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APRI board member Univ.-Prof. Dr. Peter Schweitzer from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna, talks about current research topics on infrastructure in the Arctic with a focus on transportation infrastructure. He presented his research topics already in the Polar Talk #7 on November 16, 2022 in the lecture hall of the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

Why infrastructure?

For social scientists working in the Arctic, it is not given to focus on infrastructure, and for a long time the focus has primarily been on the relations of Arctic inhabitants with their “natural” environments (see Schweitzer et al. 2017). Since 2015, Schweitzer and his team have been working on the impacts of transport infrastructure in the circumpolar North through a series of research projects. Chronologically, these were primarily Configurations of Remoteness: Entanglements of Humans and Transportation Infrastructure in the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) Region (CoRe) and Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities (InfraNorth). In addition, research relevant to the topic was also carried out within the framework of the large interdisciplinary Nunataryuk project. In the following, reference will be made mainly to the results of these projects.

However, Schweitzer was already confronted with the importance of infrastructure for life in the Far North during his time at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (1991-2013). In the course of his research in Alaska in the 1990s and 2000s, he became aware in various contexts of how the absence or presence of infrastructure affects village – mostly indigenous – communities. For example, there are still settlements today with no water supply or sewage systems. In communities with water infrastructure, however, this is often a cost and maintenance problem. In addition, some older residents find that traditional river water tastes better than treated tap water. The photos below illustrate different ways of bringing water to homes: the photo of a bucket acting as a water carrier is from Wales, Alaska, in 2005; the photo of a water truck delivering the precious resource from house to house was taken in the Siberian town of Bykovsky in 2019.

Fetching water with a bucket in Wales, Alaska (left). Water truck in Bykovsky, Siberia (right) (photo P. Schweitzer).

Climate change has drawn global attention to Shishmaref, Alaska, which is often portrayed in the media as the “first victim of climate change.” The spectacular photo below – a house that is about to disappear into the Chukchi Sea due to coastal erosion – suggests the problem of “western” infrastructure in the coastal areas of the Arctic. However, modern infrastructure in these areas also means that traditional mechanisms of adaptation to environmental change, such as the movement of seminomadic groups to other areas, are no longer possible precisely because of the village infrastructure – from the school and facilities for showering and laundry to the church, stores and a small airport. Infrastructure has thus become a “trap” here, reducing mobility and adaptive capacity.

Impact of coastal erosion on infrastructure, Alaska (photo P. Schweitzer). 

CoRe - is there a right for remoteness?

Since the 2010s, we have operated with the notion of “remoteness” in relation to transportation infrastructure. On the one hand, it is obvious that the Arctic is one of the most remote regions on Earth. On the other hand, this gives sparse transportation infrastructure much greater significance than in densely populated and well-developed areas. These considerations led, among others, to the FWF-funded project CoRe – “Configuration of Remoteness” (2015 – 2020), which was dedicated to the last completed large-scale Soviet project for the development of Eastern Siberia and its social impacts: the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) (see e.g. Povoroznyuk & Schweitzer 2023). This railroad line connects the cities of Taishet, Severobaikalsk and Tynda to Komsomolsk-na-Amure at the Pacific Ocean. The East Siberian subarctic is characterized by extreme winters and permafrost conditions. Already in the 19th century the first plans for the BAM were discussed. In the 1930s the construction was started by forced laborers recruited by Stalin’s terror, but was stopped after Stalin’s death. It was not until the early 1970s (until the 1980s) that the project was realised under Brezhnev. The motivations were diverse and ranged from the economic motivation to develop the resources of the region (e.g. timber, oil or other mineral resources) to the strategic consideration of creating a railroad line that did not run directly along the Chinese border (political relations between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were very tense at the time). Unlike Stalin, Brezhnev could not rely on forced labor, but had to rely on a mixture of ideology (“building communism”) and economic incentives (e.g., being awarded a car after only three years) to mobilize workers en masse. The Komsomol youth organization played an important role in this.

The route of the BAM – the main research sites of the CoRe project are located between Ust’-Kut in the west and Tynda in the east (map by Alexis Sancho-Reinoso). 

