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Extractive Industries and the Unmaking of Arctic Places

Indigenous perceptions of land, waters and animals – and their relationships with them – are often ignored in discussions about the development of natural resources. These impact assessments must take local worldviews into account, says anthropologist Mark Nuttall.

Written by Mark Nuttall Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
View from nuuk fiord
A view from the Nuuk fjord in Greenland (CC BY-SA 3.0).Wikimedia/Nanopixi

According to recent media reports, Arctic nations are preparing to fight. Canada, Denmark and Russia are asserting claims to Arctic waters and subterranean ridges. Canada is linking the discovery of the submerged wreck of HMS Terror to its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. And when, earlier this month, Arctic sea ice shrank to its second lowest extent since scientists first began to monitor it by satellite, that fact was widely announced. These events illustrate the continued media interest in the so-called scramble for Arctic territory and a supposed rush to exploit resources being uncovered by melting ice.

But interest in these Arctic events also occurs within a geopolitical frame concerned with the reimagining of the Arctic as a frontier, a process that unmakes Arctic places and renders them into empty spaces. Doing so transforms these spaces into sites of potential. They are recast as productive zones for extractive industries or time-saving sea lanes that open up as the sea ice disappears.

Discourses on Arctic frontiers are certainly not new, of course. They have dominated much political and economic analysis about the resource potential of northern regions over the past few decades.

The articulation and representation of Arctic places as Indigenous homelands from the 1970s onward, both by Indigenous peoples and as a result of government hearings such as the Berger Inquiry over the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline in northern Canada, did much to counter the prevailing view at the time of the Arctic as an empty space, a wasteland, a wilderness, a frontier. Land claims and self-government negotiations in Alaska, Canada and Greenland have played out against the backdrop of major resource development projects and disagreements over access to and ownership of resources.

Eventually, the Arctic came to be understood and recognized increasingly as an inhabited region with a diversity of cultures, a place of Indigenous homelands where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous livelihoods flourish.

Yet now, as climate change reshapes the region, there appears to be a return to the view that the Arctic is empty and vast – and wide open for development.

Satellite image of the extent of the North Water Polynya in May 2015 (CC BY-SA 4.0). (David Fuglestad)

Satellite image of the extent of the North Water Polynya in May 2015 (CC BY-SA 4.0). (David Fuglestad)

As the capital and technology of resource exploitation are moved across, into and through these “frontiers,” Indigenous peoples continue to point out that they have seldom been devoid of human presence. In northern Baffin Bay, between Greenland and Canada’s Eastern Arctic, lies the North Water Polynya, called Pikialasorsuaq in Greenlandic. The area is important to Inuit and the species on which they depend. But there are concerns that the polynya (an area of open water surrounded by sea ice) faces threats from climate change, oil exploration, fishing and shipping.

In January 2016, the Inuit Circumpolar Council established the Pikialasorsuaq Commission to understand the significance of the North Water Polynya to Inuit livelihoods. The commission traveled to communities in northern Canada and northern Greenland and listened to residents express their thoughts and opinions on how Pikialasorsuaq (which means “the great upwelling”) should be governed and managed as an ecologically or biologically distinct area, drawing especially upon Inuit knowledge and expertise.

The work of the Climate and Society Research Group at the Greenland Climate Research Centre in Nuuk also seeks to understand these changes and developments. In northwest Greenland, as well as elsewhere in the country, we conduct research to learn what people think about extractive industries, resource management and conservation.

In the Nuuk Fjord region, for instance, we run a mapping and monitoring project called “Inuit Pinngortitarlu” that explores human–environment relations and local knowledge within a context of climate change and planned mining activities.

A Greenlandic hunter and fisherman steers his boat past a melting iceberg, along a fjord near Nuuk, Greenland. (AP/Brennan Linsley)

A Greenlandic hunter and fisherman steers his boat past a melting iceberg, along a fjord near Nuuk, Greenland. (AP/Brennan Linsley)

From its outer skerries and extensive waters, to its islands and mountain valleys, the Nuuk Fjord area comprises crucially important social, cultural places upon which many people from Nuuk and the village of Kapisillit, in the inner part of the fjord, depend for hunting and fishing or use for leisure. It is a constellation of place names, local stories and narrative accounts of seal hunting, whaling, tracking reindeer and fishing, or of travelling by boat or walking across the land that attest to the historical and contemporary engagement with the area.

Yet, the Nuuk Fjord region is imagined, described and represented in a different way by industry consultants and politicians, ambitious for the development of mines. Indigenous perceptions of and relationships with the land, waters and animals are ignored in assessment processes, and local experience and knowledge are erased in technical documents and by the political and industrial discourses about Greenland’s resources. In the work we do with local research partners, our concern is with addressing gaps in social and environmental impact assessments and their failure to take local worldviews into account.

In Greenland, subterranean resources are intertwined with discussions of economic and political independence. The country is experiencing considerable interest from multinational corporations wanting to excavate deep into mountains and the ocean floor in the search for minerals, oil and gas. This interest has not waned despite a downturn in global commodity prices over the past year or two. These companies not only imagine, approach and represent Greenland as a new resource frontier, they make promises of great economic benefit for the country and talk of extractive industries providing job opportunities for local people living near sites of potential development. Although the future of a large iron-mine project at Isukasia remains uncertain following the demise of its proponent, London Mining, a number of other mines are planned in the Nuuk Fjord area – for gold, feldspar and other metals and minerals – and a growing number of companies are applying for exploration licenses.

In this making of resource spaces, places are unmade. Local people worry they are losing their rights to customary sea- and land-based activities and will be excluded from areas of social, cultural and economic importance. To point this out, however, is not to take a critical stance with regard to resource development and its prospects for Greenland’s future, but to call for greater attention in social and environmental impact assessments of Arctic places as lived-in worlds rather than industry and its consultants emptying them of local meaning and imbuing them with qualities of wildness.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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