Case study: Alta Hydropower Station

The Alta dam (Photo: Alta dam (Photo: has led to several megaprojects in the circumpolar North that have subsequently been subject to massive protests and even international debates. One prominent classic case is the Alta Hydropower Station and corresponding "Alta Controversy" at the end of 1970's and early 1980's.

When in 1970 the Norwegian government announced its plan to build a large dam in the Alta river in northern Norway to increase energy security, the local indigenous population (the Sámi), along with some environmental groups, started a protest that ended up lasting more than a decade.


Eventually, a court ruling broke the deadlock and a modified version of the dam and reservoir was built. It had the anticipated impacts on the environment and on the local communities' livelihoods, but it had also created a political climate in which the Sámi had managed to make themselves heard.


In fact, the Sámi ended up playing a central and crucial role in the planning process. Originally, the Sámi village of Maze was to be flooded, but protests succeeded in having this plan modified. The power station construction also affected reindeer migration routes and had impact on wild salmon fishing.


The Alta Controversy saw vigorous protest with civil disobedience and pledges made even to the pope. In the end, the power station was build and after the court ruling in favour of the project, protests eventually disappeared in the early 1980's.

However, the legacy of this controversy is showing some positive aspects for the Sami in Norway: The impact on salmon fishing was not as strong as first feared by the protestors. Even though the Sami lost on this particular issue, they seemingly made long-term gains. The Controversy lead to a re-evaluation of Sami's rights as indigenous peoples, the controversy  actually putting the issue on the national political agenda.


A milestone was the passing of the Finnmark Act in 2005. Also Sami interest in their culture was renewed and counteracted efforts of the previous Norwegianization policy. The project also led to numerous studies emphasizing the necessity of thorough socioeconomic and environmental impact assessments during all stages of a planned megaproject in the North.

Sources: UArctic Arctic Portal Megaprojects Megaprojects in the Circumpolar North

Case study: The obshcina system in Russia

People at the St. Basil cathedral in Moscow (Photo: GettyImages)People at the St. Basil cathedral in Moscow (Photo: GettyImages)One of the most prominent challenges for indigenous peoples ever since the onset of colonial restructuring of their societies and economies is the issue of marginalization on their own land.


Questions of ownership, but also the right to utilize land in a certain way and ultimately the self-determination of indigenous peoples have gained growing importance in social, economic and political discourses, especially with the rise of indigenous peoples movements after the second world war around the Arctic.

In this context falls the concept and establishment of obshchinas, that are a specific phenomenon of Russia and inextricably linked to historic and contemporary socio-economic processes there.


The origin of the concept can be summarized as follows: Historically, Russian ethnographers used the term obshchina to denote the basic unit of indigenous political economic community, based on family-clan relations. The concept evolved through the nineteenth century to include the notion of territoriality: an obshchina was then known as an indigenous family-clan, a political community that exercised control over its traditional lands and resources.

It is a kinship / clan based concept to describe the local economic influence of indigenous people over their land. Even though the indigenous societies became restructured – often by force – the term obshchina endured. The term and concept somewhat experienced a "renaissance" when after the collapse of the Soviet Union the federal government created legislation to enable indigenous peoples to assert claims to traditional lands and resources in 1992. Despite some delays due to the turmoils following the collapse of the Soviet Union, places such as the Sakha Republic within the Russian Federation was allowing the creation of obshchinas already the same year. 


However, the process of redistribution has been quite difficult. District level governments (governments below the republic or provincial levels) are required to grant sufficient land to support traditional activities such as reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing. Land is granted only for traditional activity purposes; industrial resource development and other "modern" activities are beyond the mandate of obshchinas. 


This can be seen as somewhat ambiguous, as it could be interpreted as a prolongation of paternalistic approaches of states towards their indigenous peoples or even discriminatory, as it seems that indigenous people are not allowed to "modernize" their livelyhoods.


In terms of the type of legal rights accorded to obshchinas, it is notable that they are much weaker than the comprehensive land claim agreements in North America. Obshchinas do not provide proprietary rights, but do create exclusive rights of usage to obschina members. They can in theory stop modern resource development on traditional lands. However, this right in principal is limited, as resource development can prevail with appropriate compensation to the members of an obshchina. 


With the development of Russian society after the soviet collapse, the courts have increasingly shown efforts to enforce established Indigenous people's rights, making the federal system more considering towards the special features of indigenous peoples cultures.

