Arctic Climate Impact: The struggles of Inuit peoples against social and cultural dislocation Print E-mail
 London -- Saturday February 24, 2007

Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Our stark and dangerous reality

We Inuit have lived in the Arctic for millennia. Our culture and economy reflect the land and all that it gives. We are connected to the land. Our understanding of who we are - our age-old knowledge and wisdom - comes from the land. It is our struggle to thrive in the harshest environment that has given us the answers we need to survive in the modern world. That outlook, a respectful human outlook that sees connection to everything, should inform the debate on climate change as these monumental changes threaten the memory of where we were, who we are and all that we wish to be.

Discussion of climate change often tends to focus on political, economic and technical issues rather than human impacts and consequences. But Inuit and other northerners are already experiencing the direct impact of human-induced climate change, and we face dramatic problems with possible social and cultural dislocation in coming years.

For many generations, we Inuit have closely observed the environment, and have accurately predicted weather, enabling us to travel safely on the sea-ice to hunt our marine mammals, walrus and polar bears. Nowhere else in the world does ice and snow represent mobility as it does for us in the Arctic. Ice and snow are our highways that lead us to our supermarkets, the environment, and link us to other communities.

Several Inuit villages in the circumpolar world have already been so damaged by global warming that relocation, at the cost of millions of dollars, is now the only option. Plans are well under way to relocate communities, especially in Alaska. Climate change is not just a theory to inhabitants of the Arctic, it is a stark and dangerous reality. Human-induced climate change is undermining the ecosystem on which we Inuit depend for physical and cultural survival.

The Arctic is now considered the early warning, the health barometer for the planet and whatever happens in the world happens first in the Arctic. I have said many times in my talks around the world that if you wish to see how healthy the planet is, come and take its pulse in the Arctic.

Today we are told that as it is already too late to make effective change so we must just try to adapt. And adapt we will as best we can, but I am a strong believer, as are many others well versed on this issue, that there is still a window of opportunity in the next 10 to 15 years to make effective changes to how we live in the global community. Indeed, there is still time to prevent the stark predictions of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment from unfolding fully as it relates to the loss of our hunting culture in my grandson's lifetime.
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London -- Saturday February 24, 2007

One woman, fighting to save her people from extinction

By Andrew Gumbel

If Nobel Peace Prizes could refreeze the polar ice caps, then Sheila Watt-Cloutier would be a very happy woman indeed because her people are, "defending the right to be cold".

As it is, the Canadian activist, who lives in a remote community up above the Arctic circle, is thrilled to have her name put forward as one of the 181 nominees for this year's accolade from the Nobel committee, because it can only advance the cause for which she has been fighting for the past 12 years - protecting the Inuit peoples whose lives are directly and most immediately threatened by the change in the world's climate and raising awareness about global warming. As she said recently: "It's been a long haul and a daunting task to get the message out. When you're 155,000 people at the top of the world, there aren't very many people who even know who you are or what you're facing."

It is far too soon to say who will emerge as this year's Nobel Prize winner - the nominations were announced yesterday, and the peace prize is not awarded until October - but already the environment has emerged as this year's big theme and Ms Watt-Cloutier, as the tribune of a remote people living with the stark realities of global warming on a daily basis, is perhaps the closest thing the planet has to a beacon of hope for a better future.

Two Norwegian members of parliament, Boerge Brende and Heidi Soerensen, announced very publicly that they were championing two candidacies this year: Al Gore, who put climate change on the global agenda thanks to the runaway success of his global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and Ms Watt-Cloutier, who has worked "from the ground up" to save the planet.

Mr Gore is, naturally, the superstar in the Nobel Peace Prize field. Not only is he a former vice-president and a man who, in his own words, "used to be the next president of the United States". He is even up for an Oscar this weekend, and seems quite likely to win it.

If the Nobel committee decides, though, that he is too polarising a figure, or simply too political - there is still talk, after all, that he could run for the White House again next year - then Ms Watt-Cloutier would appear to be the next best thing to a frontrunner in the field. Her story is exactly the kind of narrative the Nobel judges seem to like - an ordinary woman from a very unusual part of the world who has used her determination and force of character to put herself and her cause on the political map.

Ms Watt-Cloutier may not be a household name around the world - yet - but she has been singularly effective in getting herself in front of Canadian government commissions and United Nations panels and pleading her cause in documentaries and media interviews. What she does, by her own definition, is "put a human face" on the devastations being wrought by global warming and explain its effects on real people, their lives and livelihoods.

