A Foreign Policy Association blogpost last month points out one of the great ironies of Arctic environmental activism: the fact that all too often, environmentalists seek justice for the environment and animals like polar bears while Inuit and other indigenous peoples living in the Arctic are left out of the conversation. “Polar bears need icebergs and beluga whales need oceans free of sonar waves, to be sure,” the post’s author observes, but “people also need affordable food and warm homes – topics less news-friendly, but just as critical, to the future of the Arctic.”
Just last week Nunatsiaq News published two articles highlighting Nunavik’s severe health disparities and the staggering level of food insecurity in Nunavut. The data published in these studies and in others I’ve highlighted elsewhere in this blog paint a pretty grim picture of life in many Inuit communities, including in Alaska.
As rapid climate change ushers in an accelerating Arctic resource rush, these and other issues beg the question: will off-shore oil extraction and other “development” result in meaningful benefits to Inuit and other Arctic indigenous communities?
Indigenous peoples have always been told that we will benefit from resource extraction on our homelands, but our communities have generally received pennies on the dollar while more systemic challenges such as language shift, violence and suicide have continued unabated.
The financial success of multi-billion dollar Iñupiat-owned for profit corporations such as the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and NANA Regional Corporation has also not necessarily translated into action on issues such as household violence, child sexual abuse and educational attainment.
Inuit communities need jobs, education and money, but large-scale resource extraction hasn’t been and won’t be a panacea to these and other issues without forward-thinking leadership.
In May 2013, Greenpeace organized an indigenous peoples conference ahead of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden. The result was “The Joint Statement of Indigenous Solidarity for Arctic Protection,”calling for, among other things, a ban on all offshore oil extraction. The response to the Statement and Greenpeace’s incursion into indigenous affairs has been thought provoking.
Inuit organizations such as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Council have been vocal in their condemnation of Greenpeace, which they see as hijacking the indigenous voice to advance their own interests.
Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska president Jimmy Stotts warned that Greenpeace’s actions signify a “new wave of colonialism” and called Greenpeace’s incursion into indigenous affairs paternalistic. “Moratoriums and sanctuaries that would lock up our homeland goes against what we have been striving to obtain for our people,” Stotts wrote in ICC’s most recent newsletter. “If there are to be moratoriums or sanctuaries they must be on our terms.”
Yet perhaps more paternalistic than Greenpeace’s move into indigenous affairs is a message from another Inuk, Canada’s Minister for Environment Leona Aglukkaq. Aglukkaq is from Nunavut and chairs the Arctic Council, and is promoting accelerated resource development in the North.
“The North is open for business. There are massive opportunities North of 60, in everything from natural resources to the service industry,” Aglukkaq stated in a June speech in Ottawa. There is an “untapped work force that, with targeted training, want to make a living an invest in local communities, because this is their home,” she continued.
Aglukkaq is a member of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. Under Harper’s leadership, Canada has experienced some of the most destructive environmental policies in modern Canadian history and seen the largest mobilization of indigenous peoples against a government ever through the Idle No More movement that swept North America. It is therefore disconcerting that the Harper government’s laissez faire approach to natural resource extraction is being promoted within the Arctic Council by Aglukkaq, who infamously rejected UN findings on indigenous food insecurity and threw her own people under the bus.
So what does this all mean?
It means that Inuit and other Arctic indigenous peoples find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place as we seek to balance the seemingly unstoppable forces of capitalism and multinational corporate greed pressing in on the one hand, with the needs of our people. These needs include things like housing, food security, educational attainment and job creation, as well as more complex needs such as spiritual and psychological healing from historical trauma, effective suicide prevention interventions, child sexual abuse prevention, and resources for survivors of sexual assault and household violence.
It is these human needs and human resource development that must be placed at the forefront of the Arctic resource rush, because meeting these needs is elemental to the future health and well-being of our people. Doing so requires being realistic about the degree to which resource extraction has helped Inuit realize our international human rights so far, and what needs to be on the table in order to ensure that the Arctic resource rush can be leveraged in the interest of meeting these basic needs in the future.
The “sustainable development” favored by ICC and other Inuit organizations will be futile unless the result is, in part, an equal investment in the human resource development of Inuit families and communities.