ArcticAnthropology is proud to present a guest blog from Ben Corwin on life, migration and relation to the environment on one of the Arctic’s northernmost human settlements: Svalbard.
Ben Corwin is a Senior at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. He is majoring in mathematics and biology with concentration in environmental studies. Though Williams College offers no classes specific to the Arctic, he has taken courses in geology and environment policy and conducted independent work and travel in numerous Arctic and high alpine regions. The first trip Corwin took to Svalbard was at the end of middle school when his grandfather was lecturing at UNIS. In 2013, he came back to study patterns of recreation and immigration on the archipelago under a grant from the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies. Some of his insights from this trip are below.
Please check out http://vimeo.com/78549423 for a short companion video to the project, and read on hereafter
In July 2013, I spent a few weeks in Longyearbyen and the surrounding communities of Barentsburg, Nybyen, and Adventdalen interviewing locals, students, researchers, and especially minorities. Svalbard, a large archipelago between Norway and the North Pole, has a population of 2400, a land area of 24000 square miles, and an average winter temperature of -14 Celsius. Not the first place most people would consider moving to. My goal with the project “Svalbard: Immigrants and Transients in the Wilderness” was to study the interactions of institutions, nature, and diverse people on this far-flung chain of islands, and hopefully shed some insight onto how diverse groups adapt to foreign wilderness settings and become integrated into institutions reliant on the natural world. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and slow end of coal mining subsidies in the Russian mining settlements of Pyramiden and Barentsburg, Svalbard’s population has dropped. But the population in Norwegian settlements has witnessed a significant increase, and the groups moving from outside of mainland Norway have seen even larger increases, with at least two dozen nationalities represented in the main town of Longyearbyen. This population increase, however, is deceptive as well. Svalbard is a highly transient place, with an average residency time of 6.3 years and, for 2012, 425 immigrants and 401 emigrants according to Statistics Norway. Because of the 1920 Svalbard treaty, residents and companies of any signatory nation- a list that includes South Africa and Afghanistan among others- may operate on the archipelago without discrimination. It is the idea of permanence for some groups and transiency for others, their impact on and interactions with the environment, and the interactions between population groups, institutions and tourists that brought my attention.
For many who came to Svalbard seeking a better life, including Iranians, Croatians, and Thais, this effectively means not seeing anyone but Svalbard residents, and mandatory deportation if flying out of the archipelago. But immigrants keep coming, knowing that they are effectively in legal isolation from relatives. Is there something that makes the arctic wilderness, dark half the year, so enticing to immigrant groups who know they will be living alongside a few peers and large numbers of coal miners, university students, and guides? My original plan was to trace the inter-group and human-environment interactions during different stages of immigration. How do immigrant groups interact with an arctic wilderness environment and nature-associated institutions upon arrival, after several years of residency, and after they have been in residence longer than many Svalbard residents from the Norwegian mainland? And for people who can freely go back and forth to the mainland, at what point do residents become caretakers of the land, hosts for tourists, teachers, or pure researchers, and when and why do these attachments to Svalbard end? What role does the wilderness of Svalbard have on retaining or driving residents out?
While Svalbard residents generally know when they arrive that they will be living next to wilderness with wilderness weather, few human beings enjoy cold rain and fog and many don’t enjoy continuous darkness or daylight. Some years, summer can be amazing, with continuous daylight for three months and sunny days with temperatures rising to 10 degrees Celsius. But others are like summer 2013; rain and cold all of June and part of July. This inconsistency, combined with more-limited recreation, means that the most dedicated outdoors-folk practicing friluftsliv, a staple of Norwegian culture- literally translated to fresh air life- leave in summer. During the fall, winter, and spring, however, recreation expenditures approach ten or twenty thousand dollars per household, at least for Scandinavians. Most of this goes towards the purchase, fuel, and maintenance of snowmobiles, which can start at near $20,000. Others survive without such toys, and live happily on the edge of Europe’s largest wilderness. It was their story in which I was most interested.
Svalbard, though Norwegian in population, politics, and sovereignty, is an international place as well; since 2011, passport control takes place upon entrance and exit from the archipelago at either Tromso or Oslo airports and identity documentation and valid Schengen visas- if necessary- are crucial for travel to the mainland, which tends to be necessary at least once a year. For Scandinavians and those with visa-free regimes for the Schengen area, transit is possible, and transiency normal, whether for vacation, work, or family. For Brazilians, who now have easy access to the Schengen zone, a trip home is not out of the question, but for those without easy Schengen travel, and who have not pursued Norwegian citizenship, leaving and returning is not easy, especially when few plans are made for the future off-island. Most Scandinavians plan for only a few years of work, wilderness life, or study, and those I discussed the matter with called a mainland city like Bergen home, but those coming for labor often come with uncertain time constraints or plans for retirement.
