20th January 2014

Iceland runs into ‘Elf and Safety’ road block

By Michael Wood on Monday January 20, 2014

There have been reports recently of a bizarre row in Iceland over plans for a new road linking the Álftanes Peninsula with the town of Garðabaer, both in the Greater Reykjavik urban area.

Apparently, the debate between supporters and opponents has grown so heated that the Iceland Supreme Court has taken the drastic action of demanding a halt to construction work while it considers its ruling.

Uproar over an infrastructure project is not, perhaps, unusual in itself (we in the UK are no strangers to such controversy). What is different in this case, however, are the arguments used by the opposition group, Friends of Lava.

In addition to what one might imagine to be the standard concerns that the road will impact on wildlife and split a noted lava field in two, detractors have also suggested that it will disturb the local population of “Huldufólk” or elves.

On the surface, this sounds like a comic sideshow to the real protest, but to many Icelanders these little cave-dwelling humanoids with magical powers are a big deal.

Belief in elves may have died out in mainland Europe in the 19th Century, but some 60 per cent of the population of the island nation still insist that it is possible that the critters exist.

In fact, the island is dotted with tiny houses and churches built by the locals to appease the little folk, and they have been cited as the reason for abandoning a number of construction projects over the last few years.

Apparently, many of the environmental protestors opposed to the road say they are embarrassed by the support of the ‘pro elf’ lobby, believing it obscures what they consider to be the more serious issue of habitat preservation and fearing it undermines their campaign.

I would suggest otherwise, however. The seemingly quaint ‘elf defence’ argument serves as the campaign’s unique selling point (USP) in the eyes of the media. It’s the hook that has led to newspapers choosing to publish the story, raising the anti-road protest’s profile far beyond Iceland’s shores, generating not simply national, but international coverage.

Sometimes it can pay for organisations like Friends of Lava to revel in the lighter side of their cause. Some comic frivolity can help you put a different angle on what might otherwise seem a dull or overused story in the eyes of the press, ensuring it gains the media coverage to present your environmental case to the wider community and generate vital support.

You never know, a little humour might succeed in disarming those hostile to your position, winning them to your side for just long enough for you to carry the day.

Iceland’s Roadgate serves as an important reminder to us all never to underestimate the strength of public feeling for matters of tradition and belief, as well as the power of a good hook when pitching a story to the media.