How war affects Arctic native communities | Polarjournal
Population of the Bering Strait where the Russian and American coasts are close to each other. Arctic Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of the war in Ukraine. Image: Heiner Kubny.

In the very first months of 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in a conflict with repercussions that would be felt on a global scale. Between inflation, security and environmental concerns, and human rights, what are the consequences of this conflict on the Arctic Indigenous populations ?

With Finland as a new NATO member, and Sweden that should soon follow, the question now is how member countries Arctic Indigenous populations’ concerns will be taken into account on their own territories. And what about the militarization of their lands?

These questions are all the more crucial as the Arctic has long been a strategic element, not only economically but also politically and militarily. These questions are all the more crucial as the Arctic has long been a strategic element, not only economically but also politically and militarily. Hence the concerns expressed by Indigenous leaders, particularly during the last Arctic Encounter symposium that took place between 29 and 31 March in Anchorage, Alaska : «When we think about hard security issues whether it is in NATO or the States or Canada – or in Russia – if it does not include Indigenous people at those tables, it is going to have negative impacts and implications for Indigenous people. So NATO should include us in their discussions», declared Edward Alexander, co-chairman of the US Gwich’in Council Internation (GCI) to High North News on last March.

The cost of living

Beyond the security issues, there is another problem for Arctic communities: inflation. The question of energy supply and the disorganization of the circulation of goods have caused rising inflation on a global scale, which had already begun during the pandemic.

The general increase in costs, particularly for food and basic goods, as well as for energy, weighs more heavily on the budgets of populations living in the Arctic. The goods are indeed transported there by sea or by air, the significant cost of transport being added to the price of the imported article. Uploaded by residents of some Nunavut communities, videos on social medias display the prices of common products sold in local supermarkets. We can see the $17 pack of sugar next to the $40 bottle of laundry detergent, as many of these communities are already affected by precariousness.

And the situation for the Indigenous populations on the Russian side is hardly more enviable: « Communities living in remote areas are particularly affected by rising prices or hit by the lack of essential goods like medicine or spare parts for their essential equipments due to new trade barriers.”, according to Simon Benthaus, Program Coordinator for the Arctic within the Society for Threatened Peoples.

Russia, this immense territory of 17 million km2. Its coastline accounts for 53% of the Arctic Ocean. The Russian Indigenous population totals 250,000 people. Image: Google Maps.

The impact on the environment, that great unknown

Russian oil, gas and mineral deposits have therefore become crucial for Russia. However, these deposits are sometimes located in isolated territories where Indigenous populations may live. But what happens to these populations in the face of the enormous economic stakes on their land? And what about the environmental issues related to the possible exploitation of these deposits?

A question already raised by the Arctic Council, which is concerned not only about the environmental issue in Russia, but also about the “data gap”. With the Council’s activities put on hold because of the war in Ukraine, all scientific collaboration is at stake, with Russian data being now inaccessible to the rest of the scientific community

Human rights

Concerns related to the recruitment of Indigenous peoples in the conflict or acts of intimidation or censorship are raised by human rights associations: « The repression of critical voices in Russia has increased since the beginning of the war. For example, probably the last independent Indigenous news platform critical of the war has been blocked in Russia. In addition, a disproportionate number of Indigenous people are dying in this war.”, says Simon Benthaus.

The question of Indigenous fighters among Russian army and the lack of information about them is also a source of concern for Arctic Indigenous organizations: « We’re getting mixed messages about what’s going on with Indigenous peoples over there. For instance, the official voice that we’re hearing is, “Everything’s fine with Indigenous peoples.” Yet on the back channels we hear that it’s not so fine.”, said Gary Harrison, chief of Alaska’s Chickaloon Native Village and member of the Arctic Athabaskan Council to Alaska Beacon on 3 April, while expressing the desire to keep the dialogue opened.

Featured image: Dr. Michael Wenger

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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