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Like Canary Birds In The Coal Mine

18 September 2012

Recently in town to learn more about sustainable development, two leaders from the Arctic Circle warn of the challenges brought on by climate change. - Text by Bridgette See, Portrait Photos by Justin Loh

Olav Mathis Eira (far left) of the Saami Council and Chief Gary Harrison of the Arctic Athabaskan Council.

Before the days of electronic detectors, canary birds were brought into coal mines to test the air quality. They acted as an early warning system as they could detect toxic gases quickly. A distressed canary was a clear sign of unsafe conditions.

Today, the indigenous people of the Arctic Circle say they are the canary birds of the world. They are the first to feel the effects of climate change, with the Arctic warming up twice as fast than anywhere else.

In 2009, 3,500 walruses were stranded on Alaska’s north-west coast because of reduced ice. Scientists estimate that polar bears are likely to be extinct in 70 years when they lose their breeding and hunting grounds because of melting ice.

“We don’t want to die. We want our cultures to flourish, and not be wiped out,” said Chief Gary Harrison of the Arctic Athabaskan Council.

Chief Harrison and five others from the Arctic Council Permanent Participant organisations (see side box) were in Singapore recently on a study visit. For five days, they met government agencies and institutions that shared with them Singapore’s experience in environmental protection, sustainable development, education and community-building. They also visited the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, an internationally recognised site for migratory birds.

Chief Harrison and Mr Olav Mathis Eira of the Saami Council (representing the Saami indigenous people) were impressed by Singapore’s focus on sustainability and planning for the future, they told Challenge. Mr Eira said that the government seems unafraid to impose environmental standards on industries and that private companies are well aware of them. Also, he observed that instead of seeing environmental concerns as barriers, businesses here see them as opportunities.

Not against development

Chief Harrison, who leads the Chickaloon tribe in Alaska, said the extraction of oil, coal, copper, gas and other resources in his village has led to heavy pollution, threatening animal and plant species. Natural resources are being exploited too quickly, without long-term planning. As a result, the tribe’s traditional way of living off the land – foraging and hunting – has been affected.
“We should look seven generations ahead, but they look at the now,” he said.

Fearful of further pollution, his people are fighting plans for a new coal mine in Chickaloon. After spending US$1.2 million to rehabilitate their waters that had been badly polluted by previous coal mining activities, salmon is finally breeding well again in their area. But a new coal mine could halt the recovery.

“I don’t want to revolt,” said Chief Harrison, “but I want to change a revolting situation. We’re not against development but if you can’t do it cleanly, don’t do it. In the long run, the clean-up is costly.”

Feeling the effects of climate change

Agreeing, Mr Eira, an ethnic Saami who lives in the northernmost part of Norway, said his people are also feeling the ill effects of climate change and rapid development.

Mr Eira is a reindeer herder who inherited the ancestral occupation from his father. For the Saami people, reindeers are a source of food, clothing and trade.

Mr Eira hopes his three sons will take over his reindeers and continue the Saami culture. But climate change is a big threat.

Warmer temperatures mean there are now rains in the winter. The rain causes traditional winter herding routes over lakes and rivers to become dangerous – the normally frozen ice becomes unstable. Two of his nephews have fallen through ice before.

“Winter is crucial to the reindeers,” Mr Eira said. “When it rains in the winter, they can starve.” The ice that forms after a rain covers up the reindeers’ only source of food during winter – lichens. To cope, Saami herders now feed the reindeers with expensive food pellets.

I don't want to revolt, but I want to change a revolting situation.

Ironically, the Saami people are also affected by climate change mitigation programmes, pointed out Mr Eira. For instance, the Scandinavian countries are now installing giant windmills to generate clean energy. But the windmill farms have encroached on traditional reindeer grazing lands, impacting the reindeers’ hunt for food yet again.

The need to innovate

The indigenous people know they have to innovate and adapt if they are to survive climate change and rapid development.

For instance, the Athabaskans of Chickaloon Village set up Alaska’s only tribally owned full-time school to teach and preserve the Athabaskan culture. Their salmon rehabilitation project, called the Moose Creek Restoration Project, has been recognised for habitat conservation.

Reflecting on his study visit, Mr Eira said he was impressed by Singapore’s unique situation of having no natural resources, and yet being able to thrive and “find new ways to be sustainable”.

Chief Harrison hoped that more countries, even those that are still resource-rich, would think this way before it is too late.

For that to happen, the world would have to take its canary birds’ distress signal more seriously.

“The world is a living thing and we’re all co-dependent. You people down here (in the south) are all co-dependent on us up there (in the north),” he said.

The Arctic Council Member States

Canada • Denmark • Finland • Iceland • Norway • Russian Federation • Sweden • United States of America

The Permanent Participants of the Arctic Council

Arctic Athabaskan Council • Aleut International Association • Gwich’in Council International • Inuit Circumpolar Council • Russian Arctic Indigenous Peoples of the North • Saami Council

www.arctic-council.org

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