"I find it difficult these days," said Berit Våtvik, who planned to stay just a year when she came to Svalbard during the 1970s. "One feels for those who may have to leave here. But it has not affected us in any way. Or at least to a very small degree."
Along with her husband Karl, she operates Svalbard Villmarkssenter and this fall she was a Green Party candidate for the Longyearbyen Community Council. They are among those with the brightest outlook about the situation in Longyearbyen despite the massive downsizing of the town's cornerstone enterprise.
A poll conducted by Norfakta for Svalbardposten shows the majority of respondents expect the city's population to decrease in the coming years. People ages 30 to 44 and those over 60 are the most pessimistic. The most optimistic in the poll are those under 30 years old. The survey shows one-third of the respondents expect the population to remain steady and 13 percent believe there will be more inhabitants in Svalbard.
Those living in Svalbard are also split about the question of cutbacks at Store Norske, which are the primary cause of concern. Half of respondents said the cuts have made them uncertain about their future in Svalbard, with Conservative and Liberal party voters most frequently expressing concern. Nearly four out of ten Conservative voters said the cuts have made them uncertain about their future to a large or somewhat large extent. The percentage of Liberal Party voters responding similarly was 50 percent.
On the other side, 49 percent of Labor Party voters stated they believe they will be affected to a small or very small extent. The most optimistic response came from Green Party voters, with nearly eight in ten (76 percent) stating they believe the cuts will have a small or very small effect on them.
"I cannot imagine that we have had an incident on the mainland where such a large percentage of the population lost their jobs in such a short time."
"I think things will go well," said Berit Våtvik.
During the debates the week before the election, Karl Våtvik pointed out that about 70 percent of the employees at Svea are commuters. That has not been emphasized enough, because it means the local community will be less affected than the layoff numbers suggest, he said.
"There has been little talk about that," said Berit Våtvik. "We worked at Store Norske when everyone lived in Svalbard. I thought a lot about it when they started opening up for commuters,"
Many expressed fear the cuts will bring about harsh consequences. Terje Aunevik, head of the Svalbard Business Association and a Liberal Party candidate, is among those calling the situation critical. The Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (Nav)is preparing to up its staff in Svalbard to provide sufficient services for Store Norske employees who lose their jobs.
"I cannot imagine that we have had an incident on the mainland where such a large percentage of the population lost their jobs in such a short time," said Geir Jakobsen, head of the Nav office in Tromsø, in an interview with Svalbardposten last week.
"It is now here we have chosen to live"
The poll shows men in Svalbard are slightly more optimistic than women. A total of 47 percent of men responding said the cuts will affect them to a small or very small extent. Also, those over 60 years of age are the most optimistic, with seven out of ten stating they will be affected to a small or very small extent.
Berit Våtvik emphasized she understands the pain felt by those affected, but at the same time she has also experienced major changes. She said she believes there is no reason to be surprised the coal company is shrinking, stating that development has been in the cards.
"I remember all too well when Store Norske began to split up," she said. "It was sad, but it was self-evident. We are going to continue to stay up here. It is now here we have chosen to live."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini