The trip to the sub-Arctic I took last week with several Embassy colleagues advanced a number of priorities of my mission here in Sweden: Working to advance the dialogue between America and Sweden to protect biodiversity and the interests of indigenous populations; connecting with young people on their priorities; and commercial diplomacy.
I was delighted to meet the leadership of the Parliament of the Sami people in the northern city of Kiruna, Sweden. The Sami are the indigenous people who inhabit a landmass covering parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Our conversation quickly zeroed in on the practical challenges they face in protecting their way of life. Reindeer herding – from summer to winter feeding and breeding grounds – is increasingly under threat as traditional migratory routes are faced with development and transport corridor building, and as climate change affects the overall biodiversity of the region. Striking a balance between the Sami people and industry will be difficult, but not impossible, and what is needed, and what I hope is genuinely underway, is open and constructive dialogue between interests that are not irreconcilable.
It was at the Jokkmokk Winter Conference where I felt I had an incredibly thoughtful and honest discussion with a large group of young people. In the morning of that day, Embassy Economic and Environment Counselor Laura Kirkconnell and I went dog sledding, a truly memorable Arctic experience, in sunny weather but incredibly cold temperatures. The thermometer was minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-32 C), and after an hour of dog sledding the pain from the cold was palpable. It was telling that my guide Stina asked to look at my face to see if she could see white spots – evidence of frostbite. Thankfully there were none – and all I was left with were incredible memories.
Over 200 young people signed up for the Jokkmokk Winter Conference, and I welcome the passion, creativity, public mindedness and energy that was brought to the table by participants. It is meeting with groups of young people like this when you can’t help but have hope for the future. I sat on a panel with the Russian Ambassador and the Canadian Chargé d’Affairs. The questions were direct and spirited. I welcome more such frank discussions. I was especially proud that there were two American Fulbright scholars present, studying topics pertaining to socio-political questions the societies of the North will have to address. The Fulbright program is one of America’s best exports: It gives rising stars a year to ask and try to answer really tough questions.
The last day of our trip we went to the Northern City of Luleå, where we had lunch with the Governor of Norrbotten province and the Mayor of Luleå. The pride that these two leaders take in both the traditions of the region, but also the region’s future, was clear. We visited the site where Facebook’s data center is under construction. This will be Facebook’s first data center outside the USA, and I jumped at the chance to travel there. I can tell you the cool Arctic air that attracted Facebook to choose this site was very much apparent, as it was about minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit (-26 C). I am deeply impressed that the data center will be powered primarily by renewable energy, and is being built not far from the 17,000 student Luleå University, with clear benefits derived from being close to a strong research institution and new ideas. The regional incubator – geared to bringing more creative industries – is incredibly sophisticated and globally oriented at a time when we are all connected.
My trip up north exposed me to great traditions, but also hopefully the bright future, of the sub-Arctic region. Protecting biodiversity, indigenous people traditions and economic cooperation are by no means mutually exclusive goals. Through dialogue, openness, transparency in decision-making, these goals are absolutely reconcilable. I will remember the beauty of the landscape, the ruggedness of the people, and the strong Arctic sun which every day sheds light on the hopefully bright future of the sub-Arctic region.
See more photos from the trip on the Embassy’s Flickr photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usembsweden