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Are environmentalists drowning out indigenous views on Arctic development?

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
Stunts like the recent climbing of the Shard - and others in recent history - imperil discussion over which regions of the Far North should be used and which should be safeguarded. Greenpeace New Zealand photo

Unlike oil companies, environmentalist nonprofits are rarely branded as villains. Their cause -- to safeguard the environment for future generations -- is a noble one. Thus, it’s easy for the environment to actually often monopolize discussions about how to use and safeguard certain regions at the expense of the people who inhabit them. Therefore, it is important to scrutinize their perspectives and ensure that international discourses of environmentalism are not trampling out local views on development.

For an outside observer like myself, I’ll admit that it is heart-wrenching seeing countries like Tanzania seek to build roads across areas important for the annual migration of animals across the savanna, or to see Greenland look for partners to build mines in the Arctic. These are areas that we often see on television as beautiful, untouched wildernesses where lion cubs roughhouse and humpback whales leap out of the water in slow motion. Indeed, one of the so-called “Ice climbers,” Victoria, wrote on Greenpeace’s blog, “When I was a kid, I loved National Geographic documentaries. Described generously as ‘sensitive’, I was known to cry every time the lions would eat the gazelles. I’ve never stopped devouring nature documentaries and all things Attenborough, and although I’ve learned a bit more about the circle of life as it pertains to lions and gazelles, I’m still often moved to tears when I see human and animal suffering and the destruction of natural environments.”

Keeping locals at the forefront of debate

While armchair safaris engage people in the natural world of places like the Arctic, the less television-friendly human poverty just outside the frame often goes unrecognized. If development such as ecotourism or arts and crafts could solve every economic problem in resource frontiers, that would be wonderful. But for the time being, it cannot. This is not to say that hydrocarbon development in the Arctic should or should not go forward, but rather that the needs and wishes of local residents must be kept at the forefront of the debate.

It is astounding that six individuals -- only two of whom are from Arctic states -- could shift the debate on an area inhabited by four million people, who are often voiceless in media reports. Scanning through stories by the BBC and NBC News, reporters did not seek any comment from Arctic residents, indigenous or otherwise, on their feelings about the Greenpeace protest. If they did, the debate on the future of the Arctic would be more balanced and inclusive. Polar bears need icebergs and beluga whales need oceans free of sonar waves, to be sure. But people also need affordable food and warm homes – topics less news-friendly, but just as critical, to the future of the Arctic. As appealing as it might be for those of us, including myself, who don’t live in the Arctic to want to set up fences and simply declare a swath of land and sea protected for eternity. Yet when discussing the Arctic, we should strive to consider not only its environment, but also its people, who are more than an afterthought.

Mia Bennett administers the Foreign Policy Association's Arctic Blog, and writes about Arctic issues for Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.