Speaking before an intergovernmental forum Wednesday on the future of the Arctic, Canadian officials vowed "unprecedented industrial development" of the pristine and fragile polar region.
The comments came as the North American country took over chairmanship of the Arctic Council during the group's biennial gathering in Sweden this week.
The circumpolar states—which hold full membership on the council and include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States—are convening to "promote cooperation on environmental protection" and discuss such issues as oil and mineral exploitation, shipping, tourism and fishing in the northern region.
Shifting global temperatures and unprecedented melting in the polar region have "boosted international interest," AFP reports, "as melting ice opens up shipping routes and makes hitherto inaccessible mineral resources easier to exploit."
"We will not stand by and let the Harper government use the next two years to advance its destructive industrial agenda at the Arctic Council," said Christy Ferguson of Greenpeace, which staged a concurrent demonstration outside of Canada's parliament Wednesday calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to ban oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.
"The Arctic Council should be a forum for preventing environmental disasters like oil spills and fighting climate change—not facilitating them," she added.
The prospect of development in the Arctic region has brought renewed and widespread interest in the council. This year "observer status" was extended to a number of non-polar countries including China, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea and Italy.
Speaking before the council, Canadian Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, representing the Harper government, "wasted no time" in her announcement of a pan-Arctic business forum to be launched by Canada later this year as a major initiative to "spur trade and development" among the Arctic states, The Globe and Mail reports.
The focus, she said, of Canada’s two years [as] the chair [of the Arctic council] – to be followed by the United States – will be on “creating economic development.” That shift will dismay environmental activists, who fear the race to extract resources from an ice-free Arctic would ravish and destroy a fragile ecosystem already under stress from climate change. By some estimates, 90 billion barrels of oil and one-fifth of the planet’s untapped natural gas lie beneath the Arctic Ocean.
At a news conference in Kiruna, Sweden, site of the world’s biggest iron-ore mine, Ms. Aglukkaq also promised “big change” at the Arctic Council. Gone will be the focus on science for its own sake. Instead, research to develop the North for the benefit of northerners – such as her own Inuit and other indigenous peoples in Russia, Alaska and the Nordic countries – will take priority, she said.
Despite Aglukkaq's emphasis on the support and benefit of indigenous people under her proposed development plan, a number of those indigenous groups present are siding against oil development in the fragile Arctic ecosystem by signing the Joint Statement of Indigenous Solidarity for Arctic Protection (pdf), which was drafted last August at the first annual Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ conference.
Reacting to the growing rejection of the industrial push and "greenwashed" policies, Greenpeace writes:
Many of these people, who have an inherent right to the lands of the Arctic, are experiencing the difficulties caused by a changing Arctic.
When these eight foreign ministers gather this morning to meet and greet and sign a greenwashed agreement on oil spill response and claim that they have done all they could — they will do it in the shadow of this conference and these statements. Then they will go back home and continue to allow oil companies to continue their destructive rampage in the fragile Arctic.
But the beacon of hope shines through the voices of those Indigenous Peoples who over the weekend, took a step toward rejecting Arctic oil.
The movement is growing, and it is getting more and more difficult for the toothless governments in the Arctic Council to ignore.