Unlike other large-scale projects where the workers leave the area by the time of completion at the latest, the plan for this project was that the workers would also become the first settlers of a previously relatively inaccessible and sparsely populated area. These settlers became a social group – the “Bamowtsy” – who not only built a railroad, but also Sovietized and Europeanized the area, as the majority of the “Bamowtsy” came from the European part of the Soviet Union. The indigenous population of the BAM region, primarily Evenks and Sakha (Yakuts), became minorities on their territory as a result of BAM and the settlement of Russians and other groups, although reindeer herding, hunting, and other subsistence activities continue to play an important role today. While parts of the indigenous population view BAM positively – at least officially – the assimilation and colonization of these groups appears as a non-accidental concomitant of a new railroad line.

The completion of construction and the collapse of the Soviet Union had a massive impact on the former boom towns along the BAM, such as Tynda, the unofficial capital of the region. The loss of economic incentives led to a demographic exodus of part of the “Bamovtsy” and the socialist megaproject was now criticized in the media. In recent years, the population has stabilized and is now far below that of the 1980s. At the same time, in the last decade the Russian state has exploited the existing nostalgia for Soviet conditions for its own purposes, hyping BAM as a patriotic, non-Western achievement.

The question of the right of remoteness arises as soon as the local population refuses to build or connect to infrastructure. The village of Ust’-Nyukzha along the BAM is separated by a river from the railroad line 7 km away. The state offered to build a bridge in the 1980-ies, but it was rejected (Schweitzer & Povoroznyuk 2019). To this day, a large part of the population is against the construction of a bridge, because residents want to remain “secluded” for various reasons. Such cases exist in other parts of the Arctic as well. At the same time, there are also individuals and communities that would like to see better connections to regional and national transportation networks.

The InfraNorth project - what does the local population say about it?

An important part of our InfraNorth research project is to engage local people and gather their views on the pros and cons of existing and planned infrastructure. How are potentially positive impacts – such as cheaper prices for food, fuel, and everyday goods, and more reliable supplies – perceived versus potentially negative developments, such as the spread of alcohol, drugs, and disease? How do indigenous people view increased hunting of their wild areas by urban hunters, who can gain easy access to previously isolated areas because of new infrastructure? The results so far show quite different perspectives. There are local protests against new infrastructure projects in various areas of the Arctic: e.g. in Northwest Alaska against the planned “Ambler Road”, a road that would only serve mining. Or successful protests by Sami reindeer herders against a planned railroad line from Rovaniemi (Finland) to Kirkenes (Norway), which would affect the animals’ grazing areas.

While infrastructure development in most areas of the Arctic has been funded, planned, and executed by outsiders, interesting developments have recently occurred in Canada toward increased regional/local influence. For example, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, the only continuous road in Canada leading to the Arctic Ocean, was implemented through indigenous initiatives-but federal funding (Bennett 2018). Similarly, a consortium of First Nations and local communities recently acquired the Hudson Bay Railway, which runs from The Pas, Manitoba to the Port of Churchill on Hudson Bay. This rail line had been disrupted for 1.5 years from 2017 due to undercutting, which had a very negative impact on the affected settlements. It is hoped that the current owners will take better care of inventory and operations than the non-local previous owners.

Wagons of the Hudson Bay Railway in the station of Churchill, Manitoba (photo by Philipp Budka).

A few years ago, Greenland decided to invest in the construction of new international airports. Until now, international flights to and from Greenland have landed and taken off almost exclusively at Kangerlussuaq, a former military airport built by the U.S. Army in 1941. Kangerlussuaq is hardly ever the final destination for travelers, however, but serves as a traffic hub and sometimes an unplanned stopover when bad weather paralyzes air traffic. At the present time, the airports in the capital Nuuk and in the popular tourist destination Ilulissat are being expanded to the point where wide-body international aircraft can land there. For us, this raises the question of what these developments mean for the affected localities. While it is to be expected that the inhabitants of Nuuk and Ilulissat will welcome the new situation, the expected loss of traffic in Kangerlussuaq represents an existential threat for this place. At the same time, we have indications that some Ilulissat residents, for example, view these developments with concern, as the transport infrastructure within the town is not designed to handle additional tourist flows. For Kangerlussuaq, the “new Cold War” could mean a return to a military airport.

