Finland: An Eastern Arctic Nation

Reindeer hot dog for sale at Kauppatori.

Reindeer hot dogs for sale at Kauppatori.

Finland is the quiet player in Arctic affairs. It lacks the long Arctic coastlines of Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway, and Greenland/Denmark, making it a somewhat secondary player in many Arctic discussions. These increasingly center on issues concerning solely the Arctic Ocean (fisheries, shipping, and continental shelves, for instance) rather than the Arctic as a maritime and terrestrial region. Yet Finland still possesses many Arctic interests, which Professor Lassi Heininen, of the Arctic Centre at the University of Lappland in Rovaniemi, explains over at Geopolitics North.

Finland released its Arctic strategy in 2010, and the Prime Minister’s Office released an updated version in 2013 (PDF). Whereas the previous strategy focused largely on external issues, the updated strategy takes into consideration many internal ones as well like business opportunities and the environment. The Prime Minister’s Office justifies the update’s necessity by stating, “Underlying the review of Finland’s Strategy for the Arctic Region is the increased significance of the region and a growing perception of the whole of Finland as an Arctic country.” The strategy has four pillars: “an Arctic country, Arctic expertise, Sustainable development and environmental considerations and International cooperation.” For those of you familiar with Canada’s Northern Strategy document, released in 2009, this should strike a chord, for that document, too, has four pillars (yes, the exact same word is used). Canada’s concerns are quite different, however: exercising Arctic sovereignty, social and economic development, protecting the Northern environment, and improving and devolving Northern governance.

I’ve been in Helsinki for the past couple of days, and while I have not had a chance to travel outside of the city, I am interested in whether the nation’s Arctic identity shines through at all in the capital. The Prime Minister’s strategy document claims:

Finland is an Arctic country. The Arctic identity of Finland has been shaped by climate, nature, geography, history and experience. Finland as a whole is a truly Arctic country: after all, one third of all the people living north of the 60th parallel are Finns. The Saami’s status as the only indigenous people within the European Union is duly recognised and their participation in issues affecting their status as indigenous people is ensured. The northern parts of Finland must remain a stable and secure operating environment.

I always find it curious how different governments legitimize their claims to the Arctic. In Finland’s case, it’s less to do with absolute or even relative territorial size and more to do with the overall proportion of people around the world living north of 60 who are Finnish. Fortunately, Helsinki, with 603,000 people, sits at 60°10′N, 24°56′E – giving a big boost to the Finnish proportion of north-of-60 denizens.

Here in the nation’s capital, there are a few signs of Finland’s Arctic nation-ness, although you might have to look twice to catch them. A sci-fi, retro-looking tourist (or timetravelling?) agency advertises trips “beyond the Arctic Sirkel.” A small street leading up towards the famous rock church is called “Aurorankatu/Auroragatan” (with all street signs being in both Finnish and Swedish, Finland’s other official language).

Aikamatkat Timetravels



But generally, I noticed that the main way in which the country appears to be an Arctic nation has to do with cuisine. (Or, that may just be due to the fact that my eyes are often larger than my stomach.) There are translucent, golden-orange cloudberries – “Arctic Forest Berries,” as the vendor’s sign announces – which only grow in Arctic and alpine tundra. There are reindeer hot dogs and deep-fried vendace served with potatoes (“the Finnish fish and chips”). Vendace are a small lake fish from Lappland, which is the country’s northernmost region. This, too, is where many of the Sami live. The Sami have little visible presence in Helsinki that I noticed, although it’s possible I wasn’t looking in the right places. Indeed, the Finnish government, under criticism from the United Nations, still has not ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO 169). Among the other countries with Sami populations, Russia and Sweden also still have not, but Norway has. Finland’s Arctic strategy explains, “Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen’s Government Programme singles out the ratification of ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal People as one of its objectives for the electoral period 2011–2015. Work is in progress to explore the preconditions for such ratification.” In January 2015, however, it was decided that ratification was tabled until the next government. This drew protests from the Finnish Sami Youth Organization in front of Parliament in Helsinki – a time when the Sami were clearly a visible force in the capital.

Cloudberries at the Market Square, Kauppatori.

