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The Arctic As A Homeland
by Piers Vitebsky
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The Future
  The 1990s witnessed an ever-increasing upsurge of interest in the Arctic, which will not be confined only to countries with territory in the North. There are several reasons for this.
  In the first place, scientists are coming to realise how important the Arctic is for their understanding of global warming, a problem which concerns the whole of humanity. If it is true that the temperature of the earth is gradually rising, then this, they say, may be seen most clearly in the gradual melting of the Arctic ice.
  Another reason is that the liberalisation of Russia has opened up a large proportion of the Arctic which was effectively closed before. A whole new area has dawned in international research, diplomacy and trade. Instead of US and Soviet nuclear missiles facing each other across the north pole, both sides can now put their efforts towards overcoming the technical problems in making the Arctic Ocean an international shipping area. In a famous speech in 1987 at Murmansk, Mr Gorbachev suggested that Arctic countries should join together to create a nuclear-free zone, to work out a common plan for using natural resources and protecting the environment, as well as for guaranteeing the rights of Native peoples. The climate of this international co-operation, he said, should be 'determined by the warm Gulf Stream of general European development and not by the polar breath of accumulated suspicions and prejudices.'
  But no grand international plan can succeed without taking account of the needs and wishes of local people themselves. The subordination of Native people to outside interests for over three centuries has led to severe social disruption, often with problems of depression, alcoholism and early death. For the past three decades, Native groups have begun fighting legal battles for control of their own land. They are insisting as best they can on royalties for minerals extracted, on adequate protection from pollution to safeguard their children's health, on having their children taught at school in their own language and on maintaining their right to hunt.
  The smaller Native peoples who live within larger industrialised countries say that they are living in a 'fourth world'. This term is based on the poor countries of the tropics who form the 'third world' and is intended to emphasise their powerlessness. They have started to form groups which unite smaller peoples in order to increase their strength and bargaining power. The Indians in the Mackenzie Valley in Canada united during the 1970s and called themselves the Dene Nation. Many of these movements cut across the boundaries between countries. In the 1980s the Saami of Norway, Sweden and Finland united to form a Saami Parliament. The branch of the Inuit called Yuit in Alaska and Siberia, had been separated by a closed border since the second world war. They were finally allowed to visit each other in 1988. Until then, the Yuit teenagers in Siberia spoke only Russian, which was the language of the cinema, magazines and discos. They considered the language of their parents and grandparents old-fashioned and provincial. When the first delegation of American Yuit arrived from Alaska, the old people could converse with them fluently while the young people were unable to speak with them directly at all. They suddenly realised that, unlike Russian, their parents' language was an international language. When school began the following autumn, the local language classes suddenly turned out to be the most popular of all!
  Perhaps the most important fourth-world organisation is the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) which unites the 100,000 Inuit spread over Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. This was founded in 1977 and has since grown into an organisation which fights to promote Inuit rights and to make sure that their voice is heard in decisions which affect them. Their policies cover a range of issues, from the management of wildlife as a renewable resource to their own campaign to make the entire Arctic a nuclear-free zone. The Inuit know that the Arctic coastal areas will remain the homeland of their grandchildren and that they cannot trust anyone else to make sure that this environment is looked after properly. Their own approach to this landscape is not to poison it as industrial society would do, nor to cordon it off as a wildlife reserve as some environmentalists would do, but to keep it as an area which will remain habitable and usable by humans who know how to maintain it.
  In the modern world, the Arctic poses a particular challenge to humanity. The arduous environment, the huge distances and the remoteness of the state capitals in the south, all create the need for special understanding and special policies. A fair system must be worked out of rights to the ownership and use of land, rivers, lakes, seas, forests and other natural resources. Who has the right to say whether these should be used for mining or for fishing? Everything depends on how local people can take part in making decisions and how clashes of opinion can be resolved. The key to this approach is to strengthen representative local government. This may be through local councils, such as the Inupiat-controlled North Slope Borough in Alaska which receives at least some income from the exploitation of oil on their land; or through the creation or strengthening of new, separate territories, as in Canada's new province of Nunavut, the Inuit homeland where the indigenous peoples are in the majority, or in the Siberian republic of Sakhaia, where a third of a million Sakhas are outnumbered two to one by Russian settlers but still retain a strong influence in the government.
  The special problems of the Arctic centre round the fact that its environment is at the same time both harsh and fragile. One must work hard to live there and yet one can easily cause damage by being careless. The population density is low and distances are enormous. The challenge under these conditions is to create and maintain a setting which is good for humans to live in and which combines the best of the traditional and modern worlds into one way of life. Of course people want higher incomes and greater comfort, better public health and pollution control. But the way to obtain these lies through the demand of local populations for a greater degree of control over their own destiny through greater self-government. This kind of local control is closely tied in with issues at the national and international levels. The needs of the big cities in the south have a direct effect on the village communities, hunters and herders of the North. Through the quest for oil, timber and other raw materials, they affect their physical environment. But the southerners also affect their mental world through the school curriculum, television and all the trappings of consumer culture.
  Northerners, in turn, must choose how to respond to this since they cannot avoid it. Sometimes they respond with apathy and despair, and indeed the suicide rate in the North is disturbingly high. But the successes of organisations like the ICC and Russia's new Association of Northern Peoples show that the peoples of the North are also standing firm. Like the rest of the world, the Inuit, the Eveny and the other northern peoples of this planet want to live a full and satisfying life now as well as to bequeath to their children a good chance that they will still be able to find a way to live well on their own landscape. Their traditional views of the relationship between humans and animals seems increasingly like a good future model for everyone, as the world turns gradually away from the idea of the conquest of nature, towards the idea of a partnership with nature.
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The Arctic is a Homeland, by Piers Vitebsky.
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