Peoples' Arctic Conference

I’m here in a city called Kiruna in the northern part of Sweden, just inside the Arctic Circle. It is a small city with less than 20,000 inhabitants and in the foggy scenery, one thing stands out: The worlds’ largest underground iron mine, which can be seen from anywhere in the city.

From where I sit, I can see the iron mine to the left, and wind turbines a few kilometres to its right. It’s a strange dichotomy, and yet so appropriate — a fitting reminder that the Arctic is at a crossroads.

Today, Kiruna is playing host to the Arctic Council, where foreign ministers from the eight Arctic states and the six permanent participants — representing the Arctic Indigenous Peoples — are about to meet to discuss the future of the Arctic. The foreign ministers are largely bound by their pro-development agenda. But not everyone in the room shares their vision.

In fact just yesterday, we wrapped up a conference here, in the very same building where the foreign ministers are now gathering, a pan-Arctic Indigenous Peoples conference called “The Peoples’ Arctic: Unified for a Better Tomorrow.” And in that meeting it became very clear that there is growing Indigenous opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic.

More than 70 people attended the conference, most of them Arctic Indigenous and Inuit, from every Arctic state. Two of the attendees represent organisations that are permanent participants in the Arctic Council. Both of them oppose Arctic drilling.

At the end of the conference, a range of the participants signed onto a declaration, which was drafted by a group of Russian Indigenous Peoples at the first conference of its kind last August. The declaration now has more than 40 signatories — including two of the six permanent participants at the Arctic Council — calling for a ban on offshore oil drilling and for the Arctic states to respect the rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

Their reasons for signing the declaration are many and varied; rather than try to speak for them, you can find their own words inscribed on portraits here.

Many of these people, who have an inherent right to the lands of the Arctic, are experiencing the difficulties caused by a changing Arctic. The event was historical, as the relationship between Greenpeace and the Peoples of the North hasn’t been the best since our mistakes in the sealing campaign back in the eighties. There were lively discussions about the threats that both Indigenous Peoples and the Arctic face, and it is clear that there is a sense of urgency — a need to act.

And all of this happened on the eve of the Arctic Council meeting. 

When these eight foreign ministers gather this morning to meet and greet and sign a greenwashed agreement on oil spill response and claim that they have done all they could — they will do it in the shadow of this conference and these statements. Then they will go back home and continue to allow oil companies to continue their destructive rampage in the fragile Arctic.

But the beacon of hope shines through the voices of those Indigenous Peoples who over the weekend, took a step toward rejecting Arctic oil. Greenpeace is not speaking on behalf of these Peoples, but we are standing shoulder to shoulder with them on this issue to protect the Arctic from destructive oil exploration. The movement is growing, and it is getting more and more difficult for the toothless governments in the Arctic Council to ignore.