Fried vendace - Finnish fish and chips - at Market Square.

Fried vendace – Finnish fish and chips – at Market Square.

Food from Lappland.

Food from Lappland.

While the Sami are not that obviously visible in Helsinki, the Russians definitely are. Granted, I have only been here for two days, but Russian people, architecture, and influence are very east to spot in comparison to Sami heritage. Finland may not have an Arctic coastline, but it has a 1,340-kilometer border with Russia – the longest of any Arctic state. From 1809 until its declaration of independence in 1917, Finland was an autonomous region within the Russian Empire. Today, there are a few Orthodox churches around town, onion domes, signs in Cyrillic, and seemingly thousands of Russian tourists milling about, brought by train, plane, and ferry. I imagine many of these tourists must be quite wealthy if they can continue to afford to travel to a Eurozone country despite the precipitous fall of the ruble.

A Russian Orthodox church in Helsinki.

A Russian Orthodox church in Helsinki.

So to my uneducated eye after a very brief stay in Helsinki, Finland to me seems a country pulled both north and east. This, perhaps, is why its strategy document makes reference to the “North-East Passage” rather than the more typical “Northern Sea Route.” Finland is also drawn to the Far East. Finnair operates direct routes from Helsinki to interior cities like Chonqing and Xi’an. The airline promotes these routes by advertising, “Our route is geographically the shortest way between Asia and Europe” and “Finnair flies the shortcut between Asia and Europe.” If Finland can’t directly access the Northern Sea Route – that other shortcut between Asia and Europe – it will get you there by flying.

I myself am heading east across the Russian border today, so Cryopolitics will be on hiatus in the month of August. When I return, I’ll hopefully have many more stories of the (Russian) Arctic to tell.

Moi moi!

Senator Murkowski: The Arctic is not just an earmark for Alaska

Senator Murkowski (R-Alaska) speaking in Anchorage in 2013. U.S. Navy Photo: (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans / Flickr Creative Commons License

Senator Murkowski (R-Alaska) speaking in Anchorage in 2013. U.S. Navy Photo: (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans / Flickr Creative Commons License

Earlier this week, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) gave a speech at the 6th Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations in Washington, D.C. The U.S. National Ice Center (NIC) and the U.S. Arctic Research Commission co-hosted the biennial event, which the website describes as covering topics related to U.S. naval operations and national strategy in an “ice-free Arctic.” Ice-diminishing or ice-free, it’s apparent that symposium organizers have come to the conclusion that the ice is basically going, going, gone. Such a situation, of course, would be a best-case scenario for the handful of shipping companies interested in opening trans-Arctic shipping routes and a worst-case scenario for the indigenous peoples who have traditionally relied on sea ice for hunting and transportation.

The future of Arctic indigenous peoples, however, did not constitute the focus of this symposium. Over its three-day duration, politicians, oceanographers, atmospheric scientists, naval and coast guard representatives, and lawyers spoke about the region (the program is available here). A representative from ExxonMobil did, too. Steven Laws, supervisor of development planning in the Arctic, presented the National Petroleum Council’s Arctic Study ReportThe transcript of Laws’ speech is not available online, but the report, which thinks the Arctic can contribute to U.S. and global energy supplies and that the technology is already in place to make this happen, can be downloaded here.

When Senator Murkowski spoke, she did not mention oil or gas. Instead, she focused on naval and shipping operations. Interestingly, she suggested that in the Arctic, the United States “has a strategic geographic advantage that no other nation can match.” To support her claim, she explained,

On one side of the Arctic is the Bering Strait: a chokepoint for trans-Arctic activity as the only maritime route between the Pacific and the Arctic.  On the other side of the Arctic are three routes to the Atlantic – off of Norway, between Iceland and Greenland, and between Greenland and Canada, with Maine positioned just to the south.