The Svalbard Treaty was often the first thing mentioned in interviews. For labor migrants, a category into which the majority of non-Scandinavians fall, the ability to live freely in what is culturally Western Europe is a major incentive of staying on Svalbard, especially when social stratification and taxation are lower than the rest of Europe. People were quick to announce that aside from being somewhat costly to get to, and certainly costly to live in, Svalbard is a place where one can make their own life, learn English, and sometimes be treated as an equal. When talking to all residents about their plans to stay, work, and play, the freedom from taxation beyond that required for the administration of Svalbard was quite important, and allows for remittances home, homeownership, and bearable work hours. While it is rather true that regulations on Svalbard are applied equally and immigrants generally report a decent life and little discrimination by the government, the fact remains that all regulation is initiated and controlled by the Norwegian government. And though theory the regulation is consistently applied and for the safety of nature and people, inconsistencies and increased transiency within Sysselmannen have led to an almost universal frustration with the government, most often expressed by Westerners involved in recreation, logistics, or anything involving environmental manipulation or immigrants asked to leave for lack of funds or employment. In practicality Norway’s administration Relations with Russia have been strained for many years, and continue to be strained due to oil and gas exploration in the arctic as well as increased coal deposits connected to Barentsburg, though most of the Ukrainians working in Barentsburg were rather content with increased safety measures and restrictions given recent deaths at the mines there.
Norwegians and those with the ability to freely travel to and from the archipelago- citizens of most Western countries and permanent residents of Norway- leave the archipelago for a few months a year. Many Norwegians living on the archipelago take leave in the summer as is usual for Norwegians on the mainland who head to their cabins, Southern Europe, or the wilderness on the mainland. This pattern applies especially those who work at the big institutions on the archipelago- Store Norske, the Norwegian state-funded coal mining company; Sysselmannen; Bydrift- the town utility and infrastructure organization; and UNIS, the university center. At UNIS, some members of the biology and geology departments were present, but most everyone else was gone on vacation. Others present during the summer- which some argue is one of the worst parts of the year- leave for much of the dark season. And some rarely leave and don’t have mailing addresses or houses in their home countries with no planned return home as is common for most Svalbard residents. From discussions with former and current Svalbard residents while on the mainland, I was able to confirm that those gone in the summer indeed tend to be Norwegians, leaving for the somewhat unpleasant cruise ship season, also known as bog season, time of the midnight sun, and mosquito season. In terms of researching non-Scandinavian recreation and work patterns, these absences were quite useful, and, though minority populations are often somewhat hidden in the workplace and went unnoticed by most tourists, they were available for interviews when few others were.
During a short stay in Svalbard, most interactions will be with Scandinavians. From servers in restaurants to boat guides to sellers in the shops, almost all front-end service personnel speak Norwegian and English, and are of a paler complexion. And in Sysselmannen, most are Norwegians citizens who have worked in other government agencies. The only exception to the first rule may be Svalbardbutikken, the all-in-one department store that serves as the grocery, liquor, electronics, souvenir, and household goods store. There, an entire South American family works, as do several members of the Thai and Russian-speaking population in Longyearbyen. But grocery management has forced Norwegian as the language of the store, and promotes conversation in Norwegian even though it may be the 2nd or 3rd language of employees. Given the nature of Svalbard’s international work force and the skill level of grocery work, the requirement may be extreme, and possibly against the principles of the Svalbard Treaty, but helps prepare employees for transition to the mainland and flexibility in the workforce. These are also the types of non-Scandinavians who try skiing, like to hike, and might own snowmobiles.
