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In 1972, the Arctic was a highly militarized zone preventing most international cooperation. Only with the establishment of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in 1991 did all eight Arctic nations commit themselves to ongoing cooperation. In 1996, the AEPS developed into the Arctic Council to further environmental protection and sustainable development. The Council is unique among international organizations in granting indigenous organizations special status as 'permanent participants' of the Council (Arctic Council 2002).

Alaskan Oil and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeastern Alaska is 'America's finest example of an intact naturally functioning community of arctic/subarctic ecosystems' (USFWS 2001). The Refuge is set aside for wilderness protection except for one disputed area that may be open to oil and gas exploration by an Act of the US Congress. This area is estimated to contain 2-12 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reports a 50 per cent chance of finding an amount of oil equal to that consumed by the United States in nine months. Alaska's North Slope oilfields have already produced 13 billion barrels since 1973 and may have only 3 billion barrels remaining.

For the Gwich'in people straddling the Alaska/Canada border, the ANWR is sacred land because it includes calving grounds of the porcupine caribou herd, their chief source of food, clothing, tools, ornaments, and the centre of their culture (Gemmill 2002).

Devolution of political authority from central governments to regional and even local governments and huge transfers of land and capital to indigenous peoples have occurred in the Arctic over the past three decades. Comprehensive Claims Agreements now cover all Arctic areas of Canada and include the transfer of millions of square kilometres of land and water, capital, revenues, harvesting exploitation and development rights. The Saami have gained considerable powers of self-determination through the creation of Saami Parliaments in each of the Nordic states. Greenland became semi-autonomous in 1979 with the establishment of the Home Rule Government, which was further strengthened in 1985 (Osherenko and Young 1989). Indigenous people of the Russian North have yet to achieve such a degree of control over their lands and lives despite protection of their rights in the 1993 Constitution and recent legislation (Osherenko 2001, Kryazhkov 1996).