Retaining jobs – sustaining communities in the westfjords of Iceland

Moving in to its third year of intensive research, the EU Horizon 2020 project ArcticHubs is picking up pace in its quest to deliver research-led, practice-based solutions across the European Arctic. With Touch TD at the helm of the Communication, Dissemination, Exploitation of results work package, the collective aim of the project is to address some of the major land-use challenges that have been brought into sharp focus by climate crisis.

Activities are centred around the five most significant sectors for the ‘High North’ (fish farming, forestry, tourism, mining and indigenous livelihoods), as they converge and are experienced in hubs of economic and community activity. To generate a holistic picture, that recognises global influences with local expressions, the research brings together input from both natural and social scientific disciplines, through an interwoven suite of tools.

Earlier this Autumn Touch TD visited the Icelandic hub situated amongst the remote communities of the Westfjords, to support ongoing efforts in shaping research alongside diverse stakeholder groups.

Prior research on land/sea use in the Westfjords has highlighted the importance and rapid growth in cultivation of Norwegian salmon in sea cages dotted around the fjords that stretch out into the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Livelihood opportunities in the fjords however, are not restricted to aquaculture. The rugged coastline and pristine fjords, support an expanding offer of nature-based tourism packages that are attracting cruise ship visitors in increasing numbers. Whilst under water, the dredging and processing onshore, of calcareous marine algae is now leading to another burgeoning sector.

Despite the positive outlook on the job market, in common with many of the other Arctic hub areas, the 2 Westfjords municipalities where research is being conducted, are facing the major challenge of holding back a tide of out migration to larger urban centres. This is most significant amongst the youth, who often on completion of higher education outside of the region, for both livelihood and lifestyle reasons find it increasingly difficult to justify moving back to their Westfjords roots.

Set against this backdrop, Touch TD joined our Icelandic research partners to follow up on an initial survey conducted through the online map-based tool called Maptionnaire. With the research passing through several additional tools and phases, an area the research team were interested in addressing, was to access responses more effectively from those difficult to reach groups. Thankfully, with the easing of covid restrictions, the research team was able to return to direct face-to-face meetings. This allowed for further opportunities to listen closely to those groups that hadn’t responded via Maptionnaire.

A key issue that emerged, was the recognition that policy and decisions are not simply about the raw numerical statistic of jobs created or being available. Although sectors such as aquaculture are thriving in the Westfjords, there is a need to consider more closely the types of jobs being created and who is attracted. Equally, the issue of how employers and municipalities support the sustaining of communities through services and facilities for families was raised. A recognition that if the next generations are to be drawn to and remain in the region it requires not only employment opportunities, but a vibrant cultural and social life that in turn embeds a connection to place. An ideal point to apply an anthropological approach to research!

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