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AES 2023: Nothing about us without us

2023 Arctic Encounter Symposium provides another year of discussion, union, and hope; leaves Far North with a message North of 60 Mining News - April 7, 2023

ANCHORAGE, Alaska: Once again, Alaska was host to one of the greatest forums in the Arctic for shared and opposing views, bipartisan discussion, parallel experiences, and shared challenges for nations that extend into the northernmost reaches of the globe – it's difficult but rewarding.

Held from March 29 to the 31, the ninth annual Arctic Encounter Symposium convened at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in downtown Anchorage.

Welcoming 209 speakers from 25 countries within 50 sessions covering geopolitics, climate change, youth, federal funding, energy, innovation, finance, with nearly everything else one can imagine when it comes to this unique environment, and all within three days – this fledgling but substantial conference has become a voice for the Arctic and one that will become indispensable in the years to come.

While it has been a few short years since its inception, this year kicked off the now largest Arctic convening in North America. Founded in 2013, with its first conference the next year, the Arctic Encounter has grown from humble beginnings to the pillar of dialogue necessary to confront the shared interests and concerns surrounding "the last emerging frontier – the Arctic."

Originating in Seattle, Washington, the conference quickly opened the panel for discussions in Paris, where it co-hosted during the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (COP-21) negotiations; Greenland, where it co-hosted the 2018 and 2019 Arctic Circle Assembly; and London, where it partnered with the Polar Research and Policy Initiative at the United Kingdom Parliament, Palace of Westminster.

Returning to Alaska, where Arctic Encounter founder and executive director Rachel Kallander was born and raised, 2023 marks the second year straight this preeminent Arctic gathering was held within the Land of the Midnight Sun.

It was here that the Far North could come together once again to discuss the future of the Arctic and the role it will play as the front line for climate change and the provider of the resources that will empower and shift the world toward a cleaner and greener tomorrow.

If you build it, they will come

For three days, numerous topics were covered, but more times than can easily be counted was the topic of infrastructure – a kind of catch-all encompassing energy security, transportation, networking and telecommunications.

Familiar with the disconnect between the United States Arctic region and its decision-makers in the southeast, neighbors in Canada express similar concerns.

"There is a lot of similarities, without a doubt, for our northern regions no matter whether it is here in Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and the Nordic countries; their northern regions, where the decision-makers generally are based in the southern part of their countries and a big disconnect with respect to understanding our realities and yet that is often where the national policies and the national programs, as well as the fundings, gets developed," said CanArctic Inuit Networks Co-CEO Madeleine Redfern during a panel discussing Indigenous leaders on the future of the Arctic. "So the more we can actually get those elected officials and those senior bureaucrats to our region, the better."

While funding exists in Canada, like America's Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and Inflation Reduction Act, in the sense that it seeks to promote economic growth throughout its territories and provinces, concerns persist on whether villages in the Far North will be passed over for more practical ventures.

"What we need to do is really prioritize, that those in the north who do not even enjoy the basic services in the southern regions, should actually be prioritized, so we need energy security," said Redfern. "In Nunuvut, 25 communities are 100% diesel dependent, and I just found out from one of our territorial government officials that they have a very detailed evacuation plan for 10 of our communities when and if our power plant goes down. We are literally living in the red and critical zone, and there's no excuse for that."

Despite these challenges, on the other side of the table, discussions regarding capital and investments in the Arctic that would enable the development of these essential services were also examined.

"If there is a message that you hear in the room, over the last couple of days, you hear this sort of pull of the Arctic, or pull of Alaska ... people have a fascination with it, they have an interest in it and clearly all the experts here believe in it," said McKinley Capital Management CEO Rob Gillam. "Our firm, which started as an investment firm making investments all over the world, has retrenched and refocused to the North and the opportunities that are here. I see it, I think you see it, and we're excited about it ... the rest of the world, as I had just said it – have their eyes on the Arctic for the first time in a long time, and I think, certainly this group of people, are the right people to help deliver that forward."

Finally, a topic that tends to grate on those that live in the Arctic is the seemingly constant pushback from environmentalists or alarmists – in particular, the recent Willow project that has somehow managed to make headlines in the south or spread throughout social media.

