were agreed that we had to clear this up, and we weren’t interested in selling our homes. So we got up and left when they started to talk about payment. To put it mildly, they got angry at us,” he says, with no attempt to hide a smile.
The event sparked the interest of the media and people got involved in the issue. Another episode that had an impact was when the people of Adolfström had the chance to sit in the audience for the television programme “Hyland’s Corner”. Jan Thorfve was one of them, and he tells of how they smuggled in placards saying “Save Vindelälven”.
Telegrams were sent to them from Adolfström, and when these were read out and the cameras panned over the audience to show the recipients of the telegrams, Jan and his companions stood up and held up their placards. The message went straight into the people watching television all over Sweden.
Jan Thorfve smiles as he tells how the host Lennart Hyland was irritated by their prank, but it had the desired result.
The struggle of the people of Adolfström now attracted increasing attention. Support and sympathy came many quarters, including the national poet Evert Taube, who sent a telegram to the prime minister:
“If this is allowed to happen I am damned if I want to be Swedish. I will flee from this land never to return alive or dead and this is not in anger but in deepest sorrow … that this country of ours is polluted and ravaged to the point that it is unbearable to animals and humans.”
Journalists from all over Sweden visited the village and wrote about the consequences of damming the Vindelälven for the people living there. But it was not so easy to write from that angle. The people of Adolfström could not imagine that the plans would become reality. They talked only of staying on and continuing their lives as they had done. At the end of the 1960s, when public opinion was rising but the matter was still not settled, the Nordic Museum and the National Heritage Board decided to survey the cultural history of Adolfström, Bäverholm, Gautosjö and Veijenäs.
The survey was part of a larger national project to document places, customs, and changes in town and country. The aim was to “elucidate distinctive features in housing and lifeways in different parts of Sweden” and the Laisälven fieldwork was done by Birger Grape and Marianne Olsson.
The documentation, which is extensive and highly detailed, is preserved in the Nordic Museum. Here one can read notes about the villagers’ food habits, which led the museum man to put on weight during the fieldwork, even though the villagers thought that he took very small helpings by their standards. Here is
what was eaten by one of the families in Adolfström on 14 April 1970, as recorded by Birger Grape:
Breakfast 9 a.m.: coffee with buns.
Lunch 10:30 a.m.: boiled char and salmon trout with melted butter, almond potatoes, yesterday’s leftovers (salmon au gratin) butter, bread, milk. Dessert: soured milk.
Dinner 6:30 p.m. (delayed): elk meat cooked like thin-sliced reindeer, with sliced potatoes, butter, bread, milk. Dessert: cloudberries with whipped cream.
Evening coffee 7:45 p.m.: coffee with newly baked buns.
Other days when food is recorded look roughly the same. It is mainly char, trout, elk, almond potato, butter, cream, cloudberries and buns served to guests and household members alike. Pea soup with a lot of pork, Falun sau-sage and batter pudding are also mentioned in the notes.
The documentation from the upper Laisdalen valley also has a list of “linguistic peculiarities”. There are words in both ordinary Swedish spelling and simplified phonetic script. Some examples:
svart (black) – schuart
svensk (Swedish) – schuänsk
köpt (bought) – tjöft
skjutit (shot) – sköti
var? (where) – vasch?
Then came that day in August 1967 when the parliamentary committee, chaired by Nancy Eriksson, visited Adolfström. They were met by placards where the villagers cited section 16 of the Instrument of Government: “the king should not move anyone from one place to another.” The sun was shining, showing the valley from its best side. Arnold Sundqvist welcomed the visitors with an emotional speech which ended with a poem in praise of the Laisälven:
O glorious valley, in greenery clad,
beside the high mountain tops as they stand guard.
From time immemorial you have made sure
to give people here what they need for their
Will this be the thanks you get, once and
condemned to extinction to give kilowatts?
You lovely, delightfully billowing river.
In a newspaper article from that day where the poem was reprinted we read: “Rural roman-ticism? Undoubtedly. But honest, and even the chair of the committee ensured that she was not unreceptive. The poem has a chance to go down in history for having saved a community and stopped the damming of a river.”
“I didn’t know Nancy, but I understood that she had tremendous authority. Nothing speaks as well as poetry if you want to put across a message in a few words, and I played on emotions. The nice thing about women is that they are so receptive to that,” says Arnold Sundqvist with a sly smile.
The visitors took their seats in boats which set off along the river. To show the wealth offered by the water in the form of fish, they would be pulling up a seine net. This plan was unsuccessful, however, because a motorboat had driven straight through the net.
But the locals still had aces and jokers up their sleeves, and when the net which had been in place overnight was pulled up, filled with splendid char, the visitors were amazed at the copious catch.
No one mentioned then that the nets had been placed exactly at the spawning ground, of course, and I have not found any revelation of that in the newspaper articles I have read about that day. But both Arnold Sundqvist and Jan Thorfve have told me about it.
“Everything was permissible for us that day,” Jan Thorfve explained.
Arnold Sundqvist announced that he would name his boat Nancy, after the chair of the committee.
“And I did. My Nancy was a fine boat, but she no longer exists, sadly. Nancy met her destiny during a flood and vanished without trace in the Laisälven in 1995,” he says, adding that it was a dignified end for the boat.
In December 1967 the first positive news came for the people of Adolfström. Parliament said no to the Vindelälven development, which also put a stop to the planned regulation of the Laisälven. In January the following year
there were already sketches for the construction of cabins, a service house, a restaurant and a kiosk in Adolfström.
