In January 2021, under the cover of the long polar night, seven Inuit hunter and residents from communities across Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada hopped on their snowmobiles and qamutiks (sleds) and began their journeys – some as long as three days – over the snow and mountains to the Mary River iron ore mine. Its operator, Baffinland, seeks to double the amount of ore produced and build a new railway to haul the commodity to port. Scaling up, the company argues, is the only way can manage to stay profitable – even as iron ore prices rise to highs not seen in a decade. But the protestors hailing from from Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay, who call themselves the Nuluujaat Land Guardians, argue that expansion will irreversibly harm their lands and access to food.
For six frigid days, they blockaded the mine’s operations. In a Facebook Live call, one protestor explained in Inuktitut: “We are here at Mary River. We have blocked the airstrip, we have blocked the road. We have a fire going as a demonstration. The transportation of iron ore has been halted.” Though the temperatures did not stop them, a court injunction eventually did.
Over the course of the week, the mine’s two operators – the majority shareholder being Nunavut Iron Ore, Inc., which is owned by a Houston-based private equity fund, and the minority shareholder being Luxembourg’s ArcelorMittal – lost $14 million. But the residents of communities in North Baffin Island risk losing access to their hunting, fishing, whaling, and sealing grounds forever.
Writing in an op-ed published on May 6 in the Toronto Star, the Inuit hunters and community members explained:
“We did not take this action lightly. We did this because of how much we have at stake. Our culture and way of life are rooted in the land. This is about our right to survive, our right to eat, and our right to continue to live off the land as we choose, as Inuit have done for millennia.”
From Mary River to the Thames
A few months after the blockade ended, thousands of miles across the Atlantic in England along the Thames River from which so many Arctic expeditions have set sail, the fate of another group of seven climate activists was decided in London’s Southwark Crown Court. Located in a tony part of the British capital near a sprawling food market and chic cafes and gastropubs, the setting couldn’t be farther apart from Baffin Island. But the protestors who awaited the jury’s verdict on a fine spring day are equally committed to the cause of protecting the environment and fighting extraction.
Two years prior, the seven accused individuals—among them two co-founders of the Extinction Rebellion (XR), the climate movement demanding that governments declare a climate and ecological emergency and commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2025—emblazoned Shell’s London headquarters with slogans declaring: “Shell knows!” “Stop Ecocide! Who are the real criminals?” Conscientiously, the environmental activists had used “green” graffiti materials including “chalk-based spray paint, molasses mixed with flour to create ‘fake oil,’ and crayons,” as the XR website details. Known as the “Shell 7,” the protestors did not deny the evidence of their crimes. All but one pled not guilty (the lone guilty plea arising, sadly, from extenuating childcare reasons). It seemed their fate was sealed. Companies like Shell and Baffinland can freely sully the Earth with oil sludge and ore tailings, but throwing molasses on a building will have you facing jail time.
Yet in a stunning decision, the jury acquitted the six activists who had pled not guilty. Their victory has cheered climate activists and their allies around the world who are marshalled against carbon-intensive extraction. There is a sense that sympathy for climate change activism, once seen as radical, may be taking hold amongst the wider public.
The fact that the decision was meted out at a courthouse not far from the glassy, gleaming 310-m Shard Building, designed by architect Renzo Piano to resemble a piece of ice, was fitting. Eight years ago, in 2013, six Greenpeace female climbers scaled the skyscraper for 15 hours to protest Shell’s plans for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. The one climber who made it to the top, Polish activist Wiola Smul, unfurled a banner reading, “Save the Arctic.”
Snowmobilizing: defending the Arctic from within
However well-intended, environmental NGO slogans like “Save the Arctic” have long been viewed as patronizing by those living in the region. In my experience speaking with residents of small towns in northern Alaska and Canada, the last thing that many of them want is for craft brew-drinking, rock-climbing liberals to tell them what to do with their homeland. Conserve it? Develop it? Either way, it should be their decision, and they don’t need anyone to rescue them.
People living in the harsh environment of the Arctic also sometimes scorn progressive southern urbanites living in the wealthy hubs of the global climate movement, like London and San Francisco. There, it’s easy enough to live a vegan lifestyle, cycle around, and preach one’s opposition to fossil fuels. Would these people ever be able to actually feed themselves if push came to shove? And are they really about to give up all their imported luxuries, weekend city-breaks, and all manner of carbon-intensive pursuits?
Yet now, there are growing signs across the Arctic – specifically the Inuit world – that resistance is taking root among people who do, in fact, know how to feed themselves. It is partly out of concern that future generations may not be able to fish in clean waters or hunt on undisturbed land that protestors are mobilizing. Across Nunavut, protests in solidarity with the hunters blockading operations at Mary River sprung up in Iqaluit, the territory’s capital (pop. 7,740), and three other towns: Igloolik, Naujaat and Taloyoak. In a CBC news report, Elder Annie Nattaq explained in Inuktitut why she was protesting at the Iqaluit Seniors Centre: “Although Pond Inlet is far from here, I don’t get fish or whale meat from there anymore. I’m affected too. I support the people of Pond Inlet.” Elsewhere, one woman held a sign that spelled out, “I WANT TO EAT MY GRANDKIDS CATCH.” Others held pieces of cardboard with messages written in Inuktitut, attesting to both the vitality and visual power of the native language.
