Facing growing outside influence, local Arctic leaders seek more cross-border collaboration 

Big outside players including China are increasingly interested in the circumpolar North. As they seek to balance growth with local concerns, Arctic mayors are turning to one another for ideas.

Leaders from Arctic cities around the north gathered at a forum in Tromsø, Norway last month during the Arctic Frontiers conference. (Terje Mortensen / Arctic Frontiers 2018)

How can leaders of Arctic towns and cities encourage local development while ensuring their communities’ needs aren’t overlooked by larger forces such as national governments and international companies from points farther south?

That perennial question has taken on a newfound urgency in recent years, as interest in the region’s economic potential grows.

At the end of January, China released its first official Arctic strategy in which it outlined plans for a “Polar Silk Road” in the increasingly ice-free waters north of Eurasia, effectively connecting China to Europe via the Arctic Ocean and the North Sea.

China, which was granted Arctic Council observer status in 2013 and declared itself a “near-Arctic state’ in its new strategy paper, is the first nation with no territory in the region to attempt to insert itself so deeply in Arctic affairs. Understandably, the four million people who call the Arctic home are watching closely; such interest from the outside can create both opportunities and challenges in their home territories.

Discussions about such possibilities frequently take place at high-level international meetings, but last month, just days before China released its strategy, leaders from more than a dozen Arctic communities met at the city hall in Tromsø, Norway during the 2018 Arctic Frontiers conference.

Mayors from Lulea, Sweden, to Nome, Alaska, to Arkhangelsk, Russia talked about how to best safeguard their communities while promoting job growth and sustainability in the region.

One answer seems to be increased cooperation between local and regional governments.

It’s been 25 years since the Barents Cooperation was signed between Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia, establishing the Barents-Euro-Arctic Council for national and sub-national governmental cooperation, and with China, India, and Singapore, knocking on the door, there’s interest in bolstering such collaboration between all Arctic nations at the local level. In Fairbanks, Alaska, last year, 11 circumpolar Arctic mayors signed a declaration to strengthen relationships between mayors and develop a path forward for local government communication and international cooperation.

In the Arctic, as elsewhere, local government responsibilities range from delivering public services, to fostering sustainable growth, to conveying the priorities of residents to regional, national, and international decision-makers. But at a time when key global players are watching the changing Arctic with growing economic interest as warming temperatures create unprecedented access, mayors are increasingly tasked with weighing the pros and cons of large economic projects near their communities. New seaport facilities, roads, railways, and airstrips are springing up around the region at an accelerated rate in anticipation of large development projects — oil and gas pipelines and mining operations. A recent assessment of Arctic infrastructure projects at various stages of progress found roughly 900 projects were in the works, requiring a total of $1 trillion of investment. Thus far, Russia leads such development, but even those without a clear geographic stake in the Arctic aspire to be part of this growth.

Already, China has begun underwriting Arctic development projects; last summer the Chinese government expanded their trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative, Belt and Road, to include an Arctic component.

“The Chinese are building icebreakers, but they have no ice,” said Rune Rafaelsen, mayor of Sør-Varanger. “All of this Arctic activity will be influenced by international changes … The challenge of the Arctic is very positive and optimistic, we will see a fantastic future, but we need democratic control.”

Recently returned from the Northern Lights Trade Show in Ottawa, Madeline Redfern, mayor of Iqaluit, Canada, recalled an exchange with a Greenland representative who said Chinese investors weren’t interested in a $20 million development project because they were looking for projects in the half-billion-dollar range. “You’re immediately reminded of the sheer differences of scale and the type of economic resources a country like China has.” The role of China, she says, is constantly being assessed. “People don’t want to see these resources exploited with no benefits to the regional people and losing control over that development.”

For Kristin Røymo, who has served as mayor of Tromsø since 2015, the involvement of outside powers is neither good nor bad, but merely “politics.”

“This is the situation frightening me as a local politician dealing with local issues,” says Røymo. “People will make decisions outside of the Arctic issues that will be vital for our possibilities to create jobs for the people who live in this area. I cannot accept that the European Union is making decisions on behalf of the Arctic population without digging into the frameworks of our societies.” That’s why, she says, she’s getting in touch with other Arctic societies to understand their different conditions, “because we’re not the same, but we share this same destiny for being [warmer] than ever.”

Other mayors in attendance stressed the importance of not just focusing on job growth, but sustainable development and climate action, as well. Though there’s concern about national and international governments placing environmental limitations on industries in the North, many also want to be sure their voices are heard on the international stage when it comes to how climate change is affecting their communities.

In 2015, Mayor Eiríkur Björn Björgvinsson of Akureyri, Iceland, traveled to Paris, France for the United Nations Climate Change Negotiations — one of the only Arctic mayors in attendance.

“It was very important for me to be there as mayor. World leaders want to know what’s going on in the Arctic,” he said at the forum. When he returned home, he began looking harder at energy alternatives for the community.

“We’re dealing with melting permafrost — who better knows that than the mayors in Arctic regions,” said Redfern. By speaking to other Arctic municipalities, she said, she’s able to learn adaptation strategies that could work in her own community.

“At the level of mayors, we are strengthening the contact in all the countries,” said Røymo. “Local populations need to have societies that are sustainable [economically, environmentally, and socially] in order to take care of the Arctic areas, and the global actors won’t be able to do that without the local communities either.”