But it turned out that they had cheered too soon. Four months later a letter came to the government from the Nedre Norrbygden Water Court, where all the reasons adduced against the development of the Vindelälven were dismissed.
“This is exactly what we reckoned with,” said Karl G. Samuelson, county governor of Västerbotten, who led a twelveman delegation, which also included representatives of Arjeplog Municipality, to visit the prime minister Tage Erlander and demand that the development proceed.
The Water Court did not think that the damming of the river would cause any significant problems for reindeer herding, and since there would be no remaining population it was judged that the change in the look of the landscape would not make any difference to its attractiveness or the view from homes and holiday houses. The municipality’s main argument for regulating Gautojaure, Mittisjön and Yraft was that it would create jobs in Arjeplog, which was hard-hit by out-migration due to unemployment.
In the end, however, on 1 April 1970, the matter was settled once and for all. Olof Palme, who had now become prime minister, announced that the government said no to the Vindelälven development. And that decision was final. Palme declared that if the government had made a decision, the people could trust it.
The news, of course, was welcomed with delight and relief in the village, and the headline on the front page of Norra Västerbotten on 2 April read: “Big celebrations in Adolfström when the final decision on Vindelälven came.”
Yet I have not heard a single report of any extravagant celebrations. The people of Adolfström seldom make a big deal of anything. Their attitude to most things can be summed in words like calm and equanimity.
Jan Thorfve said that his family were up in a fishing cabin the day the decision came, and yes, it was joyful news, and yes, they did drink a toast with something fizzy, perhaps it was Champis, or Pommac.
“I remember that some TV journalists came the day the decision was to be made and wanted a picture of with our thumbs up. So we had a feeling that it would go well,” said Kjell Johansson.
Nor does Arnold Sundqvist offer us any grand words about celebrations.
“A few of us villagers met at Birgit Södermark’s that day, and of course it was nice to know that the struggle was over,” was his answer to my question about how the triumph was celebrated.
Arnold Sundqvist has grown up by Lake Yraft. When the government decision came, and Adolfström could finally, as the last village in Sweden, implement the land distribution reforms, he built a house in Adolfström.
“Mother lived in Bäverholm, and I got a bit of land here. The wise old men came and wondered why I built a house here when I was on my own. But I answered that I was fine here at the end of the road, waiting for something interesting to come,” he says.
And his waiting brought results. Along came the woman from Skellefteå who would be his wife, Lisa Söderberg.
“She was in a party that hired a cabin in Bäverholm one spring, I took the scooter along and a sleigh with a good reindeer skin. We drove up on to the mountain, then she went back to Skellefteå and there were quite a lot of trips for me to Skellefteå that spring and summer. On 8 October 1976 she came to me, and stayed here. But it almost ended badly that first evening. We drove down to the pier, it was eleven o’clock, a cold wind was blowing and it was very slippery after the waves hitting against the stones. Lisa slipped into the lake and couldn’t swim. But by good luck, the third time she came up to the surface I got hold of her,” he says.
Arnold moved together with Lisa back to Bäverholm, five kilometres upstream from Adolfström, converted the barn into housing and a restaurant. Here they created a highly popular tourist site in roadless land on the banks of the Laisälven. They have experienced the power of water many times, and have seen their lands inundated by the spring floods on several occasions.
“It goes so incredibly fast. In the flood of 1995 we heard splashing under the floor in the evening. When I opened the outer door the water poured in. We carried everything we could to the upper storey, and it had to go fast,” Lisa remembers.
She still wonders how they managed to carry the big, heavy sofa up the stairs that evening. “When we went to carry it down we had to take it apart, it was that big. But we got it up there fast,” she laughs.
They are now living in Adolfström again, and their son Niklas continues to run Bäverholm in the same spirit with his partner Therese Lindmark.
The two latest floods took place in 1995 and 2005, when there was high water in both the restaurant and the dwelling house. Since then Arnold Sundqvist has secured the houses with ramparts and has acquired powerful water pumps. There is a wall all round the restaurant to protect it from the water. The buildings will hopefully withstand the next time this part of the Laisälven bursts its banks.
“If there’s a lot of snow in the mountains and it suddenly gets warm with rain, the water doesn’t flow past quick enough. Then it flows over Bäverholm. The river has caused problems, but it’s still my friend,” Arnold Sundqvist declares.
Today, in 2017, there are 32 permanent residents in Adolfström and Gautosjö, including three families with children. In certain res-pects, for example, public transport, services have deteriorated in recent years. But as for the number of visitors, tourists and cabin owners in the area, the trend is upwards.
In the struggle for their home the villagers’ promised that they would manage if only they were allowed to stay. And one can say with a clear conscience that they have succeeded in that.
Distributed among these 32 persons there are, besides almost as many businesses, at present four diggers, five tractors, four helicopters and fifty-five snowmobiles. Few villages can compete with this.
“We haven’t peaked yet, there is still potential for development and good prospects for those who want to stay on here,” says Kjell Johansson.
1 april 1970
Tips! Kortfilm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWBoBqgZZG4
VÅR. LAISÄLVEN. Den 1 april 1970 kom regeringsbeslutet om att inte bygga ut Vindelälven och dess biälv Laisälven. Hur resonerar två fjällbor i dag om det som hände? Filmens avstamp är Laisvall och den nedlagda blygruvan. Filmfotografer: Stefan Holm och Maria Söderberg. Producerad 1 juni 2010.
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