If you travel to Nunavut, a territory in Canada that stretches from the mainland to nearly the North Pole, you can encounter—because it's so remote and has so few roads—caribou herds migrating freely that are among the biggest in the world. Between 65,000 and 400,000 animals or more live there. Just over 30,000 people live in Nunavut as well, which is about the size of Western Europe and home to Alert, the northernmost permanently-inhabited place in the world.
But if the environment up there can be considered pristine now, it may not be for long.
A story from Yale Environment 360 explains how the Canadian government "has made it clear that Arctic mining will be one of the cornerstones of the country’s economic future."
More from e360:
It is encouraging mining companies to exploit the deposits of gold, silver, zinc, diamonds, uranium and other minerals and metals found in abundance in the vast areas of the enormous Nunavut Territory, as well as the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
In spite of the global recession of 2008 and the March 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, which caused some countries to reconsider nuclear power, uranium exploration is proceeding at a record pace in this part of the world. In Scottie’s backyard, the French mining giant, Areva — partnering with JCU Exploration of Canada and the DAEWOO Corporation of Korea — is actively exploring a major uranium lode at Kiggavik, the site of the former planned German mine, 50 miles west of Baker Lake. Other companies also are considering building mines in the surrounding tundra. In the territory of Nunavut alone, more than $322 million was spent on uranium exploration in 2011, up from $189 million in 2009.
Economy vs. Environment: We've Heard This Before
The debate that has surfaced in Nunavut is not unlike ongoing debates elsewhere regarding the development of coal, oil, and natural gas: Some Inuit argue in favor of the economic development that would result from mining, while others worry about the environmental consequences.
And there are plenty who remain undecided, according to Rabble, which adds:
The one thing there seems to be consensus on is that they have not had access to independent information: all the information they have gotten has been through the mining companies, and they would like to be better informed. At the same time, the voice of the younger people doesn't seem to be heard, even though much of the support for uranium mining is couched in concern for their future.
Several public forums were held last year on the proposed Kiggavik uranium mine, the plan for which is now undergoing environmental review. Rabble explains the decades-long history behind the uranium controversy—and a likely reason behind an apparent shift in public opinion in recent years:
It was uranium exploration, and its impacts on the live-giving caribou herds, that helped start the whole land claims process for Inuit in what eventually became Nunavut. In Baker Lake, a proposed uranium mine called "Kiggavik" became the centre of controversy in the late 1980s and it was withdrawn from the environmental assessment process in 1990 after the community voted 90 per cent against uranium mining.
In the evening, elders and community members gathered in the Qamanituaq Recreation Centre recall this history. Many of them still feel the same way. But since Areva, the French government's nuclear power arm, bought the Kiggavik property and set up an office here to anchor a massive public relations effort, more people have come to see the project as inevitable, its offer of jobs and prosperity as more compelling, and the regulatory system as competent and capable of protecting the land, water, and wildlife.
Canada is the world’s second-largest producer of uranium, with three of the top ten mines in the world located in northern Saskatchewan near the Nunavut border. And uranium isn’t the only hot commodity in the Arctic; soaring gold prices are leading to a so-called “new gold rush” in the Yukon, where activity in 2011 was unprecedented in scope.
The scramble for uranium is a more complex story. No one knows where the uranium will go when and if it’s extracted. The industry is notoriously guarded about releasing such information. But most experts believe that What happens if they get their roads, their open-pit mines, their shipping ports?’ asks one Inuit elder. China and several European countries that rely heavily on nuclear power — most notably France, home of Areva — will eventually drive up prices, which are now near five-year lows.
Gloomy Future for Wildlife
e360 continues, explaining how mining development is likely to impact the region's caribou:
Scientists like Don Russell — a former Environment Canada researcher who now heads up CARMA, an international network that shares research data and information on caribou — said that new mining and energy development, coupled with regional climate change and more efficient hunting techniques used by the Inuit, may cause further caribou declines. That’s because almost everything scientists have learned over the past three decades suggests that these animals need space, especially when they’re calving...
“No one but us hunters and trappers are talking about what this all means to caribou and other Arctic animals,” says Scottie. “We already have one mine. Maybe another mine won’t hurt. But there are a lot of other companies up here who have big plans as well. What happens if they get their roads, their open mine pits, and their shipping ports. What happens then?”