Last week I heard two completely different views of the same thing. One came from a top Swedish government official at a seminar on board the Greenpeace flag ship Rainbow Warrior dedicated to drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic.  

The second view was voiced  by an old Nenets woman from the Yamal peninsula at the very top or Russian mainland, an area which over past few decades has become one of the most actively developing gas fields in the world.

Nenetskvinnor på Yamal-halvön Lena Ek - miljöminister
Nenets reindeer herders of the Yamal peninsula, whose traditional lifestyle is threatened by encroachment of oil and gas production in the Arctic.  Lena Ek - Swedish Environment minister

At the seminar in the balmy November Stockholm, the Swedish minister of the environment Lena  Ek defended the Swedish ambassador to the Arctic Council Gustaf Lind.   As befits a top diplomat, Gustaf had to find a polite way to explain to the Greenpeace campaigner and to the leader of the Swedish Greens  why the government of Sweden, who holds the Arctic Council presidency at the moment, is not actively using this opportunity to fight against opening up the Arctic to the oil and gas industry that increasingly sees the (formerly) frozen and (relatively) untouched North as  nothing more than a resource base.  Despite the increasing urgency of the climate crisis that is nowhere more visible then in the Arctic, despite the horrendous record of oil spills and environmental contamination in the Arctic oil fields, the Swedish presidency continues to accept the development of the hydrocarbons fields in the North.

Right, not much can be said in moral defense of this.  But face must be saved, and Lena Ek tried by rolling out the “poor people up there” argument.  “It’s important to take responsibility for the people (of the Arctic)”, she said. “The people there should have a decent life”.

Maybe she should listen to what the “people up there” consider to be a decent life.  The Swedish Minister’s namesake Lena Sarteto,  a Nenets grandmother interviewed by the Russian journalist seems to think that the life before the “development “ was a hell of a lot better. Lena does not think that being forced away into towns from the traditional habitation areas in order to open up new gas fields underneath the tundra is “decent”. She doesn’t seem to think that the traditional reindeer migration paths getting broken up by roads and pipelines is decent. The children being taken away to boarding schools in towns, part of a conscious effort to urbanize the Nenets – I don’t believe she thinks its decent.  And the land itself getting destroyed – Lena doesn’t seem to find much decency in that. She says to the journalist:

“The fish tastes dead; we feel sick after drinking water out of the lakes; our reindeers get stuck in wire loops or trip over pipes, break their legs and die,” 

No she doesn’t seem too excited about the prospect of development that oil and gas production brings to the “people up there”.  The journalist ends her story by an image of Lena praying to an animist idol ““Let Gazprom leave soon, and Yamal become only ours again.”

So Lena Ek. Please. You may think that Sweden should not take a firm position against oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. You may think it’s too uncomfortable diplomatically. You may think it would be bad for the price of petrol. You may think that it would mean a loss of opportunities for Swedish businessmen. But for the sake of decency, don’t pretend that it’s best for the people of the Arctic. The other Lena, the one living in Yamal, does not agree.

Dimitri Litvinov

Chairman of the Board

Greenpeace Russia