Tell us a little about your research project.
My research is part of a larger Arctic research network called REXSAC (Resource Extraction and Sustainable Arctic Communities). With a shared Arctic focus, we are connecting and collaborating across disciplinary boundaries. I am based at the Cultural Anthropology research unit at the University of Oulu in Finland, but through REXSAC courses and collaborations, I have learned a lot about how, for example, historians, ecologists and hydrologists do research in different parts of the circumpolar North.
Within REXSAC, we all focus on extractive resource industries in the Arctic as cultural, social, economic, and ecological phenomena. We investigate three key research questions: (1) why resource extraction commences, (2) what consequences it has for communities in the Arctic and beyond, and (3) what opportunities exist for transitioning toward post-extractive futures?
My own PhD project sheds more light on the second research question especially. I am focusing on women’s approaches to fair ways of distributing advantages and benefits (royalties, etc.) connected to mining operations. I am also looking into how women deal with potential and actual negative social and environmental impacts of mining.
What drew you to the study of the Arctic region?
Finland is one of the northernmost corners of Europe, but when I was younger, I was not particularly proud or excited to live in a small country located almost entirely north of the 60th parallel. I had to move away and direct my attention elsewhere, before I started to appreciate my own northern roots and became interested in studying also other northern cultures and places. One of the key turning points for me was an elective course I took at the University of Copenhagen during my master’s degree. At that point, most of the other courses I had taken had dealt with cases from the Global South, but this particular course examined new developments and threats in the Arctic region. Beforehand I had reasoned that it would be a good idea to learn a bit more about Greenland, because of its ties and entwined history with Denmark. However, it took me by surprise how profoundly interested I was in all the course readings and themes. I barely managed to focus on any other courses I was taking at the time. The outcome of that experience was that I re-directed my studies towards the North and became eager to learn more about different places and peoples across the Arctic. Today I am still on that path, still learning, with my home, heart and work all located in the North.
Why do you think your research is important for our understanding of resource development and practices in the Arctic region?
Extractive industries are characterized by global players, yet their impacts are foremost felt locally. Therefore, it is very important to understand local conditions of fairness and social justice. Whether successful or not, mining and other large-scale extractive endeavors can fundamentally influence what kind of practices people consider to be fair and just. Large extractive operations can alter people’s relationships with each other and with the land and environment. I think we do not understand these changes and dynamics well enough, and that is why I am focusing on this topic with my PhD project. Originally, my plan was not to have a gendered element in my study, but when I moved to Canada to do my field research, I quickly realized that women’s perspectives on this topic have been scarcely studied, especially in the Arctic. Luckily, the situation is starting to change and women’s perspectives and experiences connected to extractive industries and their impacts are taken more seriously now. For example, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) has recently brought gendered impacts of resource development in Canada into limelight
Where have you been in the Arctic as part of your research and when did you go there?
I spent almost eight months in Canada as part of my PhD research, and most of that time in Rankin Inlet, in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. I arrived in Rankin in the summer 2018 and returned to Finland in the beginning of February 2019, so I was lucky enough to experience, at least partly, three different seasons there. However, many locals told me that spring is actually their favorite season, so unfortunately I missed out on that!
At the moment, my home and everyday life is located in Oulu, on the 65th parallel, in Finland’s sub-Arctic, some 200 km away from the Arctic Circle. During the past couple of years, as part of REXSAC field courses and visits, I have been different places in Norbotten, in northern Sweden and in Finnmark in northern Norway, as well as in Iceland.
What did you do to prepare for this research?
REXSAC courses and field activities helped me to become familiar with existing research and different developments in the arctic. It is very important to know what has already been done, what kind of knowledge is already out there, and build on that, rather than “reinvent the wheel”. That meant that I also did a lot of reading – books, articles, reports, public planning and policy documents, newspaper articles, online discussions, etc. I also watched a few documentaries and listened online radio programs. Contacting people was also part of the preparations, however, I learned very quickly that the best way to contact people in Canada’s North is not through email. Many people are already flooded with emails, so they appreciate face-to-face meetings much more. That is why I ended up moving to Nunavut quite quickly after I had arrived in Canada.