Listen to her, and you will hear about even experienced hunters falling through the thinning ice and drowning, about food becoming scarce, about roads and runways crumbling because of changes to the permafrost, about houses collapsing, about contaminants showing up in the breast milk of Inuit women, about new non-native plant and animal species - robins and barn owls, for example - so strange that the Inuit language does not have words for them.

A study championed by the organisation she represented for many years - the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, or ICC - showed back in 2004 that average annual temperatures are increasing more than twice as fast in the Arctic as in the rest of the world. "We on a daily basis observe the minute changes that are occurring in the environment," she said. "We are the guardians of the environment, in fact, because we're on the land every day ... we're the early warning system for the rest of the world."

Ms Watt-Cloutier did not need to go out into the world to be politicised on this issue; the issue came right to her doorstep. From her home in the far northern town of Iqaluit, which sits on Baffin Island in Canada's recently formed Nunavut province, she can see the ice caps melting and the permafrost thawing. "We're already living this reality," she said. "It's not a theory in the future, it's right now in the present."

She talks a lot about the curtailed icy season: how the polar ice cap ice is forming later and later each year and breaking up earlier in the spring. "The sea-ice season is a lot shorter than it used to be. And as a result we have less time to hunt on the ice. Our wildlife, the polar bear, has a lot less time so they're become a lot thinner.

"What you see on the surface is no longer what it is underneath. The Arctic sink is warming from under, and the ice is changing from under as well. So the rules have all changed and so has the wisdom we pass on to our young people. Many of our elders are being stumped by it, because it is so unpredictable."

Ms Watt-Cloutier was born in 1953 in the town of Kuujjuaq, in what was then northern Quebec. For the first 10 years of her life, the only transport she knew was the dog sled. Her mother was a renowned spiritual healer and interpreter, so she drank deeply from her own Inuit culture. She went away for many years in pursuit of a first-class education, attending schools in Nova Scotia and Manitoba before graduating from McGill University in Montreal in education and human development. She spent the first part of her career working in public health and education, and as a cultural go-between and interpreter shuttling between English, French and the native Inuktitut language. Her daughter - she has two children - is an acclaimed practitioner of Inuit arts including throat singing and drum dancing.

By the early 1990s, Ms Watt-Cloutier was already known as a formidable community leader in Nunavik. It wasn't until 1995, when she was elected president of the Canadian branch of the ICC, that she threw her energies into the fight against global warming. Once she started, though, she was well-nigh unstoppable. She helped negotiate the Stockholm Convention banning the manufacture and use of a group of chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants - toxic nasties used in both agriculture and industry that were causing contamination in humans.

Ms Watt-Cloutier has had to face her critics, too. The most common attack against her is one of hypocrisy - because the Inuit themselves use fossil fuels and non-biodegradable materials and are thus contributing to their own demise.

Her answer to the charge is straightforward. "Yes, we own airlines, we have skidoos, we have trucks," she acknowledges, "but the reality is our contribution to this problem is very minute. It's off the radar in terms of what we are creating ourselves, whether it's the toxins or the greenhouse gases. These things are coming from afar." Afar means, first and foremost, the United States, which produces 26 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases on its own. So it is only appropriate she is travelling to Washington next week - entering the very belly of the beast. The Nobel prize nomination may not achieve overnight results, but it will certainly guarantee the kind of attention she needs if her people - and perhaps the planet - are to survive and thrive.

Among the other nominations

Al Gore

Since losing the presidential election to George Bush in 2000, Al Gore has become an ardent climate change campaigner. An Inconvenient Truth, his rebuke to climate-change deniers, has earned him a Peace Prize nomination, thanks to Norwegian politicians Boerge Brende and Heidi Soerensen.

Oprah Winfrey

The US chat show host's fans have been petitioning to have her nominated for her philanthropic work. She is believed to be among the Nobel nominees, having opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa for bright girls who are from underprivileged backgrounds.

Irena Sendler

Now 96, the Polish Catholic smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto between 1942 and 1943 and set up adoptions by Polish families. She buried lists of the children's names so they could be reunited. Badly beaten by the Gestapo, she escaped and survived the war in hiding.

Evo Morales

A nomination that will no doubt raise eyebrows in the White House is that of the anti-US Bolivian leader. Bolivia's first indigenous head of state since the Spanish conquest, his promises of a better deal for ordinary Bolivians and his willingness to confront the US has won him admirers.

Martti Ahtisaari

The former Finnish prime minister has been regularly nominated for the peace prize. His work in Namibia, the former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and most recently in Indonesia has made him one of the world's most successful peace negotiators. He was one of the favourites to win in 2005.