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Polar Times

The Arctic – a new victim of global development?

The vision of the Arctic before the global community is a contradictory one. While on the one hand it is seen as the last frontier – a limitless, rich environment that can be exploited for commercial gains – it is also seen as an unspoiled area of pristine beauty, which can and should be preserved in all its glory.
By Svein Tveitdal

The Arctic is both rich and extremely vulnerable – rich in natural resources such as timber, oil, gas, minerals and fish. Vulnerable since these resources are getting increasingly attractive to industry, consumers and decision makers located far beyond the Arctic.

Resource exploitation is already creating environmental hot spots in the Arctic as it faces reduction of its wilderness area by 50 percent over the next fifty years if strong action is not taken to protect it. Global climate change warms this region at a rate twice the world average, melting sea ice, interrupting the food chain, and threatening wildlife on which some indigenous populations depend on for food, medicine, and clothing. Long distance air pollution emanating from main industrial areas of the world is poisoning the entire food chain from micro-organisms to human beings.

The Arctic’s indigenous peoples that have lived in harmony with the Arctic nature for thousands of years are now seeing their existence threatened by global development, even bringing some groups to the brink of extinction. It is important to remember that these Arctic peoples are not the causes of the environmental deterioration – the major The Arctic – a new victimof global development?impacts are coming from activities beyond their direct control and from regions far removed from their home.

Nature might however strike back. The threat to the Arctic is also a threat to the global environment and the well being of everyone on the planet. Arctic climate change and melting of permafrost accelerates global warming. Reduction of species and wilderness contributes significantly to a reduction in global biodiversity. Over-fishing puts the global catch at stake.

Do special conditions exist for a different kind of sustainable development of the Arctic region? Will Arctic development become just a component of the development process that has characterized the rest of the world? Will traditional Arctic societies and cultures be taken as a basis for sustainable development in the region? Will an alternative model of development specific to this region emerge?

I know answers to these questions are not easy. They challenge the very basis of the current process of globalisation. After all, it must not be forgotten that the Arctic region has over the years become a well-integrated part of the international political and economic reindeersystem. Can the Arctic region develop the means to escape the depletion of its natural resources that form the basis of our current developmental model?

UNEP welcomes the initiatives and efforts made by the Arctic Council in assessing the state of the Arctic environment and making recommendations to policy makers on its conservation. We also welcome similar efforts made by parliamentarians, indigenous peoples and the scientific community of the region through the University of the Arctic.

UNEP is also pleased that through enhanced environmental awareness, action is being taken by the Arctic governments and stakeholders to protect the Arctic environment. Clearly, sustainable development of the Arctic is an emerging challenge that only can be achieved through global cooperation and action.
UNEP, with its key polar centre GRID-Arendal, is dedicated to placing the sustainable development of the Arctic on the global agenda. Amongst our main priorities are the Arctic environment and a sustainable future for the Arctic indigenous peoples. Their survival and future well-being will be the best indicator of sustainable development of this rich but vulnerable region of the world.

This increased awareness and the willingness of the partners to work together for the Arctic will be on the global agenda both at the Special Session of UNEP’ Global Ministerial Environment Forum in March next year in the Republic of Korea as well as that of the Commission of Sustainable Development meeting in New York in April 2004.

SVEIN TVEITDAL is the Director of the Division of Environmental Policy Implementation (DEPI) and Officer-in-Charge of the Division of Environmental Conventions (DEC) in UNEP. Previously he served as Managing Director for GRID-Arendal.