Steely, blue glaciers, stabbing the sky. Raging blizzards and crippling cold. A vast, blindingly white sheet. These commonly held images of the Arctic would put most people off ever visiting the region, but Bruce Parry knows better: 'the Arctic is not the pristine, white landscape people assume it is. In fact, it's quite green for some of the year,' he explains. 'It's (also) got a very rich environment, but it is changing. It's at the forefront of change. And the climate there is changing faster than anywhere else.'
The adventurer and TV presenter of the well known Tribe and Amazon series explains that he and his team embarked on their latest project, Arctic, mainly to see how environmental degradation was affecting the lands and native people of the North. The situation they discovered was more complex than they had expected.
To begin with, rather than confronting a uniform problem, each indigenous group of the Arctic seemed to be facing their own distinctive issues. To mention just a few: Greenlanders were primarily concerned about rapidly thinning ice sheets, which threatened both the safety of their hunters and the survival of the animals they depend on; the Gwitchin people found the recent exploration for fuel oil has disrupted the feeding and migration habits of the caribou, essential to their livelihoods; and the Athabascan Indians of northern Alberta, Canada, have lost their land, fishing and hunting grounds to the extractive industries.
Parry also learned that the strategies for dealing with each of these changes were as heterogeneous as the people themselves. Some, such as the Gwitchin, seemed to struggle: although they have adopted many elements of modernity, without strong caribou herds, Parry claims, 'they have real doubt that they can exist'.
Others, including the Greenlanders, have realised that their entire lifestyles may have to change: with the decline of hunted meat in their diets, they are forced to buy food in supermarkets. Given the remoteness of the area they live in, food prices are exorbitant. In order to pay, they will need to take on waged work, thus altering their traditional lifestyles, some argue, irreparably.
Facing the future
However, it is the case of the Athabascan First Nations which perhaps stands out as an illustration of the complexity of current Arctic affairs. While many Athabasca were horrified by the destruction of their land, and consequently, their customary way of life, others saw the oil rush as an opportunity.
Jim Boucher is an indigenous Canadian and First Nation Chief. He is also the Chairman of the Board of the Fort McKay Group, a consortium that provides catering, accommodation and other services to oil industry workers. Boucher explained to Parry that after many protests and much serious consideration, he felt his people had no choice but to participate in the exploitation of their land; he believed that given the economic weight, governmental support and powerful lobbying supporting the oil companies, corporate greed would inevitably triumph the First Nation's rights. He thus gripped a negative situation and extracted all the positives he could from it, with the aim of ensuring his people's future security and well being.
In a sense, he certainly did that. Once on the edge of poverty, the Chief's kin have benefited from the Fort McKay Group, now valued at over $200 million. Most of them now live in modern, detached homes with new cars and speedboats parked outside. On the other hand, of course, the loss of the ancient Boreal forests and their crystal clear waters, now too polluted to drink, was a high price for the Athabasca to pay, and with their loss of land comes the loss of their traditions and culture.
For Parry, this is nothing less than tragic, as he believes the traditions of the people of the north typically show 'more cooperation and less competition, more sharing and less greed, a respect for all life. After all my travels, I see a clear message in this. The many communities here offer us a way to think more about what it means to be human.'
Yet, ever the diplomat, Parry is reluctant to point his finger at anyone; indeed, he acknowledges that by travelling with a crew to make Arctic, he is, in a way, part of the problem. He also notes that on a small planet, 'we are all connected in some way, and what we do (in one place) can have an impact on people on the other side of the globe'. So, given the tough choices we all face in a rapidly changing, modern world, how can we minimise the impact we make? He posed this question to international researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute. Once again, there was no easy solution.
Victims of climate change
Kim Holmen explained to him that as a climate researcher, he is often criticised for not knowing the exact answers to such questions, but the reality is that even the world's leading climatologists cannot precisely predict the consequences of global warming; nor can they offer any quick- fix solutions for it. While an individual's actions may be important, Holmen believes that governments and cultures must ensure that people can make 'good choices'; in other words, a marriage of policy and cultural change is what is really needed.
What Holmen does know for sure is that the Arctic is a 'very sensitive area and will continue to change...most of the species that are dependent on this environment will struggle (but) change in the Arctic is not just for polar bears or the reindeer, not only for the people who live here, but also...for much of the rest of the world. And that is certainly serious'.
A vast, blindingly white sheet? Perhaps a better metaphor for the Arctic would be that of a quilt: complex, colourful, and crucially, comprised of a collection of interconnected patches, of which we are one.
Arctic by Bruce Parry is published by Conway and is available at www.anovabooks.com
Cheryl Morris is a freelance journalist
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