In summers many of the tourism positions vacated by Norwegians- wilderness guides, snowmobile guides, logistics coordinators- are taken over by European university students or guides, especially Swedes and Danes who can give tours in Norwegian and English. Because most non-ship tourists are still domestic, there is a strong requirement for Norwegian or English language skills. As the government has made tourism and transiency- through tourism and university education- a replacement for coal mining, the government has effectively forced Norwegian and English upon the town. Norwegian language is also part of the golden ticket to Norwegian citizenship, and for transition from home on Svalbard to home on the mainland. For those who do not speak Norwegian, classes are offered in Norwegian; they used to be free of charge but now cost a few hundred kroner per session. Contention exists as to the content and level of such classes, however, as some of the smaller immigrant groups feel misplaced and in too large of classes dominated by mainly Thai people who are often not as comfortable or fluent in Norwegian. Observations on the street confirmed these levels of language development, and similar, likely correlated levels of wilderness and recreational knowledge. In larger Norwegian cities, the language classes required for citizenship are divided by native language, but Svalbard is a bit too small to have such classes. Sometimes English serves as the intermediary language in relationships, other times a significant language barrier exists, especially when working with the Thai population. Because Norwegian language proficiency is absolutely required only for citizenship, many Thais on the archipelago speak only what Norwegian is required for their jobs, and otherwise are perfectly content speaking Thai at home and within the larger hundred-plus person ethnic group.
The Russian settlements, past and present, are altogether different creatures than the mostly Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen when it comes to social structure, class, and recreation, and I chose not to focus on them. Pyramiden, a Russian mining settlement abandoned in 1998, truly appears to have been hit by a plague, with everything still intact but no people. The Barentsburg population- mostly Ukrainian miners with Russian management of Trust Arktikugol- are not allowed to leave, have irregular heliport service, and few snowmobiles or weapons for exploring the wilderness. Perhaps Barentsburg shows labor and colonization immigration at its best, but Russian politics and monopolization and Norwegian foreign policy make research in Barentsburg difficult and potentially dangerous for participants. Besides Barentsburg and Longyearbyen, there is one Polish research station housing a few dozen scientists in summer, but, along with the international scientific settlement at Ny- Alesund, inhabitants are researchers and support staff only. Though it is certainly interesting the types of people attracted to arctic sciences and fieldwork- China and India have labs- the labs are small enough that almost everyone does field work out of necessity, and there is often little down time while at the base.
In Longyearbyen, Svalbardbutikken, Securitas, a painting company, and UNIS are a second, fairly well integrated home for immigrants workwise; they employ a number of non-Thai minorities and, due to a strong work culture, provide recreational opportunities and an almost host family situation for those not raised in the wilderness. A Thai working for the larger painting company was one of the only Thais who owned a snowmobile, enjoyed hiking, and was regularly in the wilderness. Most Thais work for ISS Facilities Services AS, in other cleaning positions for hotels or one of the half dozen restaurants, and live in close proximity on the edge of town. Odd hours in many of these jobs mean that recreation with hosts is difficult; and for exterior cleaning jobs, painting, and work at the harbor, good weather for going outside is good weather for working, and most who are on Svalbard as labor immigrants must work rather than play in such times. For Filipinos and other minorities working on the ships that call in Longyearbyen, the town itself is a short break from work, but as soon as sailing commences, they are gone, and for temporary residents in town at day but on ship at night, recreation near town is not easy, and the library’s Wi-Fi connection and Svalbardbutikken’s snack selection are popular town amenities.
Different from my first trip to the archipelago in middle school were the increased building activity, number of new faces, and general level of change. My suspicions of a more transient population were confirmed in talks with both those who had arrived in the months prior and met dozens of others on their way in or out, and some of the families most established in Svalbard, who commented on the fact that they no longer knew their neighbors and were now able to own a house, which was previously almost impossible. A few years ago Sysselmannen changed the fire safety code to allow a smaller gap between buildings, allowing many new buildings to spring up, mostly in the residential areas of Longyearbyen. This has obviously made housing slightly easier to acquire if one does not receive company housing, and opened up housing options for larger and extended families. Larger housing units, less divided, have also meant larger TVs, computers- connected by fiber cable to the mainland- and couches, which seem foreign at 80 degrees north but are part of the growing collection of items keeping the wilderness outside and people in. Several older buildings are now mostly occupied by Thais- the largest minority group on the archipelago numbering some 120 persons- and, though exact numbers are not available for this year, it may now be true that on a percentage basis that close to as many minorities own their homes on Svalbard as do Norwegians, though you may not see them out except for in the gym, school, back of restaurants, or cleaning hotel rooms.
