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.
"The Inuit have lived in the Arctic for a very, very long time and we should have some role to play in regard to what happens here," says Duane Smith, president of ICC-Canada, who is based in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. "We are the ones living here, and any detrimental impact to the area will have an effect on our way of life and our culture."
While nobody lives in the contested region around the North Pole, Inuit leaders say activities there will affect their communities, some of which are only a few hundred miles away. Increased shipping over the pole or through the Northwest Passage could disrupt ice cover and the migration patterns of animals that hunters rely on. Military rivalries might mean more land being appropriated for naval and air bases, which in the past have left environmental and cultural degradation. Then there's the possibility of oil spills, if petroleum is indeed found.
"We experienced the Exxon Valdez spill and we've seen the devastation that it brought to our communities in Alaska," says ICC chairman Patricia Cochran of Nome, Alaska. "We're concerned about increased traffic, increased pollution, and increased number of visitors to communities that aren't used to an influx of population."
Some are calling on the outside world to take a deep breath, step back, and perhaps consider protecting the region under an international treaty. "One of ICC's objectives is to keep the Arctic out of the hands of the military and encourage peaceful uses of the North Pole," says Lynge. "Maybe we should think of a kind of 'peace sanctuary' around the North Pole where we all can benefit."
If claims go forward, Greenland's Inuit stand to get a piece of the pie. They constitute 90 percent of the 56,000 people living in Greenland, where they control local government and where Greenlandic is the official language. Denmark has given Greenland an open door to independence – the island's economic viability is the only sticking point – and expects any new polar claims will ultimately belong to them.
"We are launching a claim in the Arctic only on behalf of the Greenlanders," which would inherit any of Denmark's Arctic territory once they become independent, says Svend Auken, a veteran Danish politician and former energy minister.
Aleqa Hammond, minister for finance and foreign affairs of Greenland's home rule government, has no doubts in that regard. "The Russians came and planted their flag up there on the North Pole, but everyone knows it's Greenlandic," she says with a smile. "The last land before you reach the pole is Greenlandic land."