How have you incorporated the people in the Arctic region into your research and how have they added to your work?
It would not have been possible to do this research without collaborating with local people. It is not exaggeration to say that they are the heart and soul of this research. I am so grateful for all the help I received from Rankinmiut (people who live in Rankin Inlet) during my stay. I feel positively indebted to give back. One of my goals is to find ways to communicate the research findings in such a way that future policies and practices of handling benefits and risks of mining could better match the needs of Rankinmiut – and other Nunavummiut – impacted by mining. At the moment, my biggest challenge is that analyzing and summarizing field research findings has proven to be a surprisingly slow process. This is quite normal when dealing with rich data that ethnographic field research generates. However, I stressed quite a lot about this at first, before coming to terms with it.
What was the most surprising or interesting thing you have experienced or encountered during your research so far?
It is difficult to answer this, because there have been so many surprises and interesting things along the way. That is the great advantage of anthropological research; one gets to experience the new and unexpected over and over again because there is always something unique in every human encounter. Of course when you live in a new place for an extended time-period, you get used to certain things and then they just start to feel normal. For example, most Rankinmiut I met were very friendly and spontaneous. This was great for getting to know new people, but it took me some time to get used to it and learn to go with the flow and seize the moment, so to speak, both on my free time and when doing research. In Finland, it is quite common that meeting people, even friends, requires a lot of pre-planning. This means that meeting and getting together with people typically happens when it has been pre-scheduled to happen – not necessary when the time and mood is right for it. This makes social life here quite inflexible, so it was great to experience and get used to a different kind of way of doing it.
Thinking back, there is also another thing I should mention here. Before I moved to Rankin, I talked with a couple Canadians who had previously made short trips to Rankin. They warned me that I should “toughen” myself, because, according to them, the Canadian Arctic is rustic and very different from the Arctic areas in the Nordic countries. After hearing these kinds of “warnings”, I remember having mixed feelings. I had already found a place to stay in Rankin and started making preparations to move there. I started worrying what if I would not like Rankin at all? Was I completely crazy to move alone there, without even visiting the place first?
It was too expensive for me as a PhD student to make a “test visit”, so I just had to trust my gut feeling. Then the day came when I boarded my flight to Rankin. It was actually a perfect day to arrive: when the plane approached Rankin, the sun was shining from a clear sky and I could see a beautiful, vast patchwork of land and water stretching to the horizon and beyond. After I had landed and found my new apartment, I took a walk around town. I saw kids playing outside, people riding with their ATVs, pick-up trucks and other vehicles, taxis driving around, houses in different colors and shapes, stores and office buildings, dusty roads, rocks, small lakes, the seaside, boats, and so forth. I liked the place immediately before I even knew how many friendly and welcoming people I would meet there.
Where there any unexpected challenges you experienced working on your project and how did you overcome them?
In cultural anthropology, and especially with ethnographic field research, we are in many ways trained to embrace the unexpected. So in that sense, I did not encounter any unexpected challenges that would have derailed the project. I knew already beforehand that it would be quite demanding and time-consuming to do this type of research, because familiarizing oneself deeply with another culture is not a fast and straightforward process. I also knew beforehand that moving so far away from Finland would mean that I would need to “hit pause” with my life back home for a while and focus on living in Nunavut. Luckily, my then-boyfriend-now-husband was very patient, and my PhD program enabled this kind of relocating. I believe that most learning happens when we leave our familiar surroundings and find ourselves at least a bit outside of our normal comfort zone.
What would you recommend researchers do in preparation for undertaking research in the Arctic?
My recommendation is to learn about the local cultures beforehand. If you are not interested in local cultures and not curious to learn more, why are you even going? I am not speaking about social sciences and humanities research only. Field research and findings of other type of research also intersect with, and impact, local lives and environment in different ways. Learning about the local cultures should really be a prerequisite for doing any kind of research in the Arctic.
At a very practical level, my recommendation is to avoid making elaborate plans before you have actually arrived. Instead of bombarding local people with emails, go there, in person, and adjust your plans to local realities. Furthermore, adjust your schedule – do not demand and expect local people to adjust theirs.
Note: All of the five photos above were taken by Jasmiini Pylkkanen.