Lofoten Islands, Norway (c) 2008 Anthony Speca
Lofoten Islands, Norway (c) 2008 Anthony Speca

A response to Greenpeace

A recent letter from Greenpeace Canada only strengthens the impression that Greenpeace’s vision for the Arctic doesn’t include the states and peoples who already govern and occupy the region.

Originally published in Northern Public Affairs, 3 September 2012
Download a PDF of this article

Dear Mr. Creimer,

Thank you very much for your letter responding to my column on Greenpeace International’s “Save the Arctic” campaign.  I certainly appreciate Greenpeace’s willingness to debate the goals and merits of its campaign in general, and my criticisms of it in particular.

In my column, I criticized Greenpeace for taking an uncompromising stand against economic development in the Arctic, and an uncooperative approach toward arctic states and indigenous peoples.  I took issue with your campaign’s appeal to the international community to govern the Arctic in their stead, through a new and externally-imposed global treaty that would put a large portion of the Arctic off-limits to industrial activity, especially offshore oil exploration and commercial fishing.

So I was encouraged to read in your letter that Greenpeace is in fact committed to dialogue and cooperation with arctic states and peoples.  I was heartened by your assurance that Greenpeace’s campaign is “in many ways the beginning of a conversation that includes all the peoples of the Arctic,” and that Greenpeace recognizes that it must affirm the special rights of arctic indigenous peoples to develop and benefit from their lands, waters and resources.

At the same time, I was discouraged by much of the rest of your letter.  Rather than clarifying Greenpeace’s methods and aims in light of these assurances, it reinforced the impression that Greenpeace will continue to stand its uncompromising and uncooperative ground.

You stated that I was wrong to assume that “Greenpeace has launched this campaign without considering the peoples who call the Arctic home.”  But the issue is one of consultation and cooperation, not mere consideration.  Greenpeace took a welcome first step by involving the Vice-President of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) in the launch of its campaign.  However, simply taking this step does not imply that Greenpeace “absolutely recognizes the need for wide-ranging co-operation” with arctic peoples.  If it did, it would have taken so many more such steps before taking its campaign to the global public.

You wrote that “the future of the Arctic is, unquestionably, integral to the survival of its peoples and they must be at the heart of its protection.”  But so long as Greenpeace purports to act on their behalf in this way, it must at the very least coordinate and cooperate closely with all of them.  If Greenpeace believes, as you insist, in “the hope offered by true international co-operation,” then surely it must also believe the principle of “free, prior and informed consent” enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

RAIPON is but one of six arctic indigenous organizations with full consultation rights on the Arctic Council.  Another is the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), which represents the Inuit of Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Russia—a single people whose homeland spans half of the circumpolar North.  Aqqaluk Lynge, ICC Chair, and Kirt Ejesiak, ICC Executive Council Member for Canada, have both confirmed to me that Greenpeace did not seek the ICC’s counsel in developing its vision for the “future of the Arctic”—nor the ICC’s cooperation in achieving it.

And what of the other arctic indigenous organizations with permanent participant status on the Arctic Council?  Did Greenpeace consult or cooperate with the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Aleut International Association, the Gwich’in Council International or the Saami Council?  Together with the ICC and RAIPON, these organizations value the integrity of the arctic environment at least as much as Greenpeace does.  They also seek its protection—but not entirely without economic development and the benefits that they can derive from the industrial activities that Greenpeace seeks to ban wholesale.

I don’t speak for any of these arctic peoples, and it’s doubtless they hold varying positions on the best model for governing the arctic and developing its resources.  Some individuals may even support Greenpeace’s campaign.  But it seems clear that this campaign would look very different if Greenpeace were truly acting in concert with arctic peoples as a whole—or even, for a start, with the Inuit, whose economic rights are recognized and protected across a huge swath of the Arctic.

For its part, the ICC has very carefully formulated a declaration on Inuit interests in the responsible and sustainable development of Inuit Nunaat—their traditional lands and waters—as well as the Inuit right to benefit from them.  They cautioned that “Inuit invite—and are entitled to expect—all those who have or seek a role in the governance, management, development, or use of the resources of Inuit Nunaat to conduct themselves within the letter and spirit of this Declaration.”

Had Greenpeace heeded this advice, its campaign might have been more appropriate to the Arctic and more legitimate in the eyes of arctic states and peoples.  It would assuredly have been a more powerful call to action.  Perhaps it’s not too late for Greenpeace to correct its course.

However, Mr. Lynge believes that, while a dialogue between Inuit and global environmental organizations such as Greenpeace is important, Greenpeace’s past campaigns against Inuit interests—for example, sealing and whaling—have not created a positive atmosphere.  Mr. Ejesiak adds that it would be impossible for the ICC to support Greenpeace’s new campaign as it stands, due to its conflict with Inuit economic rights.

To take but one example, Greenpeace’s call for a ban on commercial—or as you prefer, “industrial”—fishing in the Arctic would directly undermine on-going efforts by Canadian Inuit to obtain fair access to commercial fishing quota in their adjacent waters.  You assure us that “Greenpeace acknowledges the fishing methods of Indigenous Peoples have secured the health of their fish stocks for thousands of years, and that sustainable fishing is central to the livelihoods of many communities in the Arctic.”  But does this mean that Greenpeace countenances only traditional, subsistence fishing methods as sustainable?  Does Greenpeace imagine that arctic peoples still only fish in a non-industrial or even pre-industrial manner—or that they should, simply because they have to make a living in the Arctic?

