The International Congress on the History of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Region,
Address byH.E. Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Iceland
Reykjavík, 18-21 June, 1998
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am pleased to be here today to address this distinguished gathering that over the next few days will discuss the history of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic. Many of you have travelled a long way to come to this conference, some from within the Arctic region, others from outside. I hope your stay here may be pleasant and the weather will permit you to enjoy our natural treasures.
As all of those who know the Arctic are aware of, the weather -or more accurately- the climate, plays a great part in the habitat of the region. In fact, for most people the meaning of the term Arctic has to do with climate, a particularly cold and harsh climate. This mental image reflects realities to a large extent although not being quite fair to the often warm and always beautiful summers in the Arctic, however short they may be. Environmental factors such as the Gulf Stream also make a great deal of difference between regions. It is however justifiable to generalise by maintaining that it is the climate which to a great extent determines the conditions for life in the Arctic and for all practical purposes defines the geographical boundaries of what we consider to be that region.
These conditions are also a major factor in defining the occupation of the inhabitants of the region. Climatic conditions have thus always limited possibilities for farming in the Arctic region. In some parts, like the northernmost part of Canada and Alaska it has been non-existent. In Greenland it has been extremely limited. However, farming has been of considerable importance through the centuries in regions like Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Northern Fennoscandia and Northern Russia. Agriculture as such however has always been very limited throughout the Arctic region given the climatic conditions.
It stands to reason that limits to farming have given greater relative importance to other natural resources, in particular fishing but also the utilisation of sea mammals; seal hunting and whaling. The hunting of land animals should also be noted. With time the importance for the economy of the hunting of land and sea mammals has diminished but that of fishing has increased significantly, particularly during the last few decades. During this century the utilisation of minerals has also been important.
Climatic conditions have also accounted for the fact that the Arctic region has through the centuries been sparsely populated and will probably remain so in stark contrast to most other parts of the world.
Relatively few inhabitants and limited resources explain to a great extent the relative absence of great power politics in the Arctic region throughout most of human history. This changed through developments in military technology and in particular with the Cold War when the Arctic became a major arena for strategic interests and military build-up. With the disappearance of the Cold War this has changed again but important strategic interests remain.
The perception that those who live in the Arctic region have something in common and therefore something to share, given the similarities in living conditions, is an old one. Therefore communication and sharing of information and experiences about life in the Arctic has been around for a long time. It is however only during this century that technological progress has made possible the gathering and analysis of vast amounts of information on the Arctic as well as made possible frequent contacts between peoples of the different parts of the region. I think it is appropriate to mention the name of Vilhjálmur Stefansson as a leader in Arctic exploration. In this country we are of course proud of his Icelandic roots. More information in turn has created increased awareness that many issues in the Arctic lend themselves to a common approach by the states that have land and territories in the region.
The Cold War definitely had an impact on developments in the Arctic other than military ones. Political conflict prevented co-operation in areas were common interests have existed for a long time. The disappearance of the Cold War opened up new possibilities to translate an awareness of common interests into co-operation and joint efforts in different areas of the Arctic. This applies in particular to environmental protection but also to the field of sustainable development. Some of these joint interests have found their way into bilateral programs of co-operation. Others are being addressed in multilateral fora. The Arctic Council was specially established for this purpose in 1996.
Iceland places much emphasis on a successful co-operation in Arctic affairs. We find this to be of vital interest to our country. The Icelandic nation has lived in the Arctic environment for more than a millennium and we would like to ensure that we can continue to work for the common understanding of the importance of this area to the whole world. We want to protect our way of life which is unique. We have other resources and different traditions which we must maintain and respect. We are therefore profoundly interested in keeping the environment clean and manage the resources of the region in a way that makes it possible for us to look to the future with optimism and sustain our way of living.
The study of Arctic history is an important undertaking. Not only does it enrich our lives by giving us insights into the past. It can also deepen our understanding of what we have in common by drawing on experiences from the past, thereby providing us with lessons relevant to the present and which will guide us to the future.
I would like to conclude by wishing you all a successful conference and express the hope that it will both enrich our understanding and knowledge of Arctic history and provide encouragement for further studies and future meetings similar to the one that you are starting here today. Vilhjálmur Stefansson said about his Arctic travels "I know where I have been and I know what it means to me". We all know what the Arctic means to us. With co-operation we can greatly enrichen our common Arctic future. It is both a pleasure and an honour for me to declare the International Congress on the history of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Region open.