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The Arctic’s Emerging Young Leaders

A Clear Voice on Indigenous Rights and Climate Change

Jannie Staffansson became an environmental chemist so people would listen to her and to Saami elders about environmental issues. Now she’s a steady voice for Indigenous rights at international climate meetings. We spoke to her as part of our “Emerging Leaders” series.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Jannie Staffansson with the Saami Council at an Arctic Council meeting.Arctic Council Secretariat, CC BY-NC-ND/Linnea Nordström

“My friends, this is the face of an angry Saami.”

Jannie Staffansson’s plea, delivered at a press conference to activists and reporters near the conclusion of the climate change summit in Paris in December 2015, won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Days earlier, Staffansson, 26, had read the opening statement for the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) at COP21. Now, as the climate negotiations entered their final days, she was deeply disappointed that language ensuring the respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights had been struck from the final draft of the Paris climate agreement.

“We are the persons who are dying. My friends, my family, they are the ones who go through water, they are the ones who are killed in avalanches,” she said. “And they don’t even care,” Staffanson continued, referring to the group of developed countries that had blocked its inclusion. “How can the purpose of this negotiation not be people? How can our voices be silenced multiple times, and then again?” she asked, her voice shaking.

Born into a reindeer-herding family in Sweden’s north, Staffansson has become a powerful voice for the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic and the challenges they face in a changing climate. She trained as an environmental chemist and now works on environmental issues for the Saami Council, the umbrella organization for Saami organizations in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, within the Arctic Council working group AMAP (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program). In 2015, she was elected to be on the Arctic Focal Point within the IIPFCC and played an important role in the group’s preparation and participation at COP21 in Paris.

We spoke to Staffansson about her passion for Arctic environmental issues.

Arctic Deeply: What are you working on?

Jannie Staffansson: I work for the Saami Council on environmental policy issues and research policy, mainly with AMAP and CAFF [the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna], two working groups of the Arctic Council. And I’m involved in conferences and workshops about climate change, Arctic and polar research, research gaps and future research policies.I’m also working with the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change]. In many of the U.N. groups, Indigenous peoples have some kind of space. There’s no such thing under UNFCCC. All of the Indigenous peoples and organizations are observers. We don’t have the right to speak. We don’t have any rights, really. Under UNFCCC, there’s also an organization called the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change and within that, I’m a Global Steering Committee member and the Arctic focal point.

Arctic Deeply: What motivates you?

Staffansson: I live in the Arctic. I come from a reindeer-herding family. I’m currently living in a reindeer-herding family. We have felt the effects of climate change for 20 years, and it’s affecting our everyday lives, our culture, our language and identity. It’s affecting everything that we are. I’m fighting for the survival of the reindeer and for the survival of the culture. When you have to, you just do it.

Arctic Deeply: Is there anyone who particularly inspires you in your field?

Staffansson: There are many inspiring people, but I’m most enchanted by those who make everyday people react, those who can make people who are normally not very active in global or environmental issues commit.

Arctic Deeply: Has there been a defining moment in your career?

Staffansson: I was quite young, maybe 10 years old when I began hearing more about climate change. I began to understand what people around me were talking about and realizing that the people who have vital knowledge, my people, were not listened to because they were not well-educated in the Western system. They had no voice, even though they had vital information. It made me angry and frustrated, so I decided to get myself an education, so that the Westerners would speak to me and listen to my people.

Large-scale climate changes in the Arctic may influence the foraging conditions for reindeer. (GRID Arendal/Lawrence Hislop)

Large-scale climate changes in the Arctic may influence the foraging conditions for reindeer. (GRID Arendal/Lawrence Hislop)

Arctic Deeply: Could you tell me a little bit about how you see climate change affecting the day-to-day life of your community?

Staffansson: There are many, many things. The elder people describe the changing climate as if the world is moving faster. The seasons are faster, the world is stressed, the plants are stressed, the animals are stressed, the winds are stressed, everything is rushing through seasons or skipping seasons. That makes it very hard to predict what’s to come. But as a reindeer-herder, you need to know or be able to predict the weather to stay safe, to know whether it’s safe to travel on the lake. More and more reindeer, animals and people are falling through the ice. Climate change is also affecting vegetation and wildlife. The change in conditions is hard to predict, and therefore hard to adapt to.

Arctic Deeply: What’s your vision for the Arctic 10 years from now?

Staffansson: I want the entire globe to realize that they are a part of the ecosystem and that humans contribute to ecosystems. I think there are many people, especially youth and children, who do not realize that humans are beneficial to ecosystems and to the Earth because many of us have been treating it so poorly.

Also, the Arctic should not be seen as a place where no one lives, where no one uses the land, where nothing grows or nothing exists, and therefore you can come and extract all the natural resources. But for that to stop, we need people to change their consumption behavior and realize that we have to recycle more of the things that we are using. I want to see the Arctic ecosystem thrive, and the people as well.

This Q&A is part of our series on young leaders in the Arctic. Read more:

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