Perhaps because we here in Britain have tended to think of ourselves (at least until recently) as an Antarctic rather than an Arctic nation – owing to our sovereignty interests in the South – we often neglect the fact that the Arctic is populated by more than polar bears, walruses and other charismatic mega-fauna. Unlike in Antarctica, people live in the Arctic, and have done so for thousands of years.
Today, there are roughly 4 million Arctic inhabitants. They are spread out across the eight Arctic states (although approximately half reside in Russia), living in communities that vary in size from small villages to major cities. Around 500,000 of them belong to one of many indigenous peoples groups, the geographies of which predate modern geopolitical borders. For example, the Saami are spread across Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. Inuit live in Alaska (United States), Canada, Greenland (Denmark) and Chukotka (Russia). The Gwich’in Nation straddles the border between Alaska and Canada.
The different indigenous peoples groups (there are more than 40 of them) have their own cultures, languages and traditions. The way in which they relate to their national governments also varies, as do their experiences with colonial rule, which began to introduce ‘modern’ ways of life into their communities, not always in a beneficial and just way. Consequently, over recent centuries, Arctic indigenous peoples have been forced to adapt to social, political and economic drivers of change in order to defend their livelihoods and cultures. Climate change, however, poses a new kind of threat.
All three of our Arctic speakers started by talking about the deep connections that they and their peoples have with Arctic environments and ecosystems. Inuit, Ms Eegeesiak told us, are especially dependent on the sea-ice, which they use to move around and hunt. Ms James spoke of how for at least 20,000 years, the Gwich’in have followed the migratory routes of the Porcupine Caribou herd, which they rely upon for food and livelihoods. Such is the importance of the wild caribou herd that it has been central to shaping their culture. Ms Staffansson pointed to a similar relationship between the Saami and reindeer across Scandinavia and Russia. For many Saami, reindeer are everything, as they are utterly dependent on one another for their survival.
Ms Eegeesiak went on to explain that Inuit lives are deeply connected to the lands, waters and ice that they live on, and that they have been feeling and living with climate change for many years already. However, Inuit are increasingly alarmed as changes to the sea-ice is impacting their ability to hunt and permafrost melt is damaging buildings and infrastructure where they live. She described how the environment was now seen as dangerous in a way that it never used to be. While Inuit have always understood that the Arctic is an unforgiving environment to live in, they are becoming more and more anxious about how much more unpredictable it has become (Inuit hunters have lost their lives having fallen through ice that should have been solid).
This point was reinforced by Ms Staffansson who described the Arctic as an extraordinary place, with extraordinary people who had extraordinary knowledge of how to survive and thrive in what was otherwise a dangerous environment. However, she argued that, because of climate change, their knowledge and skills were increasingly irrelevant, making life in the Arctic much more dangerous for indigenous peoples than it ever used to be. She saw herself as part of a new generation of Arctic indigenous peoples who no longer recognised the Arctic before climate change – what she called the ‘glory days’ of their ancestors when the winters were smooth and no-one died.
What is particularly devastating about the challenges posed by climate change to Arctic indigenous peoples is that they are layered upon centuries-worth of other socio-economic changes and upheavals that have already had dramatic consequences for how indigenous peoples are organised and live their lives. Modern geopolitical borders have divided indigenous groups that continue to regard themselves as one people with shared languages and cultures. Many Arctic indigenous peoples have had to move into settlements where they become dependent on imported goods and fuels, and vulnerable to new challenges such as a lack of access to transportation, education and jobs.
Among the Gwich’in Nation, Ms James explained that a once healthy and populous community is now suffering from ills such as disease, depression, drugs and alcohol, brought on, at least in part, by being forced to switch from nomadic to settled life. Younger generations find themselves trapped between two worlds, unable to engage fully with the demands of modern life because of a lack of opportunities, resources and mobility (owing, to a large degree, to the remoteness of their communities), while at the same time unable to maintain the traditions and cultures of their ancestors. Similar challenges are being felt among indigenous peoples right across the Arctic.
