The rush for natural resources in the rapidly melting Arctic has generally been described as a competition between countries, with the United States, Canada, Russia, and, increasingly, China jockeying for mining and oil drilling rights as the polar ice cap shrinks to reveal untold new riches. But now the original inhabitants of the Arctic, the Inuits (known as Eskimos in the United States), are pushing for a greater role in shaping the future of their region -- including cashing in on the resource bonanza.
An estimated 160,000 Inuits live in the Arctic, spread across Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. In recent years, they have been increasingly politically unified through an NGO known as the Inuit Circumpolar Council, founded in 1977. In Canada in particular, Inuits have carved out significant political control over their territory.
Inuit groups often opposed mining and oil projects in the past, worried about the potential environmental damage and disruption to their traditional way of life. That is changing, however, as some groups see the prospect of political power in the region's resource wealth. The trend began in March, when the Inuit government of Labrador, Canada, lifted a ban on uranium mining. Then in September, an Inuit group from Canada's Nunavut territory traveled to Wall Street to find investors for a project to mine gold, silver, copper, zinc, and diamonds.
The political stakes are even higher in Greenland, whose population is close to 90 percent Inuit. The 836,000-square-mile territory is looking to complete its transition to full independence from Denmark, but has for years depended on half a billion dollars a year in welfare payments from Copenhagen. With large deposits of rare-earth metals now accessible as the island's ice cap melts, and sizable oil deposits that are already being explored by Britain's Cairn Energy, Greenland's dream of economic and political independence is starting to look more realistic. According to some estimates, Greenland may contain more oil per capita than Kuwait.
Gulf-level riches are still a long way off for most of the Arctic Circle's residents. But it's safe to say that the way of life in this remote region is about to be dramatically transformed.
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