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Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Decision-Making in the Arctic Council

Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Decision-Making in the Arctic Council

April 5, 2017

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.  


This week, Arctic Yearbook managing editor Heather Exner-Pirot interviews Michaela Louise Coote, a recent master’s graduate in environment and natural resources from the University of Iceland and author of “Environmental Decision-Making in the Arctic Council: What is the Role of Indigenous Peoples?” Coote interviewed Permanent Participant representatives (PPs), Working Group chairs, and the director of the Arctic Council Secretariat to assess the role and contribution of indigenous peoples in the Arctic Council and to the forum’s work on climate change, management, and governance.

There are six indigenous organizations in the Arctic Council with PP status: the Saami Council, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Aleut International Association, Gwich’in Council International, and the Arctic Athabaskan Council. According to the Arctic Council Rules of Procedure, the position of PPs was created “to provide for active participation and full consultation with the Arctic indigenous representatives within the Arctic Council.”

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: In your article, you state that the PPs see the preservation of a subsistence lifestyle as their main goal. How is this goal articulated in their mandates and in their actions?

MICHAELA LOUISE COOTE: The PPs are involved in numerous projects concerning the preservation of a subsistence lifestyle, from those that protect and promote culture to those projects concerned with researching the integrity of ecosystems with the hope of influencing state policy. All of the PPs are different, however, so they do not articulate or attempt to address issues surrounding subsistence living in the same way. Also, when confronting the realities of resource development and change in the Arctic, there’s a gap between hopes and aspirations and what is possible, practically speaking, in preserving subsistence lifestyles. It’s almost impossible to achieve. States are concerned with economic development, but not so much with subsistence living.

HEP: Some of the respondents you interview assert that the PPs are politically astute and very knowledgeable about the work of the Council. People unfamiliar with the Arctic Council are sometimes surprised to learn that indigenous peoples play such an influential role. Is there a disconnect between perceptions of PP influence and reality?

MLC: Actually, some of the PPs I spoke to don’t think that they have an equal footing in the Arctic Council. This was primarily due to financial reasons. But the system is also one that can make it difficult for PPs to engage. Some indigenous peoples themselves maybe don’t appreciate their full worth as knowledge holders. I hadn’t fully realized before the difficulties that an indigenous person may face with contributing his or her perspectives in a “Capital-M” Modern system.

The structure of the Arctic Council and how PPs could have a more equal footing in it is an issue that needs to be looked at and addressed further. Projects are supposed to be led by a state, and they need to have financial backing in place. They are also supposed to be circumpolar in nature, which can be a barrier. There’s a problem with the amount of travel expected. The PPs are represented by small teams with limited financial capacity, and it’s not easy to be everywhere.

It’s interesting what’s happening at the moment with a bigger focus on economic development—there could be a shift in power where business gains more control in Arctic politics. But in some cases, like in North America where there is indigenous ownership of resources, this could result in more of an equal footing for indigenous peoples. All PPs indicate that they are happy for economic development to occur, as long as they benefit—as long as they don’t lose. But more money would help with gaining an equal footing.

HEP: People often describe the PPs as more homogenous than they are in reality. Where do you see the most differences between organizations?

MLC: There are differences in terms of an organization’s home state, how the PP is supported by its respective government, and which channels each organization has to use to communicate with its own government.

There are also big differences in personalities, which affect the work, of course, because the work is very idea-centric and they work together in teams. Collaborative personalities and strong communication skills are really vital strengths in the Arctic Council’s structures.

There are also big differences in financial situations. The Inuit Circumpolar Council, for example, has a lot of own-source revenues so can be more independent in some ways.

HEP: Your article talks about how PPs have been more successful in promoting projects on culture or health than those on the environment. Why is that?

MLC: Terry Fenge, a Nunavut land claims consultant and researcher known for his expertise on the Arctic Council, explained it to me like this, which I found useful: If you can talk in terms of a pregnant mother trying to choose healthy or safe foods, or the impact of suicide in a community, those are personal stories. People relate to them. And if an individual can understand another individual, then it’s more likely a policy will develop to reflect the need.

By contrast, sovereignty and issues of indigenous rights are politically sensitive topics, and it makes talking about the environment more fraught. Environmental protection as an issue carries a lot of baggage, a lot of discourses that confuse the conversation.

It’s not politically sensitive to say that we need to address suicide; it’s not about sovereignty but about personal, human feelings. And the latter is what leads to projects.

HEP: Is Traditional Knowledge being integrated successfully in to the Arctic Council?

MLC: None of the interviewees thought that Traditional Knowledge had really been included successfully yet. There are resource implications and time considerations required to do that; PPs sometimes lack the technical, scientific skills they need to fully engage in Working Group discussions, but they can also lack staff or experts to send to Arctic Council activities to contribute Traditional Knowledge. Some think the Arctic Council has been more successful in bringing in indigenous perspectives, which is not the same as incorporating Traditional Knowledge.

HEP: What direction do you think the Arctic Council should take to better include indigenous peoples in environmental decision-making?

MLC: Some things work well already. Everyone agrees that the informality of the Arctic Council—the side events, the meetings—are really important. Meeting actual people, having discussions, sharing and creating ideas—in other words, the other human dimension—really have an impact on the work of the Arctic Council. I think the main thing missing is a monitoring system. In the long run, this type of data could be really helpful to make sure that the indigenous involvement is the strongest it can be.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Michaela Louise Coote has a B.S. from Bath Spa University in environmental science, specializing in biology in the U.K., and an M.A. in environment and natural resources, specializing in political science, from Háskóli Íslands, University of Iceland. She is interested in equal environmental decision-making as a means for environmental protection—her M.A. thesis looked at the role of indigenous peoples in environmental policy creation in the Arctic Council. She is currently working as a behavioral ecologist for Freedive with Whales Iceland.

Michaela Louise Coote’s artcile, “Environmental Decision-Making in the Arctic Council: What is the Role of Indigenous Peoples?” which appeared in the Arctic Yearbook 2016, can be found here.

This interview was conducted by Heather Exner-Pirot, managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement at the University of Saskatchewan, and a blogger for Radio Canada’s Eye on the Arctic. Her interests are in northern and indigenous health, education, and economic development; regional governance; and Arctic Council politics.

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.