Aili Keskitalo came out swinging. The President of the Sami Parliament (the Sami are an indigenous people of Scandanavia) had some pretty strong feelings about how not only her people but indigenous peoples all over the Arctic have been treated in the race for resources. Of all the places affected by climate change, the Arctic has experienced some of the fastest and most dramatic shifts. And, as Keskitalo pointed out, no one is more vulnerable than Arctic indigenous communities.
I'm at the 2016 Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, a university town of about 70 thousand people on Norway's northwestern coast. Keskitalo was one of the opening speakers for this week's conference and her speech made me think there'd be something beyond the overly cautious (and often tedious) diplo-speak that's so common at conferences like these.
She said things like, "Colonization and pillaging and the oppression of indigenous people takes place all over the world in the continuous hunt for resources. But we have stories to tell of historical blunders carried out in name of development."
She asked that governments and businesses stop romanticizing all the industrial possibilities and pay more attention to the environment, "to what the land, sea and sky are telling us." She pointed out that, at the UN Climate Change talks in Paris, researchers from the University of Tromsø concluded that we can not take advantage of all economic resources in the Arctic, as it would be irresponsible in terms of both the environment and human rights.
She called for businesses and politicians to behave responsibly. And while she acknowledged that development of resources in the Arctic will continue, she demanded the Sami people have a role in any decisions made about that development. "We've heard repeatedly that we must adjust to changing times and we’ve done that. Now the government and business sectors need to do the same. We expect an equal participation in industrial and economic development."
That seems fair. Development is most certainly going to move ahead and, as long as there's money to made, I'm not sure it's going to slow down. Indigenous peoples like the Sami have a right to be at the table, given that their livelihoods, their economic future, their homes are at stake. But based on what I heard during the rest of the morning, I'm not sure it will happen. I was particularly underwhelmed by statements from Admiral Robert J. Papp, the U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic. He took a very paternalistic standpoint, talking about the need to help with suicide and health issues in these communities, and take advantage of local knowledge of the environment, but didn't make it seem like indigenous people were even minority partners (so to speak).
Other speakers barely acknowledged them, mentioning them as a bullet point on a list of many things to think about when it comes to Arctic strategy. At least they're not being overlooked entirely? But I don't see them getting a fair shake, either. Nevertheless, Aili Keskitalo shouldn't pull her punches.