The Arctic is home to almost four million people today – Indigenous peoples, more recent arrivals, hunters and herders living on the land and city dwellers. Roughly 10 percent of the inhabitants are Indigenous and many of their peoples distinct to the Arctic. They continue traditional activities and adapt to the modern world at the same time. Yet, as the Arctic environment changes, so do livelihoods, cultures, traditions, languages and identities of Indigenous peoples and other communities.
Changes in the Arctic affect inhabitants in various ways. Arctic communities are already facing challenges that result from the impacts of climate change, demonstrating the need for action to strengthen resilience and facilitate adaptation. At the same time, the Arctic offers potential for sustainable economic development that both brings benefits to local communities and offers ground for innovation transcending the region.
To cater for the differing needs of Arctic inhabitants, the human dimension of the Arctic Council’s work covers a wide array of areas, from mental and physical health and well-being, to sustainable development, local engagement, education, youth and gender equality. Arctic peoples are represented in the Council by the Permanent Participants, and their work is supported by the Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat.
Several groups of people in the Arctic are highly exposed to environmental contaminants, such as mercury. Their level of exposure is greatly dependent on their lifestyle, including diets. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) has been assessing the impacts of various contaminants on human health since 1998 and is continuing to contribute to a substantial knowledge base on the issue.
Arctic communities are also experiencing elevated rates of suicide, especially amongst young people. The Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) has been leading the Council’s efforts to address this issue and to engage those most affected in an open discussion about mental health and suicide prevention.
Indigenous peoples have lived in the Arctic for centuries. They have learned to adopt to a changing environment over time, and thus hold a fundamental knowledge base of the lands and waters of their homelands. The Arctic Council and its Working Groups acknowledge that the inclusion of traditional knowledge and local knowledge is vital for exploring solutions to emerging issues in the Arctic, and to provide the best available knowledge as a basis for decision-making.
The active participation of the Permanent Participants is one of the key features of the Arctic Council and both the Protection of Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group and SDWG have developed good practices for an active involvement of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
"Arctic youth is not just the future but also the present."
Indigenous youth leaders coined this slogan when they gathered for the first Arctic Leaders’ Youth Summit in Rovaniemi, Finland. They called for a more active involvement in the issues that affect them – now and in the future.
Over the years, the Arctic Council has stepped up its efforts to engage youth. Working Groups like CAFF and SDWG have been forerunners in not just looking at how youth is affected by a changing Arctic but in actively involving them in their projects. Now the Arctic Council is taking its effort to involve youth to the next level and is exploring cooperation possibilities with organizations like the Arctic Youth Network.
Changes in the Arctic affect both men and women – although sometimes in different ways. Gender equality is therefore an important element for achieving sustainable development. The Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2019-2021) has made it a priority to promote a dialogue on gender equality in the Arctic and to strengthen a network of experts and stakeholders in the field.