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Why the Arctic matters

Several years ago, scientists studying the effects of toxic chemicals found in the blood of people from heavily industrialized areas decided that they needed to compare these people with another group who would not have such chemicals in their blood. They went to the Arctic, thinking that would be the least likely place to find toxic chemicals. By John Crump

However, when the scientists examined blood taken from the Arctic people they were surprised by the high levels of toxins they found. Research from Arctic countries soon showed that far from being the clean, unpolluted land of everybody’s imagination, the Arctic was in danger of becoming one of the more polluted spots on earth. Air and water currents carry the chemicals to the Arctic. Once there, they tend to stay. They are taken up by Arctic plants and animals and ending up in the bodies of indigenous peoples who rely on local foods.

Saami are seeing their reindeer grazing pastures change, Inuit are watching polar bears waste away because of a lack of sea ice, and peoples across the Arctic are reporting new species

Survival or store foods
For Arctic indigenous peoples, contaminants are an issue of survival. Most people still rely on the land for a large portion of their nutritional intake. If they can not eat locally available food – seal, walrus, fish, polar bear – there will be direct health consequences. Even with the current contaminant load, in most places it is still better to eat this food than substitute fatty, high calorie but low nutrition store-bought foods. Study after study has confirmed the benefits to human health of wild food. And for Arctic indigenous peoples, eating local food is tied to their identity and value systems

Arctic indigenous peoples used the information from these studies on toxins to lobby for international negotiations. Their influence was important in two international environmental treaties – the Aarhus Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which was signed in Denmark in 1998 and came into force earlier this year, and the Stockholm POPs Convention, signed in 2001.
Through these negotiations, indigenous peoples from around the Arctic formed an effective coalition that raised awareness, lobbied delegates and Why the Arctic mattersgovernments, and conducted an effective media campaign. As a result, the Stockholm Convention is the first such agreement that specifically mentions the Arctic and its indigenous peoples. The Chair of the Stockholm negotiations, John Buccini, described the role of the indigenous peoples as “putting a human face on what many people considered a scientific or abstract issue.”

Climate change in the Arctic
Now, indigenous peoples are bringing their concerns, perspectives and influence to bear on an even larger issue:climate change. Evidence of climate change is being seen and felt in the Arctic right now. Saami are seeing their reindeer grazing pastures change, Inuit are watching polar bears waste away because of a lack of sea ice, and peoples across the Arctic are reporting new species, particularly insects. Some communities have to sandbag their shorelines to try to slow down an increase in coastal erosion, while in others buildings, pipes, and roads are slumping because the permafrost is thawing. Vital travel routes linking communities to each other and to harvesting sites are becoming dangerously unpredictable.

All Arctic climate information in one place
These observations are informing the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), a project of the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). The ACIA will be submitted, along with a plain language summary and policy recommendations, to the Foreign Ministers of the eight Arctic Council nations at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Iceland in September 2004.
The assessment is an attempt to gather all of the information on climate change in the Arctic and to predict future changes. It will also recommend steps to governments and northern peoples that could be taken to reduce the amount of change, and the negative impacts of that change. The original direction from the eight Arctic Council states was to consider the environmental, social, economic and cultural implications of climate change. This means indigenous peoples have a key role in this process.
This is one of the first attempts to incorporate indigenous knowledge and perspectives on a regional basis. This partnership lays the foundation for future
collaboration and sets a benchmark against which all other Arctic Council projects will be measured.

Indigenous peoples help with assessment
Having indigenous peoples intimately involved with the collection of data, producing the assessment, and drafting policy recommendations is important. It brings to the debate some important allies. Arctic indigenous peoples are likely to be in the forefront of any international campaign to raise awareness about the assessment, its results, and its recommendations.
Needless to say, part of this campaign will be designed to put pressure on the very governments that instituted the study – to get them to take the lead in negotiating new international agreements.
Having indigenous peoples speaking about the assessment and the recommendations will be important to their marketability. Indigenous peoples are participating with country representatives in developing these recommendations, and this will lend them greater weight and acceptability. Their voices will reinforce the message that the Arctic is an indicator region for global environmental health.

JOHN CRUMP is Executive Secretary of the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat in Copenhagen. The views expressed in this article are personal.