Exploitation of the Arctic's resources is ancient history to its indigenous peoples, says Aqqaluk Lynge, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), which represents 150,000 Inuit. When Arctic-area ministers met recently in breathtakingly picturesque Ilulissat, Greenland, to discuss sharing the region's natural resources, he reminded them the debate stretches back to the 1600s, "when the first foreign whaling ship came to hunt our big whales and decimate our stocks, from which they have never recovered."
Today Arctic governments have their sights set on offshore oil and gas and new shipping and fishing opportunities. And indigenous communities want to know whether they will be winners or losers in the new race for Arctic resources.
"All this is nothing new for us," says Gun-Britt Retter, a member of the indigenous Sami community's parliament in Norway. "We used to have to pay taxes to four different kings — Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Russia. Today we have governments making nice speeches about indigenous peoples having the right to their culture. But they do not give us the basis for that culture — our land. We have no right to veto drilling operations and no right to revenues from oil and gas extraction on our land."
Indeed, throughout modern times indigenous Arctic peoples have fought to preserve their language, culture and way of life as neighboring colonial powers encroached on their turf. In 1953, for instance, Canada pushed the Inuit in Nunavik, Quebec, into the High Arctic in an effort to assert Canada's sovereignty over the region. The same year Eskimos were forced out of their homes in northwestern Greenland to make room for a Danish-backed U.S. Air Force base in Thule.
Native peoples have scored some successes, however. In 1971, under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the U.S. government gave the Inuit $962.5 million and 44 million acres of land in Alaska after complaints that oil developers were robbing locals' land and destroying the environment. In 1999 Canada created the Inuit-dominated Territory of Nunavut by splitting the Northwest Territories in two. Greenland, which is 90 percent Inuit, gained home rule from Denmark in 1979, after nearly three centuries of domination. A referendum this November would give the Inuit in Greenland further autonomy and divide up future oil and gas revenue between the Greenlandic and Danish governments.
Nenets reindeer herders meet with gas company officials in Yamal, Siberia, to discuss how oil development is affecting their community. (© B&C Alexander/Arcticphoto.com)
But Edward Itta, the mayor of Alaska's North Slope Borough, is critical of how the U.S. government is conducting its current policy review of the Arctic.
"We have not been formally involved in the review," says Itta, an Inuit. "We have lived here for 10,000 years, yet the bureaucrats in Washington think they know it all."
Besides fighting for a seat at the table, indigenous peoples are trying to forge a strong and unified stance among themselves. Inuit from Russia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada will meet in Nunavik in November to devise a common position, which is vital to resisting the Arctic powers' "divide-and-conquer approach," says Lynge.
In addition to the Inuit, the 70,000-strong Sami — residing in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia — are the second-largest Arctic indigenous group. Other smaller groups include the Aleut, who live on the Pacific Aleutian islands between Russia and Alaska, the Athabaskans and Gwich'in from Alaska and Canada plus 41 indigenous groups who live in Arctic Russia.
The rights of indigenous peoples vary widely. For example, the Sami have their own parliaments in Norway, Sweden and Finland, but not in Russia. "Our people face their biggest challenge in Russia," says Retter. "The government there draws up maps for pipelines and mining development, ignoring the people who live there. Reindeer herding is a huge part of our culture, but because of this new infrastructure, the reindeer, which move homes between summer and winter, become blocked." (continued below)
Now global warming is forcing indigenous communities to adapt quickly. According to Kenneth Hoegh, Greenland's agriculture adviser in Qaqortog, climate change has been a mixed blessing in southwest Greenland. The reduction in drift ice has hurt Inuit hunters because the ice calms the sea, enabling the hunters to shoot seals.
"If this continues, they will need to find other livelihoods — maybe fishing, eco-tourism or ethnic tourism," he says.
On the other hand, warmer seas have attracted more cod, which fetch good prices. Fishermen have had to invest in new gear and boats, however, since they previously fished mainly for shrimp, which are eaten by the cod. Global warming also has given a boost to farming, allowing more grazing and hay, silage and vegetable cultivation.
Meanwhile, industrial pollution from faraway regions threatens indigenous peoples' health. Inuit mothers' breast milk has become dangerous because the polar bears, seals, walruses, fish and whales they eat are contaminated by heavy metals, PCBs and other industrial compounds found in seawater and stored in the animals' fat.
While much is known already about the environmental challenges, more research is needed for policymakers to make the right decisions, according to Mayor Itta. "Our ocean is getting more acidic," he says. "We need more baseline data to understand the impact on the entire food chain — from the krill to the bowhead whale."