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I am writing this post from Arkhangelsk, Russia, where the conference Arctic: Territory of Dialogue is taking place. I have time to write a blogpost in the middle of all the buzz because my access to the conference was refused by the organising committee.
I learned about the refusal at the accreditation desk of the Arctic Forum today (March 29, ed). This happened after the organisers of a seminar about environmental responsibility had reached out to Greenpeace Russia for help to find a foreign expert who could join the discussion. We had agreed my participation with them, but the organising committee of the forum had decided otherwise.
I am hoping this was a simple misunderstanding. There are some – albeit few – representatives of NGOs among the 1,500 participants, including Greenpeace Russia’s Vladimir Chuprov, whose participation in a panel discussion was confirmed early on. It is still worrying to think about discussions about the future of the Arctic with thin representation of the civil society.
Greenpeace Russia has voiced concern over the environmental damage related to the industrial development in the Arctic. Travelling in northern Russia and speaking with local indigenous communities, they have documented 450 illegal industrial waste sites and numerous oil spills.
In the Khanty-Mansiysk region alone there were 2,538 officially registered accidents involving oil pipelines in 2014. Every single year the Russian oil industry, according to official numbers, spills more than twice the amount of oil released by the record-breaking Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
And despite their president in 2013 pledging to grow the network of protected areas in Arctic, by 2017 it has decreased by 12.5% due to the fact that part of the territory of the reserve Franz Joseph Land has lost its status as protected. Oil licence blocks are further slicing down the protected waters around Franz Josef Land, Great Arctic Nature Reserve, Wrangel Island and regions of the Russian Arctic National Park.
It’s not all about Russia, of course – Nordic countries such as Denmark, Iceland and Norway, famous for being green and wealthy, are blocking progress in Arctic marine protection in international fora such as the Ospar. Norwegian oil interests were lobbying hard to prevent the European Parliament from stating that there should be an international agreement to ban oil drilling in Arctic waters.
My home country, Finland, will be taking on the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May. Its international Arctic agenda stresses the UN’s sustainable development goals and implementing the Paris climate agreement. These are important goals. The challenge for the Finnish government is to help the countries that are dragging their feet to pick up the pace. I believe this is not possible without support from civil society: the millions of people around the world who have been inspired by the unique, fragile beauty of the Arctic and are committed to a sustainable future vision for the region.
It just so happens that Finland is a stronghold of the movement to save the Arctic, with more than 80,000 Finns having joined. According to a recent opinion survey, four out of five Finns want the government to advance Arctic marine reserves.
With the Arctic Council chairmanship, Finland also has the opportunity to make Arctic politics more open and transparent. By introducing practices that help the civil society participate in the discussion about the future of the Arctic, Finland can leave an important legacy for the Council whose chairmanship will move further to Iceland, and then Russia.
I am leaving Arkhangelsk tonight. I’ve found the city overall very friendly and welcoming – hoping to return one day to find the forum will welcome my participation. Saving the Arctic for future generations requires a conversation more diverse than a dialogue – and that words turn into action.