The Arctic Indigenous Peoples – the politics of climate change

Posted by / 30th January 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

The US, by a country mile, has been the world’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gasses, but the cast of the dice has fated the Arctic as the region most severely effected by the resulting climate change. In January the global media buzzed with well warranted concern as a polar vortex wreaked havoc across the US. Dozens of Federal warnings hailed an unprecedented deep freeze posing an economic chill and risk to life. What though of the deeper and more pervasive impact of Arctic climate change on the lifestyles and livelihoods the 400,000 indigenous inhabitants of the polar region?

The UN offers a series of defining criteria for indigenous and tribal people which build on principles of self-identification and of historical continuity with pre-colonial or pre-settler societies. Additionally the criteria include important reference to the special and intimate relationship between indigenous peoples and their environments. This co-existence explains why indigenous culture is especially vulnerable to environmental change.

Given the inhospitable climate, the Arctic is not blessed with a diverse ecosystem – infertile soils, scant rain, hectic winds and short days support only limited and uniform vegetation. In turn, the few inhabiting fauna are relatively specialised and, in general terms abundant. The narrowness of life makes for an ecosystem that is unstable and vulnerable to shocks; explaining why the pace and scale of Arctic climate change is so alarming. In the last few decades Arctic temperatures increased twice as much as global averages. Each aspect of change presents as particular threats to particular species. For example, melting sea ice on which polar bears and walruses are dependent, is driving dramatic declines in their populations. However specific threats have general impact, given high levels of Arctic interdependence, spreading troubles like tumbling dominos through the ecosystem and beyond. Shifts in the region’s climate and ecology question the prospect of sustaining indigenous culture including livelihoods.

Indigenous peoples make up around 10% of the population of the Arctic. Comprising many – historically, economically and culturally – distinct populations. In Russia there are numerous indigenous groups including the Saami, Evenk, and Chucki. Alaska is home to the Inupiat, Yup’ik and Aleut. With Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic and in Greenland. This differentiation suggests no single, monochrome impact will arise from a changing climate. No one outcome, no predictable course that can be planned for in neat documents authored from the capitals of the Arctic states. Impacts crisscross traditional livelihoods; the mainstream economy; physical infrastructure; cultural and social organisation; and health. Nothing is untouched as ice melts; waters rise and warm; snow, wind, rain and storm conditions change or intensify, temperature variations exaggerate; coast lines erode; and permafrost melts. Whether herding reindeer, hunting seal, fishing in Arctic waters, foraging for forest berries or selling skills and labour in the formal economy all bets are off.

Take a single example of ringed seal hunting. Since seals are dependent on pack ice -playing an important habitat for rearing pups – their populations are in decline and moving. Hunters need to travel further distances, for longer, in more dangerous, less predictable weather. Carrying more supplies and equipment over ice that is less secure and in a landscape that is increasingly unidentifiable by traditional landmarks. Dog-pulled sleighs have to be exchanged for snowmobiles – expensive to buy and maintain and, unlike Huskies, not equipped with a natural ability to detect thin ice. Traditional methods for drying and storing meat are now less dependable.

It is however disingenuous only to stress negative impacts, however deep and far reaching they may seem. There are plenty of positives too that can be offered; increases in some caribou herds, fish species migrating to warming Northern waters to name a couple. Also there is the question of perception, whose opinion determines whether change is good or bad? Climate change opens doors to large-scale economic multi-sectoral growth. Opportunities in oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction, shipping, fishing, forestry, tourism and public administration. It is for Arctic people, expressing their pluralism, to weigh up prospects for jobs, income and portable skills against risks of pollution, land grab, economic exploitation, urbanisation and traditional decline.

