Op-ed: Arctic During the War: Less Indigenous Visibility and Less Climate Concerns

Arctic Frontiers 2022.
President of the Saami Council, Christina Henriksen, spoke at Arctic Frontiers 2022. (Photo: Trine Jonassen)

The opinions expressed here belongs to the author and do not represent the views of High North News.

The concerns about the climate change and issues of indigenous peoples remained at a low level for four days, between 8 and 11 May of 2022 during the Arctic Frontiers Conference that took place in Tromsø.

Russia’s war on Ukraine brought the question to mind: How would this war affect the Arctic cooperation? 7 days after the beginning of the war, the Arctic Council was suspended. As the main mechanism that works on environmental protection and gives a chance to promote indigenous rights, stopped its functions we are entitled to be worried about the future of the region.

One might have noticed explicitly the change in discourse from climate change and indigenous rights to the security dimension and green investments during one of the most important events of the region, which brings the Arctic world together.

Compared to the last years, an explicit shift to security discourse was attention grabbing during the plenary sessions where the state officials take the floor. The war, the cooperation between the Arctic 7 states in the given situation, the NATO candidacies of Finland and Sweden, dominated the general discourse during the entire conference.

The discourse of the officials and decision makers is important since they are behind the wheel of the fate of coming days. High level of attention was also given during the several panels of the conference, to green transition as a growing industry in the region.

Green investments will become even more important to rule out Russian oil and gas.

We may say that “climate change” took us to the “green transition” as a new political and economic concept in the era of the Anthropocene. It seems that green investments will become even more important to rule out Russian oil and gas.

However, this transition at some extend has a negative effect on the indigenous communities of the region in terms of land, culture and societal. Arctic states are very interested in green transition and the region is experiencing a great wave of green investors.

All these investments will make the Northern part of the European Arctic States attractive for industry and for employment. However, during the talks, we did not hear about the effects of green industry on the indigenous areas. Obviously green transition endeavours are welcomed with a great interest in the Arctic as discussed during the plenary and side events in Tromsø.

But what is forgotten is the fact that the “green colonialism” - of which nobody spoke -  begun at the end of the 19th century.

For example, infrastructure projects such as wind farms pose a huge problem for Sami people in terms of reducing reindeer herding areas. On the other hand, to produce wind turbines, metals are needed for their production which will create the need of mining. Of course, mining activities affect the environment very negatively because of the air pollution and soil poisoning.

Oslo goes ahead with the mining and wind energy plans in the Sami area.

As another green industry, forestry activities in Sweden and Finland have also correlated with “green colonialism” since the forestry companies belong to the states and the need for forrest products to replace plastic products requires to exploit the forests and the lands where Sami people live.

The Sami has only rights to use their lands as given the fact that they are not accorded land rights under the protection of ILO 169th article, which Finland and Sweden have not ratified. On the contrary, Norway ratified the ILO 169th article. However Oslo goes ahead with the mining and wind energy plans in the Sami area.

In 2021, Norwegian Supreme court found the licence of the wind parks of at Fosen invalid due to harming the reindeer herding areas in breach of the article 27 of ICCPR, wich guarantees the cultural practices of indigenous peoples. However, the fate of the wind turbines is vague and still present in the area.

When we reconsider the green transition versus green colonialism in the context of region’s leading event in the war time, we see the necessity of visibility of indigenous peoples during all those sessions. However, we witnessed the lack of this discussion and lack of room for indigenous peoples to express their problems with those industries.

At this extend, the EU has also a very important responsibility as an effective governance mechanism for European Arctic States, especially in the absence of Arctic Council’s work.

There were no concrete talk about the sanctions.

What happened in Tromsø stayed in Tromsø?

The Arctic Frontiers Conference is a major meeting, not a boutique event. That is why it is expected to be more comprehensive.

Some of the reflections on the 2022 Arctic Frontiers just after the Covid break might be summarized as the concerns about the sanctioning science in terms of western sanctions towards Russia, pausing collaboration related to climate and the ascertainment of the diminishing voice of indigenous peoples.

As expected, decision makers and Arctic officials think that the circumpolar cooperation without Russia is not meaningful. However, there were no concrete talk about the sanctions, at least for the continuity of working groups.

In todays given political entailments, the states seem to continue sanctions. In contrast with sanctions, pausing the climate and environmental related cooperation gives a rise to the question of environmental ethics.

The climate change phenomena gave the Arctic Council an international visibility since the work of the Council on environment and climate change created a global interest. However, the pause of the work of the Council and scientific projects might affect not only the political relations but also the environment, biodiversity, and the collaboration with indigenous communities.

The Arctic Council must survive and prevail.

Arctic Council has been - even symbolically - very important although it suffers from the lack of a legal body. That is why as the US Coordinator for the Arctic Region James DeHart declared that the efforts must continue under the roof of the Arctic Council instead of having a new one between 7 Arctic states.

Because, the Arctic Council does not only have Arctic nation states, but also indigenous groups as permanent members and other institutions and countries as observant states. Therefore, the configuration of a new and effective governance mechanism does not look feasible in the short term in order to continue the cooperation.

In todays context, the platforms like Arctic Frontiers gain double importance as a venue of dialogue in which to make the essential priorities sustain perpetually.

The Arctic Council must survive and prevail with its climate change emphasis and high level of indigenous representation as it used to be.

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