When it comes to addressing the environmental, social and economic challenges that Arctic indigenous peoples are facing, the primary actors, domestically and internationally, tend to be nation-states. However, Arctic indigenous peoples tend to be a marginalised minority within the nations in which they dwell, and furthermore, as has already been noted, the ability of various groups to speak with one voice is often weakened by divisions created by modern geopolitical borders.
That is a problem, Ms Eegeesiak argued, because challenges like climate change, which are being felt and foremost by indigenous peoples who live much more closely to nature than the rest of us, can only be solved by paying attention to their knowledges and experiences. Ms Staffansson made a similar point that Arctic indigenous peoples are in a unique position to recount the effects of climate change. She further argued that, as the effects of climate change spread, societies around the world will become more dependent on people who are used to living close to nature. The speakers were not claiming that Arctic indigenous peoples know best, but rather that greater strides need to be taken to bring together the knowledges of Arctic indigenous peoples and those of modern science.
This is already starting to happen, Ms Eegeesiak pointed out, in the Arctic Council, where eight permanent participants (representing various Arctic indigenous peoples) sit at the negotiating table alongside the eight Arctic states and have an impact on discussions. Ms Eegeesiak argued that lessons needed to be learned from the Arctic Council about how to organise relations between states and indigenous peoples communities in order to increase their participation in processes like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
However, other trends troubled our speakers. Ms James was particularly anxious about President Donald Trump’s decision to turn away from the Paris Agreement and push for fast development of fossil fuels across American lands, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the Alaska North Slope region. Such acts, Ms James argued, do nothing to solve the problem of climate change. Moreover, the threat that the opening up of the Arctic Refuge poses to this vital caribou birthplace and nursery, vividly demonstrates why for her people, tackling climate change is a human rights issue. With their way of life now under great threat than ever before, the Gwich’in people will continue to resist fossil fuel development until their lands are permanently protected.
Ms Staffansson, meanwhile, raised the prospect of a third threat to Arctic indigenous peoples, that could prove as damaging as the effects of climate change and previous instances of socio-economic change: the mitigation of climate change. Here. Ms Staffansson returned to the issue of ensuring that climate change is addressed in a fair and just way that is inclusive of the rights, interests and voices of Arctic indigenous peoples. New hydroelectric dams and windfarms across northern Scandinavia were creating new challenges for Saami. Although these installations are designed to mitigate climate change, Ms Staffansson explained that in many cases the Saami felt excluded from planning decisions that had produced further disruptions for their reindeer herds, in addition to those already being caused by the effects of climate change.
In the opening to her talk, Ms Eegeesiak contrasted our meeting – which we believe was the first time Arctic indigenous peoples have been invited to speak in the British Parliament – with a past encounter between Inuit and the English. In 1576, Martin Frobisher during a failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage, made first contact with Inuit of Baffin Island in the northeast of modern-day Canada. Initially cordial relations quickly turned sour after five English sailors went missing. Frobisher believed (mistakenly) that they had been killed by Inuit and responded by kidnapping an Inuit man who was subsequently taken back to London as proof that people live in the Arctic.
Today, Arctic indigenous peoples see their relationship with the UK very differently, not least because they are glad that the UK recognises that understanding the causes and consequences of climate change in the Arctic is a scientific challenge of utmost urgency. They also welcome the fact that the UK has been an observer to the Arctic Council since it was established in 1996.
With regards to relations with Arctic indigenous peoples, the UK is in a difficult position. These are, after all, citizens of other states and that creates potential tensions in terms of direct negotiations. Yet as our speakers argued, if the UK is to grasp fully the climatic changes unfolding in the Arctic then it needs to do more to connect British-based scientists with those people who live in closest contact with the Arctic environment. And as Ms Staffansson pointed out, it could well be that the UK and others have much to learn from Arctic indigenous peoples about resilience in a changing climate.
As well as science, Tanya Steele, in her closing comments, reminded us that the UK is also in a privileged position to shape outcomes in the Arctic as a result of the City of London’s importance to the global economy. For example, standards for sustainable development devised and implemented in London could make a substantial difference to the kinds of development projects that are financed in the Arctic, and it is this kind of activity that could help to ensure that whatever development takes place in the Arctic is inclusive of the interests, rights and voices of Arctic indigenous peoples.