With these words, Murkowski essentially tried to square the circle. The Arctic is a roughly circle-shaped ocean, but Murkowski instead gave it two sides: one facing Alaska, and the other facing Maine. In this envisioning, the U.S. therefore seems to surround the Arctic on all sides – even though Russia actually possesses coastline facing almost half of the Arctic Ocean. In order for the squaring of the Arctic to work, Murkowski has to enlist Maine, which is increasingly inserting itself into Arctic affairs in the U.S. In the Senate, Murkowski and Senator Angus King (I-Maine) have formed an Arctic Caucus to try to bolster the Arctic’s stance as an issue of national, rather than peripheral, importance. Murkowski declared in her speech, “We need to move beyond the notion that an “Arctic” project is just an earmark for Alaska.”

The Senator and others at the conferences might have also reminded that the Arctic is not just a “project” to be undertaken by a slew of scientists, politicians, naval officers, and businessmen from the Arctic and beyond who collectively aspire to the region’s resources and transportation shortcuts. It is also a homeland for millions of people with different ways of life and a vast amount of wildlife, from the magnanimous polar bear to bright orange lichen. But the view of the Arctic as an almost-blank slate, a place to roll out a region-wide project of investment, infrastructure, and innovation, is pervasive. Last autumn, speaking at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, Murkowski mentioned how there are two Arctics: one with infrastructure (the Nordic countries) and one without it (Alaska, Russia, and Greenland). This is undoubtedly crippling for many of the people in the have-not countries that have received some, but not all, of the benefits of modernity, like a half-fulfilled (or rather half-baked, now that the Arctic is melting) promise. But ironically, the increasing impossibility of continuing traditional ways of life in an ice-diminishing and potentially ice-free Arctic has ironically given new impetus – and, in many circles, legitimization – to the “project” of the Arctic as a means of enriching and empowering peoples deprived by past rounds of industrialization.

The full text of Senator Murkowski’s speech is available here, and a video is available here.

Northwest Territories’ Fur and Fiber Optics Make Asian Inroads

Coming soon to Inuvik: Fiber optics and roads - while furs head out. Photo: David Adamec / WikiCommons

Coming soon to Inuvik: Fiber optics and roads – while furs head out. Photo: David Adamec / WikiCommons

The media tends to view Asian activities in the Arctic with a wary eye. China, and to a lesser extent Japan and South Korea, are seen as undesirably intruding on northern territory. Yet it’s often the case that the representatives of Arctic governments are endeavoring to directly sell their products to Asia. In January of this year, that’s exactly what happened when a delegation from the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada led by the territory’s Premier, Bob Macleod, and Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment, David Ramsay, traveled to China and Japan. The delegation’s goal was to increase Asian interest in NWT luxury products, specifically diamonds and furs, and northern travel – namely what Ramsay called “our territory’s Aurora industry.” He noted in his update to the Speaker of the NWT’s Legislative Assembly: “To that end, we showcased our fur and diamonds in foremost international fashion venues like the 41st Annual Fur and Leather Show in Beijing and the International Jewellery Fair in Tokyo.”

Furs and diamonds

That Canada is still selling furs, both farmed and wild, should come as no surprise to people who follow Arctic affairs. At the territorial level, the Government of the NWT runs a certification and marketing program to promote furs caught by local harvesters. At the national level, last March, Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq (and former Minister for the Arctic Council) announced $51,200 in funding to help diversify the NWT and Nunavut’s fur markets in Beijing and Istanbul. And internationally, the Canadian government’s strong support of its country’s fur industry has also affected its foreign policy. Beginning in 2008, Canada sought to defer the European Union’s admission as an observer to the Arctic Council on the basis of its opposition to importing Canadian furs. An accord was finally reached between the two in October 2013, when the EU decided to grant an exemption to indigenous-sourced furs. (The EU is still not an observer, however, due to Russian opposition at the 2015 ministerial.)

Of course, diamonds are the major revenue-earning product for the NWT, with production valued at $2.1 billion in 2011. Many indigenous peoples are directly employed by the diamond industry, and a report by the NWT & Nunavut Chamber of Mines (though clearly a biased organization) determined: “Over the period of 1996 to 2002, real employment income per person (measured in 2002 constant dollars) in the communities directly impacted by the diamond mining industry rose 79%, from $7,323 to $13,099. In contrast, employment income per person in the NWT rose only 4%.”

