Centenary of Icelandic independence and sovereignty

100 years of thinking differently

This year, Iceland celebrates 100 years of sovereignty. A relatively young nation, Iceland was first settled in the late 9th century and four centuries later joined the Norwegian kingdom and remained mostly under Danish rule until 1918, when Iceland became a sovereign state. That same year, the people of Iceland witnessed the full force of mother nature with one of the coldest winters on record, followed by a large volcanic eruption in Mount Katla.

To give you an idea of what Iceland was like a century ago: The fishermen, farmers and their families mostly lived in turf houses, the University of Iceland had just been established and outside of Reykjavik, there were hardly any streets, bridges, harbours, running water or electricity.

Hard work and some luck has brought us far. Blessed with fish, fire and a healthy dose of feminism, Iceland has been transformed from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the most prosperous in the world.

The subterranean fire, the rough seas and the harsh climate have not only shaped our nature but also the people of Iceland as a nation. Through 100 years of thinking differently, we have been able to harness our resources in a sustainable way to guarantee Icelanders high living standards.

Our sustainable fisheries system saved our marine resources; we have harnessed our geothermal and hydropower resources to meet most of our electricity and heating needs – and we sure need a lot of heating in Iceland. The early economic and political empowerment of women helped us achieve these living standards; we have all hands-on deck.

We are eager to take our unique way of thinking to another level, with innovation and the creative industries becoming ever more important in our economy. The Icelandic music scene is well known and our literary legacy continues with modern Icelandic authors whose novels have been translated worldwide.

Iceland runs on renewables

During the last century, Iceland moved from fossil fuels to renewable hydro and geothermal resources and is now self-sufficient for most of its electricity and heating needs.  Hydro power stations date from the beginning of the 20th century and geothermal heating was first used on a massive scale for district heating in Reykjavik in the 1930s and later for energy production.

In addition to a capacity of 75 MW of electricity production and heating for 21 thousand households, Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant maintains one of the worlds most renowned natural baths, the Blue Lagoon.

Through public and private channels, Iceland has long supported the global drive for geothermal utilization worldwide in developed and developing countries alike. A push towards the use of electric cars, through tax incentives and support for charging infrastructure, is underway. 

Sustainable fisheries

In 1918, fisheries were set to replace farming as the most important sector of the Icelandic economy, through the modernization of the fishing fleet. Strong fish stocks, bigger boats, innovative fishing techniques and large-scale fish processing underpinned steady progress, especially following WWII.

International developments gave major wins to coastal states in the 20th century. To gain rights over its 200-mile exclusive economic zone, Iceland waged the only wars in its history – the cod wars with the UK starting in 1958, 1972 and 1975 – with pliers as their main weapon.

Iceland has no military but decided fish was worth fighting for. Iceland fought the United Kingdom and other European countries with a few coast guard vessels in the so-called cod wars for the gradual expansion of its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. During the first cod war in 1958, one of the captains was quoted saying "The Brits don't know we've never lost a war".

Through innovative policy making, Iceland now has one of the most sustainable fisheries based on a rigorous rights-based management system that uses the best available science. Most stocks have been restored to sustainable levels.

Today, Icelandic companies have used the Icelandic experience to pioneer innovative solutions in fishing, catching and processing in six continents.

Frontrunners in gender equality

Iceland has topped the WEF Gender Gap Index for nine years in a row. This is the result of a decades long fight for gender equality in all spheres of life. After decades of small victories, major events included the women‘s strike in 1975; the democratic election in 1980 of the world‘s first female president, Madame Vigdis Finnbogadottir; the Women‘s Alliance running for parliament in 1983; recent revolutions such as Free the Nipple against online gender-based violence, the Reykjavik Slut Walk where people marched against sexual violence and  returned the shame to the perpetrators and the international #metoo movement.

These events and women‘s participation in parliament have influenced both legislation and public services, such as universal quality day-care, three-month exclusive paternity leave, gender quotas for publicly registered companies  and a legal requirement for equal-pay certification for employers.

On October 24, 1975, Icelandic women went on strike for the day to demonstrate their indispensable work of women for Iceland’s economy and society. Ninety percent of Iceland’s female population participated in the strike.

The President of Iceland, Dr. Gudni Th. Johannesson, is a HeForShe IMPACT Champion – an international gender equality advocate for UN Women.


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