Updated: Jun 15
It is 4º Celsius (39º F) in Mid June in Reykjavik. Under the chilly drizzle of Icelandic rain, Hugrún Geirsdóttir flaps her arms demonstratively and looks at the sky. “The sound, it comes from their wings,” she explains. Snipes are common all over Iceland, but their signature sound is new to those who may have never set foot on the island before.
Hugrun Geirsdottir, Photo by Jesus Pastor
Apparently these diminutive birds have a penchant for diving out of the air to attract their mates, and this well-known local fact was the perfect introduction to the wonders that this country has to offer. Of course she would know this, as Hugrún has spent much of her adult life working and fighting for the preservation of Iceland’s unique natural landscape. A landscape that recently skyrocketed onto the top of the list of tourist destinations.
After the crash of Iceland's top three banks in 2008, tourism was an attractive option to save a country that feared the economic worst. Thankfully the country has something beautiful to offer, and while only 302,900 international tourists visited Iceland in 2000, now that number stands closer to 2 million. The actual rate of growth has climbed higher each year as well, topping at a whopping 23.6% increase between 2013 and 2014. While this has created many jobs and opportunities to provide for this influx, complaints about a lack of proper infrastructure and the loss of cultural authenticity are also commonly heard.
It’s a Friday evening near the beach, but we’re cold and damp. Hugrún, who works by day in Continuing Education for the University of Iceland, was already striding across wet field grass on the south side of Reykjavik. She’s dressed in a colourful array of practical clothing that defies the grey midsummer weather. As she tells us about herself, it quickly becomes clear that this is the perfect metaphor for Hugrún herself in the rising tide of environmental concerns.
CARYZMA Team filming with Hugrun Geirsdottir -Spokesperson for Landvernd,
Photo by Schmoo Theune
... To protect and restore Iceland’s vanishing nature from the onslaught of tourism, foreign investors, and climate change.
Hugrún studied Environmental Science and Political Science, but her close relationship with nature began much earlier than university. Raised on a farm in the south of Iceland, she was enveloped in what she calls “tamed nature,” as one does when raising sheep and working the land. Like many Icelanders, she also took summers to explore the highland interior, where few people crossed. Especially years ago before the recent tourism boom. “I’m just talking about a personal experience,” she recounts, “Before you could go somewhere out in the nature to one of these popular attractions here and you would meet no one. But now we have to close the roads down even part of the year because there's so much traffic on the road. The soil has to have time to restore itself.”
Photo by Frank Suffert
Despite the state of things today, that love of nature has never left her. Thankfully. And it is an essential part of life in the other 330,000 residents in the country today. “We have been brought up here in Iceland to respect our wilderness, the enormous power than nature has to us. It is also an inspiration for us, mentally.”
And so through her university and volunteer work, she dedicates herself to the largest environmental agency in the country, Landvernd. Founded in 1969 for soil conservation, it now employs a full board and offices to execute their massive ongoing initiatives to protect and restore Iceland’s vanishing nature from the onslaught of tourism, foreign investors, and climate change. Hugrún herself is the newest elected board member although it’s still entirely a passion project for her. “Oh no, I’m not getting paid!” she explains, “I wanted to become a board member at Landvernd because I'm passionate about what we can actually do for Iceland. We can educate people more about nature, [and] the importance of nature to us.”
The largest project she’s involved with is the Eco-Schools Project (http://landvernd.is/en/content/Eco-Schools), a highly successful, international education program involving students of all levels across 230 schools in 53 countries. The goal of the project? Bringing up the younger generation to be more aware of environmental issues. “The kids are educating the older ones and it's bringing environmental concern into their homes,” she explains. “It is considered to be the biggest project in the world which takes on sustainability.”
“We have to bring in new thinking,” she continues, proving without a doubt why she stands behind Landvernd and its education initiatives. “I believe the younger generation that is being brought up now… are seeing things much differently than previous generations. They are educated more on environmental issues and what they can do about it. They grow up with this thinking that we can be change-makers.”
The chilly rain continued to fall as we discussed some of the more critical issues that Iceland faces today. The question of maybe-not-so-sustainable geothermal energy. Aluminum smelters and a changing job market. The odd lack of electric cars. The challenges of funding an NGO. Moss. Although the conversation trended downwards in tone, Hugrún herself stays true to her beliefs and her colorful mien. “I'm an optimistic person and I believe that we have a bright future. I believe that we can somehow turn this development that is actually going downwards, stabilize it and bring it upwards again. We all depend on our nature and the environment. That's of the highest importance.”
Impressions of Iceland: Photos by Schmoo Theune, Jesus Pastor and Frank Suffert for Caryzma
To support Landvernd please visit www.landvernd.is