Situated halfway between Iceland and Scotland, the Faroe Islands are so remote from most people’s minds that even the customs official in Helsinki didn’t recognize their name when he asked where I had been in Europe. Yet last week, 300 people traveled to these grass-covered, ancient volcanic outcroppings in the North Atlantic for the Arctic Circle Forum, an event that turned out to be the largest-ever conference held in the Faroes.
The forum is an offshoot of the Arctic Circle conference held every year since 2013 in Reykjavik, Iceland, a gathering which brings together thousands of attendees from the government, business, academic, and environmental sectors interested in northern development. The theme of the smaller and more focused forum in the Faroese capital of Tórshavn, which also holds the distinction of being Europe’s tiniest capital thanks to its population of 21,000, was “Arctic Hubs.”
In one of the opening speeches last Tuesday, Iceland’s Minister of Transport and Nordic Affairs and former prime minister, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, remarked that to become a hub, a place requires 500-ton airplanes alongside 5G mobile phones. “Arctic hubs need both: classic infrastructure like harbors and airstrips, and connectivity. That puts the Arctic on an equal footing with everyone else,” he offered.
Concrete and digital infrastructure helps transform a remote location into a more central one by deepening and expanding its network of connections with other places. Yet it tends to be easier to build these utilities with an aim of national integration and global reach in smaller rather than larger places. The Arctic’s vast distances and harsh environment are a major reason why at a region-wide scale, it has failed to become fully linked into global trade and transportation networks in a way that involves more than just digging up valuable resources out of the ground and shipping them out for the benefit of southern markets. Centuries of political, economic, and environmental shifts have intensified certain links between the Arctic and the world beyond it, from the Soviet industrialization of Siberia to the rise in the price of oil and the melting of the ice sheet. But overall, the far north has continued to remain a peripheral frontier in the global imagining. It is hard to imagine this will ever change.
The Faroes: building infrastructure from the ground up
Lessons learned last week in the Faroe Islands, however, suggest that at a small scale, it is possible for a place to gradually move from the periphery to the core of the world’s economy. This reorientation towards the center doesn’t actually appear to start with getting shovels in the ground, but rather with sparking a shift in mentality. Magni Argi, former CEO of the national airline and pro-Faroese independence member of the Danish Parliament, explained this in his presentation. Starting about thirty years ago, he said, the Faroese realized, “We were not at the edge, we were at the center.” They consulted Viking histories that had put the Faroes right at the crux of their maritime voyages and realized they had to revive that favorable position on their own, without too much help from the Danish Kingdom of which the Faroes are still a part, and from the ground up.
The Faroese started major investments in their national infrastructure in the 1960s, led by a vision of connecting all 18 of their major islands by tunnel and bridge. Since the first tunnel through a mountain between two communities opened in 1963, more and more of the Faroes have been connected by both overland and subsea tunnels. Each tunnel has acted as a positive reinforcement to build the next. After the first subsea tunnel was built to the airport in 2003, Argi offered, “Many people thought that we were crazy building this subsea tunnel, but it showed to be an extremely successful project. I think they built it in less than two years and it costed something like US $40 million. It was amazingly cheap, amazingly quickly constructed, and it completely revolutionized our infrastructure.” Most importantly, he added, “It also took away a lot of barriers in our mindset.”
A few years later, the Faroese built more subsea tunnels that have helped to now connect 85% of the country and 70% of the landmass. This network of tunnels allows settlements farther from the center to maintain their population since it makes it possible to commute into the capital for work, helping to spread out economic development across the islands. Today, apart from the southernmost island, almost everywhere can be reached from the capital in less than 90 minutes.
The Faroese have also made strides in aviation and telecommunications infrastructure. In 1987, the government overrode resistance from Denmark and established a national airline, Atlantic Airways, to permit Faroese control over their air traffic and route network. Now, rather than just flying to Copenhagen, Faroese can enjoy city breaks to Edinburgh and summer getaways to Gran Canaria. And while Denmark cautions Greenland against the possibility of its government awarding a major airport construction contract to a Chinese company, the Faroes have again gone their own way. Last year, the national telecom company, Føroya Tele, worked with China’s Huawei to upgrade the 2G, 3G, and 4G networks. As a result, many parts of the islands have mobile speeds that rival those of South Korea and Singapore. In the words of Faroese MP Argi, all of these developments have made the Faroes into “an infrastructural miracle.”
But what made the Faroese people want to build all this infrastructure from the bottom-up in the first place? From the discussions that took place at the Arctic Circle Faroe Islands Forum, it appears there are two answers: a limited geography that makes major infrastructural investments seem feasible rather than out of reach and a well-educated population. The Faroes fit into an area of the North Atlantic that is only 112 km long and 79 kilometers wide. As Uni Danielsen, managing director of Vágatunnilin/Norðoyatunnilin, the state-owned company operating the subsea tunnels, told me, “There is no distance.” But even more important in turning mountains into molehills than short distances is the Faroes’ depth of human capital. With well-educated individuals who have been able to go out and gain experience building roads and tunnels in Norway and captaining fishing boats around the world, the country has both the expertise and the worldliness to make their vision of connectivity a concrete reality.
North Atlantic stories of success and failure
The Faroes seem to fit a pattern of economic success stories that have lately emerged out of the North Atlantic. A few hundred miles to the west, ironically following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 that helped put the country on the map, Iceland’s government invested heavily in promoting itself as a stopover destination between North America and Europe. The establishment of new, cheap air routes by WOW Air and Icelandair have resulted in a rush of tourists, with the influx growing 40% annually in recent years, though it has recently slowed to a mere 20%. Then, on the Atlantic Coast of the United States, the state of Maine has beefed up its marine port infrastructure with a new international terminal and improved port-to-rail connection. In turn, this has generated new export markets for products like beer and blueberries.
But at the same time within the North Atlantic, at least two places remain remote and underdeveloped. Newfoundland, on Canada’s southeast periphery, is one such case. Abandoned fishing villages cling onto the sides of its many fjords, which have yet to come to terms with the cod crash of the early 1990s. A government resettlement policy has attempted to centralize the population and lower spending on infrastructure to remote villages by closing them, but it has not always met with success. Today, communities are effectively relocated from the bottom up, meaning that if at least 90% of a community’s residents vote to relocate, the government will financially support its closure and the subsequent move. Effectually, this policy is the opposite of the situation in the Faroes, where people are voting to build more, not less, infrastructure to ever more remote places. The last subsea tunnel that will likely be built will extend 24 kilometers underwater to the island of Suðuroy, which would result in year-round, 24/7 physical infrastructure connecting 99% of the Faroes’ population. In contrast, photos such as the one below of a Newfoundland house being relocated in 1961 reveal an opposite trajectory of development: one moving towards less, not more, connectivity.
Finally at the top of the North Atlantic, Greenland, a constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark like the Faroe Islands, also struggles with many of the challenges that characterize the Arctic at large: a large indigenous population still wrestling with the trauma of colonialism, a punishing environment, and a lack of human capital relative to natural resources. The Faroese individuals I spoke to were reluctant to compare their country to Greenland, saying that the cultural and geographic challenges on the world’s largest island are drastically different. But one thing that they seemed to emphasize was the lack of education in Greenland rather than the country’s geography as being the real obstacle to bottom-up development.
Can the Faroese model be exported?
The Faroese may have found success, but their model is not one-size-fits-all. The stark contrasts in the abilities of North Atlantic economies to connect to the rest of the world illustrates the diversity of the Arctic at large. It also serves as a reminder that regions as a whole rarely become uniformly networked to the outside. Instead, for there to be a hub or a center, there must be also be a periphery. While the Arctic Circle Forum in Tórshavn and most dialogues about the Arctic focus on the potential for sustainable development, one of the greatest challenges for the region, and indeed for the world at large, is actually how to deal with the social, political, and economic ramifications of uneven development. If not everyone can be at the center, then what is the role for those relegated to its outskirts to play? Serving as extractive peripheries for mining, oil and gas, logging, and fishing cannot be the answer forever.