As Race for Oil-Rich Arctic Heats Up, Inuit Stake Their Claim, Too

Article excerpt

Even from the fishing village of Ilulissat - the largest settlement in Greenland north of the Arctic Circle - this polar region looks like an unlikely place to squabble over: dangerous- looking rocks and stark, treeless peninsulas jut out from the edge of the Greenland ice cap, which spits ever-greater quantities of icebergs into a frigid sea.

But since August, when a Russian submarine placed a flag on the seabed at the North Pole, the Arctic has been high on the world's diplomatic agenda. Five nations are now racing to claim new territory in the central Arctic Ocean, where climate change is expected to open up valuable new shipping routes, oil fields, and mineral deposits.

The region's indigenous people, the Inuit, want a say in how territorial claims unfold.

"We must develop, for the sake of my people and the world at large, a formal international process focusing on the Arctic that includes indigenous people having meaningful voices," Aqqaluk Lynge, president of the Greenland chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) told an international gathering of politicians, scientists, and religious figures here earlier this month. "Or [else] we might just get washed away in the melting ice."

Mr. Lynge, vice chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on indigenous issues, is a longtime advocate of his people, the Inuit, who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. Once called Eskimos - a Cree Indian term now considered pejorative - 160,000 now live in Alaska, northern Canada, easternmost Russia, and Greenland, a Danish territory where they enjoy a large degree of self- government.

For 30 years, they have used the ICC to build bridges to one another and to give themselves a voice in the distant southern capitals that govern their homelands. Since the 1980s, they have argued for the central Arctic to be set aside as a demilitarized zone, much as Antarctica is, and for visa-free travel among the Inuit people.

When global warming began affecting their communities earlier this decade, the ICC's then-president, Sheila Watt-Cloutier of Iqaluit, Canada, traveled to global climate-change meetings to draw attention to their plight and even filed a suit with an international human rights body, charging the United States with destroying their homeland by not regulating greenhouse-gas emissions. In February, she was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Now the Inuit want their voices heard about the future of the central Arctic basin, 2 million square kilometers of seabed that Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States are expected to be divvying up among themselves, based on assertions that their respective continental shelves extend into the area. …