The rapid melting of the Arctic sea ice has rejuvenated interests in the region, ranging from oil and gas and mineral exploration to the possibility of shorter sea routes and increased tourism. But all this poses fresh challenges to the survival of the Inuit and other indigenous people who live there.

While some speakers at The Arctic Summit held by The Economist on March 12 seemed to favour the line that the local people needed money just as anyone else and would welcome the chance to blow it up on fast cars and gizmos, a more studied view was put forth by Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, who was quite firm that “We don’t want the fate of the North American indigenous people.”

The council represents about 1,60,000 Inuits living in the Arctic region.

Mr. Lynge told The Hindu, “We are in the middle of a changing situation and we have to establish our economies. There is a new mood among the young in the Arctic region and they want better living conditions.” Living in harsh biting cold conditions, they could certainly do with lots of improvement. Many small villages have no transport or access. Yet Mr. Lynge pointed out that the Arctic people knew that if you destroyed nature, it would destroy your way of life. It would hurt if mining in Alaska would lead to influx of labour.

Mr. Lynge appealed to India, which is aspiring for a place on the Arctic Council, to consider the plight of the 60,000 Inuits in Greenland who live in darkness and ice every October to June, before embarking on commercial interests in the region. ‘In the High Arctic, especially in Greenland, they don’t see the Sun from November 17 to February 24,’ he said. “Those people can only survive because of the snow and ice and the light from the moon. That’s extreme survival and the Russian indigenous people live off reindeer herding — it’s the Arctic way of life. But we also need doctors and dentists and now there is the strong influence of TV,” he said.

Change in ecological balance

Describing the soul of the Arctic as unique and strong, he said development did not mean everyone aspired to be billionaires. “It’s important for the world to realise we also need to survive,” he said. The Arctic Council was a means of international cooperation and the only instrument which could set international standards on navigation, and oil drilling and the eight Arctic nations were working closely together. Of the over four million people living in the region, some 700,000 to 800,000 were indigenous people. With climate change, traditional means of livelihood were being hit. “There are new fish species in abundance but they are not ready to be used in the fishing industry,” he said. “The market for marine mammals has collapsed and now certain groups are not allowing us to sell seal skin,” he lamented.

The ecological balance of the Arctic was also changing rapidly and the Inuits were confronting new realities. They were spread over Greenland, Canada and Far East Russia, where there were 21 different Arctic nations.

Mining issue

The recent elections in Greenland had as one if its major issues — the question of allowing mining— and the Opposition party which came to power favoured mineral exploitation, including that of uranium. The Inuit people owned their land in Greenland, Mr. Lynge said, but there were some 120 mining leases now. That’s the harsh reality, he noted.

Others too sounded a cautionary note against exploiting the Arctic. Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor of Physics of the Oceans at Potsdam University was not in favour of drilling for fossil fuel in the Arctic while mineral extraction could be decided on a case-by-case basis. Frederic Hauge, president of the Bellona Foundation said changes in the Arctic region were seen long before science reported them. The ecology was already rapidly changing.

Jan-Gunnar Winther, Director of Norwegian Polar Institute, said: “The rapidity of the changes has taken us by surprise. We have been underestimating the changes.” Increase in shipping, energy, tourism and fishing would be a challenge for the sensitive Arctic ecosystem. “No one will want to see an oil spill. What would be the effects of local emissions from ships, and soot which can increase the ice melt” he asked.