The Arctic is home to many indigenous peoples, including reindeer herders, hunters, fishermen and nomads. They all share one common feature: their dependency on a healthy environment to support their livelihoods and chosen ways of life. These ways of life include intimate relationships with land and sea. Caribou, reindeer, fish and sea mammals play a vital role not only for Arctic peoples, but also for the planet’s northernmost ecosystems.
Coastal areas are particularly important to Arctic peoples and ecosystems. Caribou and reindeer often travel to the coastal regions for their calving grounds and summer ranges. Many species, such as polar bears and shore birds, breed on land but spend most of their lives and find most of their food at sea or in the drift ice. Accordingly, indigenous peoples have inhabited these resource-rich locations for centuries and even millennia. Today, more than 80% of all Arctic settlements are located along coasts. These coastal areas are also of global significance. Migratory birds from nearly all parts of the planet travel to the Arctic wetlands and coasts to breed. While more than 71% of coasts worldwide are now impacted by development and their coastal-marine areas exposed to industrialized fisheries, the equivalent figure in the Arctic is still less than 7%. By 2050, more than 90% of the world’s non-Arctic coasts may be affected by development and exploitation. Hence, the Arctic appears to hold the last of the world’s remaining large, undeveloped coastal ecosystems, a unique global ecological heritage.
However, in spite of their unique global and Arctic significance, only about one percent of such continuous areas are protected. In fact, marine protected areas are severely under-represented in the Arctic. While some coasts are protected, the protection does not extend to the marine areas upon which the coastal people and wildlife depend. At the same time, these areas are facing serious threats. Development related to the infrastructure of roads, pipelines, power-lines and hydro-power dams has increased dramatically in the past decades in northern Scandinavia, Russia, northwestern Canada and Alaska. Furthermore, global climate change is resulting in the recession of sea ice and hence increased access to resource exploration and to intensive coastal fisheries. The melting sea and land ice will inevitably cause sea level rise and could also affect currents, with major global implications. Arctic wildlife and plants are facing the cumulative impacts of these pressures and additional pressures from invasive species and pollutants.
Potential impacts on indigenous peoples include increased competition for traditional rights, introduction of pollution and toxins into primary food sources, and introduction of alcohol, drugs and diseases through the social changes that come with industrialization. In addition, they are threatened by increased risks from climate change, such as changes in weather patterns and sea ice. The latter constitutes a considerable risk factor for hunters in the pack ice. A further major threat is the potential loss of game species and the subsequent loss of chosen lifestyles associated with the use of natural resources, in particular, along the coast. Positive opportunities for indigenous peoples in the modern world include improved economic opportunities and employment, and improved access to social services, communication and education.
While the coming into force of the Kyoto protocol is an important step forward, climate change is already impacting the Arctic environment. There are, however, opportunities to help increase the resilience of Arctic ecosystems and people. This can be done by reducing the number and extent of other pressures through development of a stronger network of protected areas and, particularly, through protection of coastal and marine areas against industrialized, often southern-based exploitation. This, in turn, may facilitate sustainable development while protecting the crucial traditional food sources and healthy ecosystems so important to Arctic indigenous peoples. Co-management and close collaboration with indigenous peoples is essential in order to allow them to choose their own way of life and influence the future of the resources that they rely upon. The current lack of protected coastal-marine areas in the Arctic, their global and Arctic significance, and the emerging and hard-to-reverse threats specific to these areas, call for particular concern and attention.