Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to address this meeting and I hope you have enjoyed your stay in Iceland.
The topic of this conference is highly important. The world is heating, with dire consequences. The Arctic faces special challenges in this changing world. But the Arctic and its World Heritage also has opportunities.
Today I want to share with you some of the work on nature conservation and protected areas that I have emphasized during my term as a minister.
Much to the joy of Icelanders, Vatnajökull National Park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List this summer, like you all know. For us, this was a watershed. The inscription is a major recognition for Iceland of the geological origin and processes developing and shaping the country. It is important for our national identity, for our tourism, for local governments and communities around the area. As you can hear we are very happy about this!
We are also proud of the fact that 12% of our country now is a UNESCO site, which again is highly unusual. We now have the responsibility to maintain and protect the integrity of the area, not only for Icelanders, but for the world - a task we take seriously.
Before becoming the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources in Iceland I worked as a ranger in Vatnajökull National Park for several summers and was touched by the vastness, the silence, the striking beauty, the pristine oases and the incredible lava formations, and not least the feeling of being tiny in comparison with this all-encompassing nature.
Vatnajökull National Park covers approximately one third of the Central highland in Iceland. We Icelanders however have ambitions to conserve an even larger part of the Central highland. As a matter of fact, we want to conserve the whole Central highland of Iceland as a national park, and we want to include Vatnajökull National Park in the new park.
Why are we eager to do this? Well, the Central highland is a unique place in many perspectives.
It all began shortly after the settlement of Iceland when natives started travelling the country. The area served as the shortest travel route between regions, and by travelling over the highland and its glaciers, travelers could more easily pass the glacier rivers that spread out at the lowlands and were easier to pass closer to its source near the glaciers of the highland.
The Icelandic Sagas also tell stories of famous protagonists, or Vikings as you might call them, crossing the Central highland for battle or hiding from foes. Later, after the Christianization of Iceland, bishops would use the same routes for clerical visitations. Over time these highland routes would be marked by cairns, and to this day the main highland roads that tourists, both Icelandic and foreign travel, follow the same route as the settlers of Iceland did.
In the 17th and 18th centuries travels over the highland seem to have reduced significantly. Perhaps, both cause and effect of that reduction was the animistic faith, in sticks and stones, in hidden people, trolls in the mountains, creatures in lakes, and complex variety of ghosts roaming the highland.
The feeling that the Central highland was terra incognita started to sink among Icelanders.
Later in the 18th century when Icelandic and foreign natural scientists started taking expeditions to the highland the natural wonders of the area were gradually revealed: Its multiple volcanoes, glaciers, voluminous rivers and waterfalls, colorful hot springs, vast lava fields and broad expanses of black volcano sand, all contrasted with oases of vibrant but vulnerable vegetation.
Now, the Central highland forms one of the largest territories in Europe which has never been inhabited or cultivated. This makes the central highland one of the last remaining great wilderness areas in Europe.
With rising environmental awareness, rapid decrease in wilderness areas in the world and increased scientific knowledge, outdoor recreation and ecotourism, the importance of the area as a natural treasure has increased even further.
In addition, many areas of the central highland have suffered land degradation and despite efforts of farmers in the lowlands to reclaim soils and vegetations, there is still a long way to go to restore many of these ecosystems.
So, to sum up: All these values: historical, cultural, mystical, scientific, recreational, emotional and of course natural are the reason for our desire to protect the whole Central highland as a national park.
As you hear the values that support the argument for a national park are not new. The idea of a Central highland national park is also not new. Environmental NGOs and scientists involved in research in the area have now and then suggested the idea. But, in 2015 a large group of both environmental and outdoor recreational NGOs joined forces with the support of the umbrella organization for tourism in Iceland and issued a statement of intent encouraging Icelandic authorities to establish a Central highland national park.
This big movement caught the attention of the then sitting government that appointed a committee to write a report about the prerequisites of establishing a Central highland national park. The government that came to power after that wrote in its mission statement that it would be important to increase protection in the Central highland.
And now for the first time, an Icelandic government, the one that is currently in power, has it written in its coalition agreement that a Central highland national park will be established.
Of that I am very proud!
Within few weeks, a political committee, which I appointed in March 2018 will submit a report to me with its suggestions of how a Central highland national park shall look like and operate. The committee has representatives from all political parties in parliament and representatives from The Icelandic Association of Local Authorities. It worked in close cooperation with all stakeholders and the public on its suggestions.
I am looking forward to receiving the report and believe wholeheartedly that we will manage to establish a Central highland national park that we can all be proud of, and we will work on this exciting project in close co-operation with municipalities and interested parties.
Management of protected areas is a great challenge, not least in a world of increasing international tourism. I have myself put emphasis on building the necessary infrastructure we need to maintain the conservation and cultural values in protected areas and World Heritage Sites here in Iceland.
Over 3 years more than 3 billion Icelandic kronas will go to protect our nature and our cultural sites. This work has already started, and we already notice it making a difference. For me, that is amazing to see. Our 3-year plan includes laying paths, setting up viewpoints, building lavatories and other necessary infrastructure in nearly 100 places across Iceland.
During the same time period we will also use 1,3 billion kronas extra for park rangers which we believe is a key element in protecting our nature.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Your work here in Reykjavik is significant. It will be interesting to seeing the results of your work when you have finished the conference at Þingvellir in the afternoon, and once you have collected your ideas and your suggestions for the future.
I wish you a good trip to Þingvellir and a fruitful discussion in this beautiful World Heritage Site which also is our first National Park here in Iceland. I must also add that it was the first place where I worked as a park ranger, so this incredible place is important to me personally as it is to so many other Icelanders and the management of the park has always been a top priority of nature conservation authorities.
Thank you, enjoy your day and have a safe travel back home.