© Niina Jyränen

The importance of dialogue in the Arctic: Observations from a trip to Unalaska

7 April 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Youth in Action. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

The island of Unalaska is a part of the Aleutian island chain, located between Russia and Alaska where the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean meet. In 2019, Finnish environmental activists Niina Jyränen and Anna-Katri Kulmala visited the island to learn about its environmental issues.

We were on our way to the complete unknown and could almost smell the ocean mist as the plane’s tires hit the ground. We had heard that Unalaska is heaven for birdwatchers and a marine biodiversity hotspot. We were beyond excited to explore it.

We were sent to Unalaska by the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group and the United States embassy in Finland to live with the local Qawalangin tribe for two weeks. The idea was to share and learn about environmental problems and solutions in countries and societies far from our own.

But as we spent time in Unalaska, we noticed that things were different from what we had expected. While still breathtakingly beautiful and unique, it wasn’t as untouched as it had first appeared. For example, we saw and heard about unfortunate alterations caused by climate change, such as erosion and diminishing ecosystems.

The longer we stayed and the more we observed and listened, the more we realized how similar Unalaska’s environmental problems are to Finland’s: polluted waters, warmer winters with less snow, extreme weather events. This “biodiversity hotspot” is struggling with overfishing, which is threatening the abundance of fish that is the basis for the island’s economy and development.

Another thing we noticed is that the people and their everyday lives are surprisingly similar to ours. We shared many desires and concerns with the locals in Unalaska. For example, a reliable Internet connection is something most people want, just like in Finland. We also realized that the pollock we buy in Finland comes from the other side of the world: from Unalaska. We thought we were going to a really distant place, but we soon realized it was actually very near to us in certain ways. Everything is interlinked.

Having the chance to travel to Unalaska and share our thoughts with the locals was an honour and a privilege—and it showed us the importance of dialogue across not only the circumpolar world but the entire globe. Ultimately, a key lesson we took from this trip was that whether you live in Unalaska or Finland, the same environmental problems are present, and only by cooperating can we tackle them.

Local dialogue between people representing different interests and global dialogue between different nationalities are both important. We can’t face environmental problems alone, because they affect all of us.

Despite speaking different languages and having other cultural differences, we are all living under the same sky and walking on the same ground. We all share this planet and we must work together to ensure its diversity and protect life in all its forms.

NIINA JYRÄNEN, a guest writer for this issue, is an environmental politics student at the University of Tampere, Finland, and a youth team leader at WWF–Finland who works for a sustainable future where people and nature live in balance with each other.

ANNA-KATRI KULMALA, a guest writer for this issue, is a biomaterials entrepreneur, Arctic Youth Network member and journalism student at Tampere University. She is committed to exploring humans’ relationship with nature and promoting a nonconsumeristic lifestyle. Both women are also the founders and coordinators of the Arctic Utopias Film Project.

ARCTIC UTOPIAS is a co-creation documentary project that is connecting Arctic countries and people living in the region. Each country produces an episode about the environmental and societal changes facing its regions and how locals are experiencing them. The aim of the project is to increase dialogue across borders and generations. Arctic Utopias is made possible through the support of WWF–Finland and the US embassy in Finland.

Psst! Arctic Utopias is looking for contributors, stories and support. If you have a story that needs to be heard, email info@arcticutopias.com.