Many shared similar sentiments; those that live here want what is best for it. These are no longer the days of wonton destruction of the environment. The stewards of these lands oversee and manage and discuss what is best for not just themselves but their ancestral lands.

Many want the comforts of civilization. It provides a better standard of living that can then enable them to better participate in their cultural practices. Some may view it as a sacrifice, but the cold reality of the North is it is hard and unforgiving, and with amenities that can prevent the risk of death, it's certainly not a sacrifice to survive.

However, when there are outside efforts to disrupt well-thought-out and painstakingly considered development plans that would greatly benefit the local communities and allow them to survive better, then it cannot be built, and no one will come – leaving everyone in these Arctic regions at a loss.

Arctic Council

One of the more significant additions to the Arctic Encounter Symposium was the inclusion of the members of the Arctic Council.

Conceived in 1996 through the Ottawa Declaration, this established the Arctic Council as a forum for promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on issues such as sustainable development and environmental protection.

Thus, eight states that have territories within the Arctic continue to carry the role of stewards of the region. Their national jurisdictions and international law govern the lands surrounding the Arctic Ocean and its waters.

The Northern regions of the Arctic states are home to more than four million people whose health and well-being are at the top of the Arctic Council's agenda; these include Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States.

Of particular issue and discussion was the plan of action regarding Russia and its war with Ukraine. As a still presently Arctic allied state, partner states have had to adapt and shift plans to steward the north without Russian contact.

"That's the reason I chose to come here ... because we have this pause in what we call the usual Arctic cooperation, it's important to come and meet people on these other occasions," said Head of the Arctic and Environment Unit, Saami Council, Norway, Gunn-Britt Retter. "So, I have prioritized to make it here to exactly speak with people and get the sense of the needs and cooperation we can do."

Because of its action of attacking Ukraine, those bordering Russia, particularly Finland and Norway, have felt the effects more acutely as they sought to better relations through economic exchanges and relatively free passage through their shared border.

"The war in Ukraine has thoroughly changed much of the thinking in Europe in terms of relationship with Russia," said Ambassador of Arctic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Morten Høglund. "For Norway, our location – Russia is like it is for Alaska; it's a neighbor, we share a long sea border, but we also have a land border."

Høglund went on to explain Norway's perspective after the Cold War, its hope to connect and grow with their northern brothers and sisters in Russia-a hope to create a similar relationship with other Nordic neighbors that would enable both to prosper and succeed.

"Free access across the border, people-to-people contact, close business interests, and we really invested a lot, giving visa-free travel opportunities for people living on both sides of the border, facilitating a lot of cultural exchanges, promoting business, educational opportunities, and so on," he said. "Our priority and the thinking in terms of the high north Arctic practical approach was geared toward Russia."

Due to this conflict, much of the Arctic Council's plans have been stymied, and gatherings like the Arctic Encounter present a common ground with which to inform, learn, and share realities regarding where to go from here.

Northern critical minerals

Dialogue about the north would not be complete without discussions surrounding resources – particularly critical minerals. As the world continues to shift toward renewable energy, the materials needed will need to come from allied nations instead of adversarial countries.

With the needs of each allied nation possessing different critical minerals lists, such as the recent addition to the European Union list being helium for the manufacture of microchips, understanding what each needs and what each can provide has shifted the world's eyes to the veritable treasure trove which rests in Earth's "attic," the Arctic.

However, as stewards of this unique and precious land, those that call the Arctic home also understand the position it now finds itself in and are willing to cooperate as long as a responsible, sustainable, and considerate approach is taken.

"Our lands do provide for us in so many ways, including economically through mining, responsible mining," said NANA Vice President of External and Government Affairs Elizabeth Hensley during a panel regarding critical minerals in Alaska. "For us, we're looking at the end of the mine life of the Red Dog Mine in 2031 and needing to plan for fiscal sustainability beyond that date. The decision to mine on our homelands was made only after there were tons of conversations with our shareholders and nearby communities."

Now regarded as the largest critical minerals operation in the U.S., the Red Dog Mine delivers more than 1 billion pounds of zinc per year, providing more than 5% of the world's zinc.

"Our mining activity was done as a way to bring critical minerals to the globe, and also, most importantly, to help create a sustainable life for our people," continued Hensley. "We are Iñupiat people, we practice subsistence, and our early leaders knew that it was going to be absolutely critical for us to have a revenue source in order to support our life in this modern world – it takes money to pay for a rifle and ammo and your $17 gallon of gas to go hunting on our homelands."

Operating for nearly 30 years already, although the present mine life has permitted up to roughly 2031, Teck has begun exploring steps it can take to extend the life of the mine.

Two potential satellite deposits suggest the resources available to extend the mine up to another 25 to 50 years. While these considerations are still a ways out, NANA is intimately connected to this operation and would take all necessary precautions to ensure these projects in the wider Red Dog District continue the zinc mine's tradition of sustainably providing economic benefits to Alaska's Northwest Arctic region.

"We are blessed to have the Red Dog Mine in our region to support our people through 1,500 jobs annually at the mine site – 900 of which are shareholder jobs – to pay for 80 to 90% of our local bureau government's annual revenue, which funds education, public safety, other local government functions, so the mining activity of the Red Dog Mine, over time since the 80s, has really helped us to remain a place where people can raise their families, be happy, continue to practice our culture and rebuild our health and wellness, reclaim and revitalize our language, all of those things which make us who we are."

Nothing about us without us

Kindly borrowed from Nunavut, "nothing about us without us" is a motto that adequately captures the attitude that many Arctic Indigenous people hold today.

This shares a similar connotation with a phrase tossed around many discussions regarding the Arctic, "if you aren't at the table, you're on the menu."

Despite these somewhat striking yet no less true maxims, the fact of the matter is the Arctic holds the future for climate change, as well as the timer.

"For the few days that I have been listening, folks have remarked that the Arctic is the economic future; don't forget that we've also been the economic past," said Alaska State Representative Josiah Patkotak. "Part of that past, and the future, is the ecology, and the importance of maintaining a good balance. When it comes to going after resources and keeping intact the cultural and traditional aspect and the people that live that cultural and traditional aspect – I always remind folks that when you talk about the ecology of the Arctic, don't leave out the people who are arguably the most important part of the ecology up there."

Another topic that was brought up a few times is a relatively new term that swings a full spectrum from its initial meaning – green colonialism.

As one of the Saami representatives from Norway, Gunn-Britt Retter, mentioned during her panel, the consequences of still ignoring those stewards who have lived in their ancestral lands for generations.

In April 2020, a new wind power project was announced in Saepmie, the ancestral lands of the Indigenous Saami people, who have herded reindeer in Europe's Arctic for centuries.

Although nearly 100% of Norway's electricity production comes from renewable energy sources, the impact that this has had on Saami livelihoods was quickly overlooked.

"We are trying to protect our future and our culture, and we have a case in Norway ... there's a supreme court ruling saying that the permission given to wind energy production plants in the sovereign Saami lands were given the wrong permissions and every day this is breaking the human rights of the Saami people," Retter said. "That supreme court ruling was more than 500 days ago, and the wind turbines are still running."

Facing an interesting swing to the opposite end of the spectrum, it should be self-explanatory that a sustainable and clean energy future should not be at the expense of anyone or anything else. While climate change is imperative, fighting against the injustices and harm that irresponsible resource harvesting and usage has caused should not be done by practicing the same ignorance and disregard that caused the problem in the first place.

While a win eventually did come for the Saami people, at the insistence of a youth environmental group who sat within Norway's Petroleum and Energy Ministry for a week, resulting in the prime minister issuing a formal apology – in the end, however, the wind turbines are still turning.

Ultimately, the Arctic has always provided for those that respect it – Indigenous people are evidence of this fact for millennia – fear should not make allowances in the name of a greater good; persistence and meetings that unite, inform, and educate are the only way through.

It is not lost on those that live in the North that their home is at risk, to climate change, to unchecked development, to irresponsible resource harvesting, or whatever else besides the inclement weather. However, when it comes to maintaining their lands, no one will do it better.

"As the world bestows its eyes upon the Arctic, some of those faces drooling at the mouth, remember that we fought long and hard ... our long-standing fight to have a voice at the table," said Patkotak.


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