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Reflections on Arctic Frontiers 2014

Reflections on Arctic Frontiers 2014

Last week the conference Arctic Frontiers 2014 (AF) took place in the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø. Situated well above the Arctic Circle, recent years have seen Tromsø keen to assert its Arctic credentials: last year’s establishment of the Arctic Council’s permanent secretariat in the city and the renaming of University of Tromsø as the ‘Arctic University of Norway’ are clearly indicative of this. Now in its eighth year, AF is something of a veteran in a conference scene burgeoning year-on-year as interest in the region continues to grow; one attendee memorably explaining the event to me as the ‘Davos of Arctic gatherings’.

Described by its organisers as ‘an international arena addressing development in the Arctic’, AF’s raison d’être is to bring together the myriad of Arctic stakeholders to discuss and network over contemporary development issues facing the region. Unsurprisingly, en vogue topics in Arctic development tend to dominate, particularly hydrocarbon exploitation and shipping in a warming Arctic. Interestingly, for an Arctic event there seemed little discussion on climate change at this year’s conference—at least not explicitly so.

This year’s conference theme deviated from its usual focus to explore the topic of ‘Humans in the Arctic’, one aspect often overlooked at these events, which often concentrate on less-than-anthropological issues. And whilst the economic and geopolitical aspects of increased Arctic resource development were prevalent throughout most talks from speakers including political leaders, ambassadors and academics, a particular focus on health offered something different from the norm. Especially engaging were Michael Tipton and Mad Gilbert’s keynotes on the practicalities and science of cold water immersion accidents. Somewhat curiously given the theme of Arctic health, there was a notable lack of talks from Arctic indigenous people or groups. Indeed, the failure of Norwegian Prime Minster Erna Solberg to mention indigenous-related issues in her address left some frustrated; minutes after the speech, Norwegian Sami politician Aili Keskitalo tweeted, ‘Feeling invisible at #arcticfrontiers today. Could it be lack of gákti or lack of the word Sámi or Indigenous in the Prime Ministers speech?’

AF takes the format of two-day ‘policy’ section and two-and-a-half day ‘science’ section (although ‘academic’ would be a more accurate description as it wasn’t scientific in the conventional sense of the word). For the first time the policy sessions were completely booked out, an indication of the conference’s growing popularity. This year’s policy section included some big names from the Arctic policy community—most significantly in the form of prime ministers from both Norway and Greenland. Whilst there were interesting aspects to all the talks, the limiting nature of policy speeches at conferences such as AF was frustrating at times. Time allocation often feels far too short to fully explore the topic under discussion and there pervades an (understandable) diplomatic reluctance from speakers to touch upon anything particularly controversial. This leads to speeches littered with too many ambiguous platitudes (e.g. ‘we must develop Arctic resources in a sustainable manner’; ‘it is important that all stakeholders are involved in the process of Arctic development’; ‘co-operation between Arctic nations is essential’) without detailing any specifics of the ways in which such aspirations should be achieved.

Nevertheless, it is not just for the speeches that people attend such events—the talks are streamed live and are archived online for those unable to attend. The main draw, rather, is the opportunity to network with a broad range of Arctic stakeholders. AF’s organisers understand the importance of this, providing ample time for networking during the day and hosting banquets and concerts during evenings. Whilst difficult to determine how many fruitful and productive relationships emerge from such encounters, from personal experience AF serves as a particularly useful medium to bring together, however fleetingly, members of the Arctic community who share much in common but otherwise spend most of the time geographically distant from one another.

William Davies is a PhD student in the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds University whose research focuses on critical human geography of Arctic resource development. He can be reached at geo3wd [at] leeds.ac.uk.

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