Its cool out there

Published: Thursday 31 October 1996

After several years of hostile talks and skirmishes, the cold and quiet expanse of the Arctic has become an area of joint concern by the nations bordering it - Canada, Denmark (it owns Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and United States. These countries signed an agreement recently at Ottawa, Canada, which stipulates the formation of a new Arctic Council.

The Council will also have as its members the region's indigenous peoples apart from these nations. Three main groups, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Sami Council based in Finland and representing the Nordic areas and an organisation representing northern Russians will have permanent, though non-voting seats on the council. Mary Simon, an Inuk from north Quebec and also Canads's ambassador for circumpolar affairs will play an important role in shaping the council. Concern for the Arctic mounted after studies revealed the presence of polychlorobiphenyls in polar bears and mercury in the umblical cords of Inuit newborns, all transported to the Arctic sea and coasts from as far off places like East Asia. "The Arctic is more than myth and dreams... The fish and whales carry scary amounts of contaminants and there is a definite link from the rice fields to the ice fields," remarked Sergio Marchi, Canada's environment minister at the eight nation 'circumpolar' meet.

The new Council will begin operations in a low-profile manner. Its secretariat will move to the different countries from time to time. Initially, Ottawa will house the office for a period of two years and this could cost Canada a total amount of us $650,000 towards its maintenance. The new panel's mandate includes advising governments on environmental issues, economic and social development, and the health of the local people. The Council, though without any formal powers over its member nations can counsel them on various issues, for instance, how to minimise the effects of mining and oil excavation projects and to spread the work and benefits among native communities.

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