Sources: Arctic Human Development Report: Land Claims, Ownership, and Co-management Indigenous Rights and Self-determination:Models and Options

The Cree in James Bay

The dam that was built in James Bay (Photo: GettyImages)The dam that was built in James Bay (Photo: GettyImages)The Cree just make it into the Arctic; they live on the border of the Arctic definition provided in the Arctic Human Development Report. They live in James Bay, which is a region of northern Quebec, in the northeastern part of Canada. The area is a vast wilderness and can only be reached by a single road. The remoteness is immense.


The James Bay Cree count around 12.000 people who live in nine communities from 550 in population to around 3300, the Chisasibi. The fewest live in Nemaska, 560 in total.


They speak their own dialect but have learned English in schools. Their dialect is only one of few indigenous people's languages in Canada which is not in endangerment due to few speakers. The majority of the Cree are today Christian and they emphasize egalitarianism.


The Cree have lived off their land for 9000 years for food and resources. Among other, they hunt geese, ducks, moose's, beavers, otters, lynxes, fish, muskrats and waterfowls. They respect the competence and needs of the individuals and in their world humans and their societies are an inseparable part of the universe. It is made up of social beings, animals being willful beings, phenomena and objects all at the same time.


Much like in the Arctic region as a whole, the population has been growing. This has resulted in a change for the Cree, especially regarding food. They have adjusted to this scarcity by importing more food so they would not harm the environment and endanger stocks of species they hunt.


For the Cree the main problems are forestry clear-cutting, pollution of the land, the movement to declare the province of Canada a country separate to Canada and the issue that made the Cree famous amongst indigenous peoples around the world, and a true example for them, the large scale hydro projects.

 A dam in James Bay (Photo: GettyImages)A dam in James Bay (Photo: GettyImages)

The prospect of an enourmous hydropower project in their backyard  must have come as a shock to the Cree people, learning from it in newspapers in 1971. "I feel like I have been punched," one of them said about the decision.


They started a campaign against the project but it was too little and too late. A court case in the years 1972-1973 stopped work on the hydro project for a short time but in the end the project started again and was completed.


In 1975 the Cree signed a treaty and settled, signing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, giving the Cree ownership rights to areas around their communities, exclusive hunting and fishing rights over a large territory, regional self-government powers, cash compensation and other privileges, in exchange for allowing Hydro-Quebec, the power company, to proceed with development. In addition, the Cree benefitted from the project also in other ways Hydro-Quebec investing  heavily in infrastructure in the area.


The Cree were pioneers in seeking their rights for the land they have lived on for thousands of year as indigenous people. They became leaders in the struggle to gain international rights and an example for other indigenous groups. As well as gaining sympathy  from the rest of the Canada and people all over the world, the Cree raised awareness of environmental protection and the roles of humans in the environment.


The Cree managed to raise discussions among the public on large development projects and gained much attention worldwide.


Source: Arctic Human Development Report

ICC sues the United States

Climate change has led to change of ways for the indigenous people in the Arctic (Photo: GettyImages)Climate change has led to change of ways for the indigenous people in the Arctic (Photo: GettyImages)The Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) provides a major international collective voice for more than 155.000 Inuit from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and the Chukotka Peninsula.


On behalf of people in Alaska the ICC in 2005 filed a legal petition against the government of the United States of America, saying its climate change policies violate human rights.

The ICC claimed the USA failed to control emissions of greenhouse gases, which in turn damaged the livelihood in the Arctic. The ICC demanded that the US limited its emission. The lawsuit was against the USA because it is the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world, and it has refused to sign and ratify the Kyoto protocol.


When filing the petition Ms. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, then the elected Chair of the ICC said this:


"We submit this petition not in a spirit of confrontation—that is not the Inuit way—but as a means of inviting and promoting dialogue with the United States of America within the context of the climate change convention. Our purpose is to educate not criticize, and to inform not condemn. I invite the United States of America to respond positively to our petition. As well, I invite governments and non-governmental organizations worldwide to support our petition and to never forget that, ultimately, climate change is a matter of human rights."


As she said, the purpose is to educate, and that is exactly what the lawsuit did. The ICC lost the case, but it gained huge reaction from the public about climate change and what it was doing to the lifestyles of indigenous peoples.

Source: ICC

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