Would Greenpeace’s proposed ban on “industrial” fishing not apply to the Inuit-owned Baffin Fisheries Coalition, which operates factory-freezer trawlers in Nunavut waters?  Or the Arctic Fisheries Alliance, joining together some of the most economically depressed Inuit communities on Baffin Island, which does the same?  Or the large fishing fleet of Royal Greenland, which the Greenlandic Inuit own through their self-rule government, and whose business makes the largest single contribution to Greenland’s economy apart from a fiscal grant from Denmark?

Greenpeace is surely right to warn that overfishing has devastated fish stocks in many of the world’s oceans, and that the Arctic Ocean could be at real risk as well.  Arctic peoples share this concern, too.  For example, the Inuvialuit of the Northwest Territories supported Canada in declaring a moratorium on commercial fishing in the Beaufort Sea until environmental impacts are clearer, and the Alaskan Iñupiat supported the USA’s own similar moratorium.  But Greenpeace’s uncompromising approach contrasts starkly with that of the Vancouver Aquarium, which is working with Nunavut Inuit by helping to certify the Pangnirtung char fishery as “Ocean Wise,” rather than against them by calling on the international community to ban them from fishing commercially in their waters.

Similarly, Greenpeace’s proposal to ban offshore oil exploration in the Arctic shows that Greenpeace’s vision for the Arctic and its peoples is at odds with the visions they themselves have.  It’s one thing to call for strong oversight and regulation to diminish the risk of oil spills in the Arctic—a risk that also worries arctic peoples.  But it’s quite another to demand an outright ban on offshore oil exploration, on the grounds that “governments are putting short term profit before the future of the peoples of the Arctic, its wildlife and the interests of the wider global community.”

Does Greenpeace extend this sweeping indictment to arctic indigenous-majority governments that, on balance, consider revenues from oil and gas development critical to their peoples’ futures?  What message did Greenpeace communicate to Greenlandic Inuit when it attempted to blockade oil exploration that their self-rule government had authorized under its own jurisdiction?  Presumably not that arctic peoples “must be at the heart” of Greenpeace’s campaign to “save the Arctic”—not unless Greenpeace believes that it should save them from themselves.

It’s not only the Greenland self-rule government that views responsible oil development positively.  The Inuit-majority Nunavut government seeks control of oil and gas in its waters for precisely the same reasons.  The Inuvialuit welcome Canada’s recent round of exploration licensing in the Beaufort Sea—albeit cautiously—and they have long serviced the oil industry through their Inuvialuit Petroleum Corporation.  Even Edward Itta, when he was mayor of the Iñupiat-majority government of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, chose to sanction Shell’s plan to drill in the Beaufort Sea as the appropriate compromise between economic benefit and environmental risk, despite having previously opposed oil development in his municipality.  Greenpeace’s own uncompromising position makes it seem more an opponent of Inuit governments than an ally.

But perhaps most objectionable to arctic peoples such as the Inuit—as well as the arctic states of which they are citizens—is Greenpeace’s demand that the international community enact a wholly new governance regime for the Arctic, motivated by a UN resolution and taking the Antarctic Treaty System as an inspiration.  This regime would include a “global sanctuary” in the central Arctic Ocean beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the arctic coastal states, where no industrial development of any kind would be permitted, as well as the proposed bans on offshore oil exploration and commercial fishing in the wider Arctic.

Greenpeace envisions this regime as superseding the existing arctic governance regime, which you point out in your letter Greenpeace considers inadequate.  Greenpeace’s bans would prevail over the domestic laws of the arctic states, as well as international conventions such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Its sanctuary in the central Arctic Ocean would require setting aside UNCLOS in respect of the associated seabed.

Yet in your letter, you say that Greenpeace acknowledges that only the waters of the central Arctic Ocean are the common property of humanity.  This seems a thin basis for an entirely new arctic governance regime that would encompass not only these waters but also their seabed, as well as parts of the EEZs and territorial and internal waters and seabed of the arctic coastal states.  It also seems shaky ground on which to propose that arctic peoples be prevented from developing and benefiting from their economic resources.

This isn’t to say that Greenpeace is overstepping proper bounds by suggesting that the international community should set aside the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean from fishing, in the same way that it set aside Antarctica from mining.  Naturally, this suggestion conflicts with the current position of the arctic coastal states, but there’s room for genuine disagreement about how best to manage a distant and virgin part of the world that’s only now becoming accessible to industry.

However, it is to say that Greenpeace seems to mistake the Arctic for the Antarctic when it inflates this much more modest suggestion into a proposal for a full-blown governance regime for the entire Arctic, complete with Antarctic-style bans on offshore oil drilling and commercial fishing anywhere in the region.  For this reason, it’s difficult to credit your assurance that “we recognise that the Arctic and Antarctica are very different places and that solutions appropriate for one cannot be ‘cut and pasted’ to apply to the other.”

And so what I take away most from your letter is its resolute conclusion—that Greenpeace “makes no bones about having an uncompromising position” against economic development in the Arctic, because “some things cannot be compromised and the Arctic firmly falls into that category.”  But unlike the empty Antarctic, the Arctic comes full of people.  That means it comes full of history, politics, livelihoods, industry—and visions for the future that may not match Greenpeace’s.  And that, in turn, inevitably means compromise.


Anthony Speca

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *