‘WE NEED CONCRETE ACTIONS, NOT GOOD THOUGHTS’: Two key ministers visit Svalbard during two-week period, but pleas for immediate help coming up short as they focus on fall plans

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The pleas by local political and business leaders for additional immediate help due to the crippling economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t getting much traction, but with one top minister just completing a visit to Longyearbyen and another minister scheduled to come soon at least they’re listening as the Norwegian government assesses measures to help distressed communities this fall.

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Minister of Justice and Emergency Management Monica Mæland poses for the requisite “polar bear sign” snapshot after arriving at Svalbard Airport on Tuesday for a three-day visit. The image wasn’t entirely warmly received by all in Norway who saw it on her Facebook page, with one commenter noting “not so many others who can do that. Tragic that the government cannot do anything more for Norwegian travellers…they certainly will not bring in much income when you are there, but maybe the publicity from there benefits them when all Norwegians can go to work again.” Photo courtesy of Monica Mæland.

A multi-day visit by Minister of Trade and Industry Iselin Nybø last week, focusing largely on tourism- and mining-related issues, resulted in optimistic statements from her and those she met with about the importance of such work and opportunities “to hear about the way forward.” Still, as High North News put it, she and her delegation “left local businesses empty-handed.”

“We need concrete actions, not good thoughts,” Visit Svalbard Director Ronny Brunvoll told the news site. “If the help does not come within the next couple of weeks, there is no future development to talk about.”

A subsequent three-day visit this week by Minister of Justice and Emergency Management Monica Mæland started Tuesday, which she said  “is to get good and important input that the government will consider over the autumn.”

“The crisis Svalbard is in now, we are all in,” she said in a prepared statement Monday. At the same time “it is important to take into account that the conditions in Svalbard differ from the mainland in several areas. The low tax rate and the fact that there is no requirement for a residence permit to work here means that rights legislation has not been applied to the same degree.”

Mæland, who formerly headed the trade ministry and has made several visits to Svalbard since a series of crises beginning with Store Norske’s financial collapse in late 2014, is scheduled to hear about many of the same economic issues as Nybø while meeting with members of the governor’s office, municipal government and business community.

But as the recently appointed head of the ministry responsible for the administrative oversight of the archipelago her visit will also cover broader topics including a visit to Longyearbyen’s power plant, the area where scores of residences are being demolished due to avalanche/landslide danger, and inspecting the wrecked Northguider trawler now being salvaged from the northern part of Svalbard.

Mæland, in her statement, notes “several measures have already been introduced to help Svalbard through a challenging time.” Limited compensation was provided in late spring to local residents from non-EU/EEA countries who normally are ineligible for such benefits, for instance, and the city received funding being used for various improvement projects being performed by companies and individuals who’ve lost other work due to the crisis.

An emphasis by both ministers is being placed on larger- and longer-term work, including construction projects related to avalanche/landslide safety measures and mining-related work. Nybø, in a statement following her visit, said a day spent with Store Norske officials and workers at Mine 7 (which has suspended active mining to deal with severe flooding from a glacier exposed to record heat) and Svea (being dismantled after the government ordered it shut down) stood out as particularly significant.

“This is perhaps Norway’s largest environmental clean-up project right now,” she told Svalbardposten. “It is quite impressive and I am happy to be able to be here and actually see what it is all about.”

Among the positive news for  a project opposed by many locals, according to Store Norske Administrative Director Jan Morten Ertsaas, is the dismantling of Svea and the adjacent Lunckefjell mine will cost about 300 million kroner than the most recent estimate (although that is is still far above the original projected cost).

“We appreciated showing her the exciting environmental project that we are proud to carry out as planned and at a lower cost than first thought,” he said in a statement at the company’s website. “We also had the opportunity to tell about all the other companies in Store Norske and talk about our plans for the future.”

Nybø said she also understands the concerns expressed about tourism and other local businesses, even if more immediate help isn’t provided.

“It makes an impression to talk to people who have run family businesses for many years and who are now worried about what will happen to tourism this fall,” she added. “And many are worried about losing expertise that will move to the mainland.”

At the same time, “even though things aren’t quite as normal up there now, this is a community that has stood through storms before and has no intention of giving in to the coronavirus,” she said.