Economic and cultural transition is not new to the Arctic, it is the increasing rate of change that makes the eyes water. Seasonal variation of the climate is part of Arctic life and has always required adaptability. Arctic peoples have needed to vary diet, place and type of settlement, hunting, gathering and herding patterns. Historically variable weather patterns however need to be anchored in the broader context of change arising from interaction with and the influence of non-indigenous populations. From at least the beginning of the 20th Century state policies have impinged on indigenous ways of life. New foods and lifestyles,  diseases, technology; increasing integration with the national and global economy, and policy directives relating to land rights, settlements and education. These have led to shifts in family structure – away from multi-generational groups, declines in the use of indigenous languages, population concentration and permanent settlement based on private not communal ownership.

The word poverty was absent from the Arctic indigenous lexicon, as it had been possible, until relatively recently, for people to live sustainably from solely traditional livelihoods. For indigenous peoples now, a mixed (traditional and mainstream) economy is the norm with few to able live off the mainstream economy alone and vice versa. This illustrates the risk that people will go hungry where the rate of decline in traditional livelihoods is not perfectly matched by growth in new forms of employment. The timing and nature of the on-going transition from a traditional to mainstream economy and the willingness to accept this will determine whether humanitarian-scale disaster – population displacement as opposed to opted mobility, and forced abandonment of indigenous culture as opposed to willing cultural change – will occur.

The choice implied here is a political project and not one that Arctic people are blind too. Campaigning and advocacy by vocal indigenous elites has been met part of the way by the democratic processes of Arctic states – the seven Arctic states with indigenous peoples are all democracies, long-standing except in the case of Russia.

This political discourse has delivered some impressive gains towards increasing political empowerment of indigenous peoples. The range and depth of these gains varies as much as the local political environments vary for different indigenous groups. The Inuit majority in Greenland looks to independence from Denmark and have secured significant political autonomy propped up by financial subsidies from Copenhagen. Various models for decentralised self-government or increasing political voice within existing systems have been adopted – for example, the sitting of Saami Parliaments across the Scandinavian Arctic and the establishment of Nunavut as new Canadian territory in 1999. Russia is further behind, with indigenous civil society structures only really developing in the post-communist period to challenge population concentration policies and expropriation of traditional lands for industrial projects. At an international level, the indigenous peoples’ agenda has been strengthened through participation in the Arctic Council and through the establishment of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

In parallel to the political project comes a struggle for recognition of human rights – in this context both individual rights and the more illusive collective rights, such as a right to dispose of natural resources. Article 14 of the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169 considers land rights of indigenous peoples, but only 20 countries have ratified this and of the Arctic states only Denmark and Norway. Additionally, the Human Rights Committee established Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This creates an obligation on Arctic states to protect the identity of minorities and their traditional ways of life and livelihoods. Finally, although not binding, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reinforces collective, individual and political rights promoting ‘full and effective participation in all matters that concern them and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development’

Land ownership as well as mineral, fishing and grazing rights hold a key to the future. Greater progress here would strengthen the hand of indigenous minorities providing real currency to negotiate with governments or with transnational corporations hoping to negotiate mining concerns in lieu of deals for the use of local labour, suppliers contracts, infrastructure and social development programmes. Progress here is also differentiated, Norway, living up to the ILO convention, has created a complicated system to recognise Saami rights to land and water, but this is the exception not the rule.

The writing is on the wall for climate change. Successive failures of the international community to rise above the platitudes of Kyoto and produce a binding low-carbon future is testament to this. The resilience of Arctic peoples is well documented, but can they withstand the seismic change that comes? It is tempting, from a Western perspective, to construct a narrative of victim for Arctic indigenous peoples. The reflex is to then ask what can we do, putting aside good intention, this is ultimately the wrong question. If the future for Arctic people is built on the ashes of traditional culture and livelihoods -a new sedentary, urbanised lifestyle grown on an integrated economy of civil servants, oil tycoons, construction workers or holiday reps – it is for the Arctic people to embrace it, reject it, or re-imagine it.



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About the author
Rory Robertshaw is a core team member at ReSeT. He specialises in education, international development and project management.

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