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Chapter Two: The State of the Environment - The Arctic

Social and economic background

The Arctic is rich in natural resources. For several millennia, it has been home to people hunting off the land and ocean. The Inuit have lived and travelled throughout the Arctic for more than 5 000 years (Lynge 1993). Non-indigenous interest in the Arctic began in the 1500s with the search for shorter and faster shipping routes through the northeast and northwest passages. Although disputed by some, it is believed that the the American Robert Peary was the first non-indigenous person to reach the North Pole, in 1909.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War dominated the region. By the late 1970s, the Arctic Ocean was one of the major regions in the conflict between the superpowers. Security concerns dominated. Economic activities also had their geo-strategic component in oil, gas and mineral exploration and exploitation. In the late 1980s, the Cold War came to an end and a new openness and cooperation began (CIA 1978, Samson 1997).

 Indigenous populations in the Arctic

(Click image to enlarge)

Source: AMAP 1998

Total and indigenous populations in the Arctic. Some 3.5 million people now inhabit the region

Large numbers of immigrants have moved into the north. This has taken place over thousands of years in the European and Russian Arctic but only over the past 100 years in the North American Arctic, (Dallmann 1997, Samson 1997). There are now approximately 3.5 million people in the Arctic, with the indigenous population ranging from 80 per cent in Greenland to 15 per cent in Arctic Norway and as little as 3-4 per cent in Arctic Russia (AMAP 1998). The region is generally sparsely populated with large distances between population centres. Settlements range from a few large, industrialized cities to small nomadic communities following a traditional lifestyle. The extremes have different relationships with the environment, demonstrated by strong contrasts between their impacts on, and how they are affected by, the environment. Increasing activity in forestry, mineral resource extraction and tourism contribute significantly to the incomes of northern residents.

On a political level, the end to the Cold War brought a thaw in international relations which has had a profound effect on the Arctic (Østreng 1997). The region has emerged as an area of environmental cooperation involving all Arctic nations (see Chapter 3).

Sub-regional trends are important for the future. Alaska is rich in natural resources and the economic pressures to develop these resources put pressures on the environment. Oil and gas production is a large concern, with work in the Prudhoe Bay oil field being the most significant. The extension of this production area east into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is being debated at the highest political level with much pressure from local groups concerned with indigenous peoples issues and conserving the environment. The outcome will have major consequences for the local and national economy, the livelihood of local people, and local flora and fauna.

 Self-governance by Arctic indigenous peoples

Most indigenous peoples favour a move to self-governance. The current level of self-governance varies. Greenland, with its Home Rule Government, the formation of the new territory of Nunavut in Canada and the Norwegian Saami Parliament are the most advanced examples. In the Russian Federation, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Far East and Siberia is working to link 30 indigenous minority groups and present a united voice to official, Moscow-led, governance. NGOs are connecting indigenous peoples across national boundaries. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference and the Saami Council are prime examples. The Arctic Council, the inter-governmental process towards sustainable development in the Arctic, has established an Indigenous Peoples Secretariat to support and coordinate the activities of the indigenous permanent participants to the process.

Source: AMAP 1997


A significant issue affecting northern Canada is the April 1999 creation of the new territory of Nunavut, which means 'our land' in the Inuit language. This new territory includes the central and eastern portions of the existing Northwest Territories which are traditional lands of the Inuit, who comprise 80 per cent of the population in the region. The creation of Nunavut, with its new government, will give residents control over their education, health, social and other services.

There has also been a move towards regionalism and away from central 'southern' government rule in Fennoscandia. The Barents Council was created in 1993 and given wide powers. A Saami Parliament has been created in Norway.

A major new trend in Greenland is the exploration for oil and gas. The Norwegian oil company Statoil is beginning exploration on the west coast of Greenland. The local Home Rule Government exercises control over mineral and petroleum activities. However, the extent to which these resources are exploited will have a significant impact on both the environment and the local economy.

The Russian economy has been in a state of transition since the late 1980s, with the northern areas particularly affected. Environmental conditions in the Russian Arctic are of concern. The greatest potential threats from radioactive contamination stem primarily from Russian sources. Accidental releases from power plants, stored nuclear waste and poorly maintained military facilities pose the worst threats. The Russian Federation also has large potential oil and gas reserves, particularly in the Barents Sea Region. The exploitation of these resources will be mainly driven by economic factors. The involvement of non-Russian companies is expected to increase once confidence grows in the political stability of the country but these activities will also increase the threat from accidental releases, particularly from pipelines and shipping transport.

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