Construction of the new airport in Ilulissat (left). Kangerlussuaq airport (right) (photo P. Schweitzer).

Another example is Kirkenes in northern Norway, which is very close to the Russian border and has one of the last open border crossings between the Russian Federation and a NATO state. The region has a long history of Nordic-Russian interactions, and the town has promoted itself as the “gateway to Russia” and the unofficial capital of the transnational Barents region since the 1990s. In 2018, a renovated road with an impressive tunnel and suspension bridge to the Russian border was opened. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the situation has changed drastically: political and economic relations between Russia and Norway and border traffic have come to an almost complete standstill. Kirkenes is therefore in the process of “reinventing itself.” The InfraNorth project wants to make a small contribution to this by holding a workshop in September 2023 with different future scenarios (with a focus on transport infrastructure).

Border between Norway and Russia (left). The recently renewed road between Kirkenes and the Russian border (right) (photo P. Schweitzer).

Back to the initial question: How much infrastructure do the people in the Arctic need?

If the projects discussed above have taught us anything, it is that it is high time to leave decisions about the Arctic to the people who live there. At the same time, it has also become clear that there is no unified position of the “people of the Arctic” regarding infrastructure. There have been many attempts to get Arctic residents to be pro-environment and anti-infrastructure development, and just as many attempts to be pro-development and anti-environment or anti-climate protection.

So this question can only be answered from the perspective of the local population in question. However, it would be naïve to assume that “the local population” necessarily takes a unified position toward infrastructure projects. As everywhere, there are divergent interests in Arctic towns and villages. Since the demographic and political balance of power between Arctic and non-Arctic is clearly with the latter, infrastructure projects in the past have been financed almost exclusively from the “South” and have served these same interests. This will not necessarily change in the future, because the necessary investments for large projects will continue to come from the outside.

As mentioned above, there are developments in this direction, especially in Canada, which seem positive, at least at first glance. The ongoing InfraNorth project will continue to critically examine these developments and attempt to document “best practices” in the Arctic. Therefore, it is even more important that there will be more opportunities for local participation, decision-making and control in future projects.

“This is also where the applied potential of this research field becomes evident: the bottom line is to use the results of this and similar projects to develop guidelines for a socially just infrastructure policy.”

Peter Schweitzer

About Polar Talks

The Austrian Polar Research Institute APRI invites several times a year to the Natural History Museum of Vienna for lectures on polar science. These are held by internationally recognized persons from APRI on the basis of current research projects and therefore provide an immediate insight with the possibility of discussion into important issues concerning the Arctic and Antarctic.

Media information

Written by Christoph Ruhsam, APRI Media Officer.
Layout by the APRI media team.
Contact: Use our contact form.
Photos, unless otherwise noted: ©Peter Schweitzer

About the author of the Polar Talk

Peter Schweitzer, University of Vienna, Austria


Bennett, Mia M. 2018 From State-initiated to Indigenous-driven Infrastructure: The Inuvialuit and Canada’s First Highway to the Arctic Ocean. World Development 109: 134-148.

Povoroznyuk, Olga, and Peter Schweitzer 2023 What Difference Does a Railroad Make? Transportation and settlement in the BAM region in historical perspective. In The Siberian World. J.P. Ziker, J. Ferguson, and V. Davydov, eds. Pp. 364-377. london: Routledge.

Schweitzer, Peter, and Olga Povoroznyuk 2019 A right to seclusion? A missing bridge and articulations of indigeneity along an East Siberian railroad line. Sozialanthropologie 27(2):236-252.

Schweitzer, Peter, Olga Povoroznyuk, and Sigrid Schiesser 2017 Beyond Wilderness: Towards an Anthropology of Infrastructure and the Built Environment in the Russian North. The Polar Journal 7(1):58-85.

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