We all know the Arctic is melting. What is not clear is whether Indigenous rights are disappearing alongside it. The retreating ice has attracted interest as new shipping routes and fishing areas become more accessible, and the potential for discovering and extracting from natural resource reserves increases. As attention is drawn to economic opportunities, environmentalists are pushing to protect marine ecosystems from further harm. But as these interests converge in the Arctic, the role of Indigenous groups has become muddled and their voices subdued. An open discussion with all stakeholders is required to form sustainable solutions, and the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group of the Arctic Council is designed for that purpose.
A comparison of two recent declarations for protected areas in the Beaufort Sea provides some insight into securing a role for Arctic Indigenous voices in conservation policy. In November 2016, the Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam, which covers nearly 2,396 sq km (925 square miles) of critical habitat for polar bears, beluga whales, Arctic char, seals and various birds just off the coast of the Parry Peninsula, was designated as Canada’s largest marine protected area. The process began in 2009 and gained speed in 2011 when Fisheries and Oceans Canada initiated a discussion with the Indigenous Inuvialuit to collect traditional knowledge of the ecosystem. Last June, a 30-day window for public consultation regarding the proposed designation was initiated. The process established a critical marine protection area and ensured that future economic development would not be hindered by unnecessary restrictions. As Paul Crowley of the World Wildlife Fund-Canada’s Arctic Program stated, “This designation is an example of how governments and communities can work collaboratively, using both science and traditional knowledge to define meaningful boundaries and protections.” Together these sources of knowledge identify the habitats that must be protected in order to both preserve marine species and allow access for subsistence hunting and supply vessels in parts of the region.
Then, in one of his last actions as U.S. president, Barack Obama joined Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in declaring over 2.5 sq km (1 million square miles) in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas permanently off-limits for oil and gas exploration. The move was celebrated by environmentalists, who viewed it as a sign of North American leadership in preserving the Arctic. But while Trudeau and Obama should be credited for introducing a policy to combat climate change, the surprise announcement frustrated stakeholders in both governments, members of the private sector and Indigenous groups. James Stotts, head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), stated in the organization’s December newsletter, “[What] bothers us most is the U.S. hit-or-miss approach in consulting and engaging with us on issues of concern. When it comes to ocean stewardship, the U.S. should have lived up to its stated commitment to engage with us more openly. ICC Alaska was not consulted at all.” Bob McLeod, premier of Canada’s Northern Territories, echoed this view, still fuming in March about the lack of communication from the Canadian federal government before the moratorium was enacted.
Under the terms of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, Trudeau and Obama’s policy would require intense effort to repeal. The act establishes the framework for leasing U.S. coastal waters for oil and gas development and, more importantly, contains a provision that empowers the president to “from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands.” But critics of the policy are quick to highlight the obscurity of the law, and officials in the oil industry have already expressed confidence that President Donald Trump and a Republican-led Congress will roll back the measures—a belief affirmed by Trump’s executive order to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, another pillar of Obama’s climate-change legacy. In the end, the Obama-Trudeau agreement may accomplish little besides stoking tensions in the region and delaying meaningful dialogue on conservation.
The broad-based resistance to the declaration highlights not only the importance of collaboration, but also the role of Indigenous groups, who are rarely given enough attention in international decision making. Intimate Indigenous knowledge of the changing Arctic landscape could help policymakers identify the specific sites that require conservation, rather than halting exploration and development across a wider area. This type of collaboration is particularly relevant to the Arctic Council’s PAME working group and its 2015 declaration for a pan-Arctic network of marine protected areas. The protected areas must be large in size in order to safeguard all the organisms inside an ecosystem, especially given the long distances covered by migratory species. However, the minimum size requirement for a protected area is lower if other conservation areas are nearby, so a protective corridor can be formed to sustain local populations as they move through the water. If the marine protected areas are strategically placed in this type of chain, then marine species have their sanctuaries while maintaining space for economic activity.
PAME has been working toward the goal of combining traditional and scientific knowledge, alongside the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group, since its inception in 1991, with the guiding principle to develop “a network of protected areas … encouraged and promoted with due regard for Indigenous peoples.” However, efforts stalled in 2005 when the cochairs of the project suddenly resigned due to lack of resources, and it took a full decade before a report was published in 2015. Without more news from PAME since the report’s publication, the Arctic Protected Areas Indicator Report presented at the ministerial meeting in Fairbanks this past May was a welcome sight. The report outlined the progress towards targets for terrestrial and marine protected areas across the globe, generating hope that preservation efforts will continue during Finland’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Furthermore, the success of PAME and the pan-Arctic network of marine protected areas could be vital to securing the role of Indigenous populations moving forward, as these projects demonstrate the benefits traditional knowledge can bring to other policy discussions.
Ultimately, the marine areas PAME seeks to protect are part of a system in which people, place and culture are intertwined. “It’s bringing back this connection that people have to their homeland and allowing people to create much healthier communities,” said Mary Simon, a prominent Inuit leader and special adviser on Indigenous and Northern Affairs in Canada, in reference to conservation efforts. As we saw in the Beaufort Sea declarations, the best way to protect these communities is to acknowledge their right to participate in the conversation.
Long after economic interest in the Arctic wanes, Indigenous groups will continue to live off the land. Policymakers should at least allow them to dictate how the Arctic is managed, and the PAME working group, where Indigenous voices have the same legitimacy as national governments and private enterprise, offers an effective model for collaboration.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.