On the other side of Baffin Bay, skepticism towards resource extraction is also apparent in Greenland, which is a majority Inuit nation. In its April snap general elections, left-wing, pro-environment party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) commanded a plurality of votes, defeating the ruling Siumut party. IA opposes the Kvanefjeld mining project, which would involve digging out both rare earths and uranium. The mine might still move forward, but negotiations will probably be more difficult for the Australian owner, Greenland Minerals, now that IA is calling the shots.
Meanwhile in Russia, the show must go on
If Inuit protestors and voters make the business of extraction too hard, global corporations may head for the exit altogether, leaving in a hurry if they have to. A few days ago, Baffinland suggested that if it’s not allowed to expand, it may have to shutter operations as soon as next year. The Mary River iron ore mine would then just be written off as a cost. The company would recalibrate its balance sheet thanks to its mines across the Americas and former Soviet Union. And the people of Baffin Island would be left with an open pit, a road, and a port scarring their lands, all for just five years of mining.
The ease with which mining companies can up sticks worries many more moderately minded residents who see a balance between development and conservation, as the comments section on any Nunatsiaq News article about the iron ore mine makes clear. Here’s one example of a highly up-voted comment on the story about Baffinland’s threats to mothball the mine:
If the tide turns against extraction in places like Canada and Greenland, northern mining activity may head to the one place where resistance is minimal and where extraction continues full bore: Russia. Construction is proceeding apace on Arctic 2, a major LNG project across from the Yamal Peninsula. Nornickel is pushing to open new deposits, including of palladium. In Yakutia, Russian coal mining company Kolmar is seeking to double production this year. And in the Kola Peninsula towns of Kirovsk, Monchegorsk, and Nikel, as I’ve written about, you can smell the metal in the air.
Meanwhile, the Nordic countries, while they still are pursuing mining, are also embracing the blue economy, digital economy, and tourism. With their high level of infrastructure and urbanization compared to other parts of the Arctic, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland are in a strong position to do so. Nonetheless, residents in Greenland and Canada may begin pushing their leaders for development that has a smaller environmental footprint, too. In the American Arctic, although Alaska’s economy depends heavily on oil, the Biden administration will try to reorient it away from fossil fuels. The other day, the White House reversed President Trump’s last-minute rule that tried to make it easier for drillers to operate.
Russia could thus become the last bastion of conventional Arctic resource extraction that leaves a massive mark on the tundra and taiga. With little recourse there for local protest and the Kremlin’s strangulation of civil society, movements against development will only be able to happen far away in places like London, where climate activism is a regular occurrence. Last Saturday, as part of a series of XR-led “rebellion of one” protests last Saturday, one individual glued himself to Tower Bridge.
More creatively and boldly, yet (surprisingly) more legally, protestors might also take to the high seas. Oil platforms on their way to site are vulnerable to protest, as the Greenpeace activists who scaled the Prirazlomnaya rig in 2013 demonstrated. Russia, perhaps in an act of international altruism before the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, dropped charges against them. However, Moscow’s detainment of the Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise vessel on which the protestors were sailing was actually found to be illegal by the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, as protest is considered an acceptable form of the use of international waters. It’s doubtful such protestors would ever take their activism to extraction sites within Russia, however.
But rather than needing to rely on activists in friendlier jurisdictions, locals who might be opposed to extraction may be increasingly able to take their movement online – especially as internet penetration in the Arctic increases. Improving connectivity across the Arctic may blur the boundaries between global and local protests. The many comments on nearly every Nunatsiaq News article testify to the vibrancy of online life in some of Earth’s most remote spaces. People in places like Pond Inlet, where public spaces are in short shrift and where the temperature can prohibit going outside even for a minute, have embraced virtual communication. Rather than just using digital platforms to talk to people on the other side of town, could Arctic residents use them to mobilize with people across the Inuit world, for instance, or all the way on the other side of the planet?
Maybe so. As Kim Stanley Robinson writes in his 2020 “cli-fi” novel Ministry of the Future, which paints an apocalyptic picture of Earth just a decade from now in which blistering heat waves and liquefying glaciers kill millions of people: “Global revolutions these days were strange, Mary thought, being as virtual as everything else.”
I read that line yesterday.
Today, I came across the headline, “Cyberattack Shuts Down America’s Most Important Energy Pipeline.” The divides between truth and fiction and between the real and the virtual, it seems, are also dissolving.
While researching this post, I came across an evocative description of an iceberg off Baffin Island spotted on August 25, 1836 by British explorers.
“At sunset, they were stopped near an extensive floe, where, from the effects of pressure, some ponderous masses, not unlike the blocks of a Titanian ruin, had been heaped up to the height of thirty feet. ‘The land, blue from distance, and beautifully soft as contrasted with the white cold glare of the interminable ice around, reflecting by the setting sun the tints of the intervening masses thrown into the most picturesque groups and forms, spires, turrets, and pyramids, many in deep shade, presented altogether a scene sufficient for a time to cheat the imagination and withdraw the mind from the cheerless reality of their situation.'”