But furs still generate substantial incomes for many of the territory’s 43,595 residents, with wild fur alone generating CAN $2.7 million in 2013. That may seem like a drop in the bucket, as it equates to only approximately 1/1000 of a percent of diamond production. When a fox fur is worth hundreds of dollars, however, that represents a lot of money to the trapper – enough to perhaps feed his or her family for a brief while. The Government of the NWT states that some 40% of NWT residents over the age of 15 engage in traditional trapping, fishing, or hunting. For fur trappers, then, the desire amongst many of China’s wealthy for furs is welcome news. Interest in furs in China is nothing new, as I have written before: since the seventeenth century and well into the nineteenth century, Chinese aristocrats, like their European counterparts were wearing furs imported from the Arctic. It’s just that whereas the fashion fell out of favor in many European capitals, it’s still going strong – and increasing rapidly – in China. Attendance at this year’s Beijing Fur Fair shot up by 35% compared to last year, with most of the growth coming from domestic attendees.

Fiber optics and satellites

The NWT delegation’s business in China and Japan took them beyond furs and diamonds. Premier Bob MacLeod and Minister Ramsay also met with members of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to further previous discussions about the Mackenzie Valley Fiber Optic Link, on which construction began in January of this year, and enhancing the existing Inuvik Satellite Station Facility. This station opened in 2010 as the result of collaboration between the Government of Canada, the German Aerospace Center, and PrioraNetCanada.

High tech industries in the Arctic, like fiber optics and outer space, represent promising avenues for northern development that are not premised on the extraction and export of non-renewable. Fiber optics can also bring direct benefits to northern residents aside from just increased revenues. While a lot of internet service in the Canadian Arctic is provided by radio or satellite, faster broadband internet would be able to open more doors for activities such as tele-medicine and online education. Both of these sectors could deliver a lot to the region, too, considering the long distances and expensive travel required to get to hospitals and universities at present. Fiber optic connections could also attract Internet companies to set up server farms there due to the cool climes, which reduce the need for heating expenditures. They could also, of course, benefit the oil, gas, and mining companies in the Arctic, facilitating the speed at which they do business.

The Arctic-based space industry is another possible route for Arctic development that doesn’t depend entirely on minerals. There is a real need for increased satellite coverage of the Arctic in order to provide information on everything from weather to sea ice to search and rescue. In order to put these satellites into orbit, Arctic locations have an advantage in that, depending on weather and other conditions, they can be ideal places for both launching polar-orbiting satellites and for basing ground stations that receive and interpret data from the satellites above. So far, Sweden has pursued this sector more than any other Arctic nation. Within Kiruna, perhaps best known for its enormous iron mine, is the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, and outside the northern city of Kiruna, sits the Esrange Space Center, billed as “the largest civil ground station for satellites in the world and Europe’s largest overland test range for aerospace vehicles.” Additionally, for some time, Spaceport Sweden, a private company that is partnering with Virgin Galactic, has been trying to ramp up interest in creating a European hub for space tourism in Kiruna. Sweden isn’t the only player in the Arctic space game, though. Alaska Aerospace Corporation also has a facility south of Kodiak, called Pacific Spaceport Complex, that has launched several satellites. Their motto? “From the last frontier to the final frontier.”

The Government of the NWT sent a fact-finding mission to Kiruna and Munich in 2013. They concluded, as laid out in their mission report, that “the long term consistency of the satellite and space based activities in Kiruna provides a stable economic base that complements the variability in the mining sector in northern Sweden.” For their part, the Swedish Space Corporation and the German Space Agency, which both operate satellite antennae in Inuvik, determined that constructing a fiber optic link to the northern town via the Mackenzie Valley will be the real key to expanding the NWT’s space activities. The CAN $82-million fiber optic link should be complete by the middle of next year – a parallel precursor to the all-weather road that should, by 2017 or 2018, permanently link Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. Interestingly, in the next couple of years, Inuvik will therefore have greatly expanded connectivity both north and south. The southern fiber optic cable will also perhaps pave the way for Japan’s JAXA to contribute to the Inuvik Satellite Station Facility. This would represent yet another step forward into the Arctic for the Asian nation. It’s important to remember, however, that much of the time, Arctic countries, provinces, and territories that have reached out to Asian and European nations for cooperation – be it in the way of trade, tourism, or science.