Svalbard – A society in process and paradox | Polarjournal
Zdenka Sokolíčková is an ethnologist. She spent two and a half years in Longyearbyen where she has conducted research, interviewing 220 inhabitants about the many changes Svalbard is facing currently. The results were published in her book The Paradox of Svalbard. Image : Dagmara Wojtanowicz.

There are too few publications dealing with the Arctic from Human sciences point of view. So, when a scientific work such as The Paradox of Svalbard is published, we get insights into real ethnological fieldwork, carried out in Longyearbyen by Zdenka Sokolíčková.

A researcher at the University of Hradec Králové in Czechia and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the ethnologist spent two and a half years in the northernmost city in the world, observing and interviewing its inhabitants. The results of her work are now published in a book called The Paradox of Svalbard.

Between climate change and socio-economic changes, Longyearbyen is rapidly changing from a mining community to an international city where more than 50 nationalities live together and which increasingly relies on tourism, research and development. Looming in the background are the challenges posed by an environment that is warming four times faster than the rest of the world. Here is an interview with the author about the paradoxes of a rapidly changing region.

A paradox in process. Longyearbyen is facing the challenges of transitioning from a coal-mining settlement to an international hub, along with problems resulting from climate change and the question of sustainabie development. Image : Mirjana Binggeli.

What is the paradox of Svalbard ?

The paradox of Svalbard is complex and multi-layered. It is like a box with several smaller boxes inside. There is the environmental aspect with temperatures rising and glaciers melting. At the same time, there is a large human presence in a growing and fundamentally unsustainable settlement, where you can find a supermarket with imported goods because nothing can grow there.

Coal mining is considered as something dirty that belongs to the past and shouldn’t be kept while the coal is the only local source of energy available right now. There are projects to use other energy sources, like geothermal, but nothing is ready yet. Diesel is projected to become an energy source but it needs to be imported from the mainland and the war in Ukraine leads to increased prices. And tourism is claiming to be a sustainable business compared to coal mining, but which is also a debatable and paradoxical issue. 

Then there is the social aspect. I got very interested in the Asian population. Their situation had been deteriorating because there are no measures (language course, legislation protecting their living and working conditions, etc.) to help them improve it. It’s difficult to create deep relationships with people coming and going. People will also less involve themselves in political questions. That is a pretty convenient strategy for the Norwegian state because it’s easier to govern. There’s been little investment in measures to strengthen the power of the population.

When you study what life is like in such a place, you realize there are a lot of negative aspects, like in any other place: structural racism, segregation, discrimination, nationalism on the rise. For some people, it is a dream to live there, for some others it’s a nightmare and they had to leave. That is also a paradox. 

The argument of the book is that climate change and globalisation are two kinds of global processes, but I look at how they locally impact and what they locally mean, and show how they’re entangled there.

You moved to Svalbard in February 2019. What was your plan for your research ?

From the beginning, it was planned as long term ethnographical field work, using the traditional ethnographic method: moving to a place and staying there for a longer period of time while taking part in the life of the community. I planned to stay for two years at least and finally stayed there for two and a half.

The overall question I was interested in was how the people there live in this rapid change and economic transition from coal mining to tourism and to science, research and development. And all the social changes that these transitions bring. 

I wanted to reach out to all the segments of the population. I conducted qualitative interviews in English since I couldn’t speak Norwegian. But that was not enough. Learning Norwegian opened the doors to the older population. According to the city registers, there are about 120 people who’ve been living in Longyearbyen for more than 20 years. Often, they are miners and their relatives. Learning Norwegian opened the doors to these people that could express more easily their experience and opinions in their native language. It was an important methodological step that helped a lot.

More and more tourists are visiting Svalbard. This industry has grown considerably, attracting more and more foreign labor in the fields of guiding and services. And this is not without consequences for working conditions. Moreover, if tourism can be an attractive economic source, how can it be linked to sustainability? Image : Screenshot Webcam Port of Longyearbyen.

How many people did you interview ?

The main issue about Longyearbyen is this huge turnover of people coming and going. To capture the changes, I first thought I will need to do a lot of interviews – initially, I planned something like 350 -, but after one year I realized that stories were repeating especially for the ones who’ve been living there for a couple of years only.

Finally, I conducted 220 recorded conversations in total, including 30 out of 120 of those “old-timers” if I may say so.

In the conclusion of your book, you state that instead of returning to nature, you would like to propose to return to politics. What do you mean ?

I left the town in 2021. At the time, it was decided to revoke the voting rights to non-Norwegian. That is actually a return to politics and it means that you’re trying to depoliticize Longyearbyen by disempowering the people who live there and call it home. You take away from them the possibility to be a part of the sustainable solution for this place. 

There are a lot of people who are passionate about this place and would like to contribute. They’re often highly qualified and many of them have great ideas. There is a huge community of artists and developers and huge opportunity to see people coming up with something. But they feel like puppets in geopolitical theater. They’re forced to be apolitical as the state is deciding for this place. A return to politics would be a more humane and sustainable solution for Svalbard because people want to be part of their own future. I wanted to raise this point in an academic debate.

What feedback did you have from Longyearbyen on your book ?

The book was released in July but the publisher was a bit ahead with the printing. I ordered a hundred copies and delivered them to Svalbard in early June. I thought that this would last for a year but all the copies were gone within a few weeks. That was a really nice feedback. It was important for me that those people I worked with and helped me conduct this study have the opportunity to read it.

I’m planning to go in Longyearbyen in October to have a critical conversation at the library about the book. I’m looking forward to opening a debate about what the study says, the kind of questions it raises and the contribution it can bring to the community.

Zdenka Sokolíčková, The Paradox of Svalbard. Climate Change and Globalisation in the Arctic, Pluto Press, 2023

An awarded documentary about Mrs. Sokolíčková’s work was premiered in Locarno last year : The Visitors, Veronika Lišková, Czech Republic / Norway / Slovakia, 2022, 83 min.

Featured image : Christian Bruttel

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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