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Joahannesburg Summit 2002
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Polar Partnership Promotes Sustainable Development in Arctic

2 April, New York– It's a vast, cold region that might appear peripheral to most people who live in more moderate climates, but the residents of the Arctic have mobilized to make sure the world knows about the threats to sustainable development in their region.

For the last ten years, the countries that border the Arctic Circle, including Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Russia, the United States and Canada, have joined forces to form the Arctic Council, which is dedicated to addressing environmental and social issues affecting the region and its people. Representatives of governments and indigenous groups participate on an equal footing in the work of the Council.

At the world's periphery, the region is not the most highly visible, but the Council hopes that the World Summit on Sustainable Development to take place in Johannesburg this August will provide an opportunity to demonstrate that a partnership between different governments and peoples can help promote sustainable development.

"This is a new phenomenon," said Peter Stenlund, Chairman of the Arctic Council. "This is a region that has been able to act together and perform together at the international level." In addition, he said, it was important to push for action at the Summit on the problems that have an impact on the Arctic.

Although remote, the Arctic suffers from the effects of pollution from distant sources. A study prepared by the Council five years ago revealed high levels of persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals in the region, which present a health threat to local inhabitants. A short food chain means that toxic levels are magnified, which poses risks to people living on traditional food sources.

According to Stenlund, the environmental report was very effective in influencing the negotiations for the Stockholm treaty to ban or regulate persistent organic pollutants. He said the Council was very active in following the signing, ratification, and implementation of the treaty.

Climate change has emerged as a major concern in the region, Stenlund said, and the Council has commissioned a new study to explore how the Arctic has been affected by the phenomenon. Stenlund cited anecdotal reports that the permafrost is softening, affecting buildings and roads, and that the ice cover is shrinking in places. Indigenous people also report changes in wildlife behaviour, which can affect the livelihoods of many residents.

Natural resource utilization, mining and military operations in the Arctic have expanded, Stenlund noted. While the Council, as a rule, does not tell countries what they may or may not do, and does not take a position on activities such as oil drilling, Stenlund said the Council does promote the precautionary principle and urges the use of environmental and social impact assessments to assure that all activities benefit local people while providing the maximum environmental protection.

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24 August 2006