Almost all aspects of life- society, housing, and building- are highly regulated by law and reality. For a place where drinking may be expected year round, alcohol consumption should be below mainland levels due to a purchase quota enforced by the liquor store, but this quota is not tightly enforced, and for many the long winter is a time when drinking and depression go hand in hand with darkness. Residents also complain about housing, but surprisingly the most complaints are from the most transient or newest on the archipelago as well as Scandinavians moving up for just a few months or years; many minorities own their homes and are committed to staying, while other labor migrants are happy to pay for whatever is available, knowing that the minimum wage on the archipelago provides for plenty of remittances to send home and live rather comfortably. The hospital functions well for some services, though most complicated cases are referred to the mainland. To have a child on Svalbard is highly discouraged and almost impossible, as is dying on the Svalbard from sickness or old age, though death by polar bear is possible, though the regulations are not so strict for visiting or staying as when Longyearbyen was a company town functioning on script instead of Norwegian kroner (then, even a short visit by ship required several levels of permission and was known to be denied).
All heating and electricity are provided by a single coal power plant, refuse is strictly controlled, and the harbor will soon be home to ships running on diesel and other non-crude sources. Though rescue insurance covers residents for trips in the archipelago outside of a magic zone called management area 10, all trips outside the area must still be approved months in advance and equipped with satellite phones, emergency beacons, and extra gear. For many minorities, this gear, in addition to snowmobiles and rifles, is the big preventative in recreation. Whether Sysselmannen uses scare tactics or not is up for debate, as the wilderness surrounding Longyearbyen is certainly a wild and inhospitable place, but it is definitely true that thousands of dollars in equipment is often difficult to justify when the same amount sent home could sustain a family for a year or more.
Tens of thousands visit Svalbard every year, and many are from large cruise ships, visiting- by big tour bus- the few kilometer stretch of attractions from the dog kennels to the central tax-free Lompencenteret shopping center while in port for a few hours. Others come on organized tours- or on their own- and choose only to participate in only organized outdoor activities. These people I classify as typical tourists, and I didn’t talk to any so much except to get a feel for plans to come back, previous trips to the archipelago, length of stay, and awareness of immigrant populations. It was surprising, but not altogether unexpected, that many tourists and visiting consultants did not notice non-Scandinavian immigrant populations, which in summer likely make up 10% or more of the Longyearbyen population. But most people who are foreign to Scandinavia notice the “blond phenomena” as well and may be keener to how many people look alike rather than the differences between parts of the region in terms of isolation, immigration, and transiency. Most residents of Svalbard are accepting and understandably so spend most of their time working and recreating, with less attention given to the problems of immigration and transiency than in most parts of the mainland. Norway’s capital, Oslo, is still divided by class, and for many Norwegians, Svalbard is a haven from class and ethnic divisions in an insular population. Whether this makes some residents escapees from a social system is up for consideration, but class is close to non-existent on the archipelago, and may make for a more transient population as well; cabins, houses, and jobs are not tied to families in the same way.
Svalbard is one of the few places in the developed world where friendships may well depend on who has a rifle and a snowmobile at any given time. These tools, or toys, were the subject of many conversations, longings, and regulations. When I first visited the archipelago in middle school, Sysselmannen was not strictly enforcing weapons regulations from the mainland that should have been in place. The gun situation today poses interesting questions and problems for those visiting, with gun permits nearly impossible for Europeans to obtain but remarkably easy for Americans- the author just printed out an online background check form. Some certainly go outside of the Longyearbyen town limits without rifle, but the reality is that most tourists, recreating immigrants, and even visiting students are escorted by Scandinavians, and recreation is on others’ time. Those affiliated with UNIS or guiding businesses are generally able to borrow weapons for approved activities, but often the supplies are limited and fully checked out for field excursions. Other problems arise with licensing, firearm size for smaller bodies, and cost of rifles, safes, and ammunition. Access to cabins, boats, and snowmobiles is mostly dependent on relations at work, and with work schedules packed into time on the archipelago; trips are often spur of the moment. I watched one Norwegian, born on Svalbard, spend several hours preparing weapons for a trip with several South American family members; he viewed himself as guide and protector from bears. The classic figure of a Norwegian man in rubber boots, rifle slung over his shoulder, headed to the cabin, is still alive and well and probably represents the typical recreationist on Svalbard, along with a Scandinavian family bundled up, kids in trailer towed by snowmobile, with dogs at the side.
Check out some pictures of life in Longyearbyen Ben took at the island:
See also the entries of Anna Stammler-Gossmann on her fieldwork June 2013 on Svalbard: