Nunavut’s Baffinland, Yupik Inuit leader discuss Arctic mining at Montreal conference

New wave of development in Chukotka “makes us happy, but at the same time it scares us”

By JANE GEORGE

MONTREAL — For Yupik Inuit in Chukotka, mining has brought devastation and, now, the promise of a better future.

Miners felt like “conquerers of the wide-open spaces” when they used to come to mine the tundra regions of Russia’s Far East, Tatiana Achirgina, the Chukotka president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, told an April 24 panel on mining and major development at the science in Montreal.

At the International Polar Year conference in Montreal, you hear a lot of talk about what lies ahead for the Arctic in a warmer world with a hunger for resources.

Mining companies destroyed the environment, Achirgina told a packed room in the Palais des congrès convention centre, and she saw the “scarred face of the tundra” where they used to be animals and fish.

The riches of her homeland flowed south like a mighty stream — but they left northern people with only a trickle of that wealth, Achirgina said.

And the people were left sick: health experts say the incidence of diseases such as stomach cancer, respiratory tract illness and lymph and skin cancers rose, while life expectancy among that region’s indigenous people fell to between 40 and 45 years due to the environmental pollution, alcoholism and poor health care.

Today, although there’s an “explosion of activity” in mining and mineral exploration, life is easier in Chukotka, she said.

Now a new generation of developers is eyeing the underground wealth of the region.

The vast copper and gold deposits of Chukotka stand to make the region rich and “that is a good thing” for people who live there, she said.

A huge state-owned corporation, a company which Achirgina likens to a “state within a state,” will take control of the mining development in that region and 15 others in Russia’s Far East.

“It makes us happy, but at the same time it scares us,” she said, adding that Chukotkans will have to hold on to their wisdom in this new order.

They’re also hoping for some impact benefits agreement to come from the new development, she said.

At the panel Achirgina sat next to the chief executive officer of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., Tom Paddon, whose mining company is moving through Nunavut’s much-stricter environmental permitting process to build a mine.

Baffinland, a private company under the control of ArcelorMittal, the European steel-making giant, and a private investment firm, Iron Ore Holdings LP, wants to build a huge iron mine in Mary River on northern Baffin Island.

Paddon’s message: communication is key to moving a mining development like the Mary River project ahead.

The project moves into final hearings in July.

“These projects are challenging,” said Paddon, who helped move the Voisey’s Bay nickel deposit through its environmental hearings. “If it’s a development that people don’t want there’s not use doing it,” he said because companies need “a solid social license” to move forward with projects.

Achirgina, who listened to Paddon with the help of an interpreter, nodded several times as he spoke.

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