Leaders from the eight circumpolar nations will meet on Wednesday and hand chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Canada. The meeting comes after a growing number of Arctic aboriginals demanded a moratorium on energy development in the Far North.

On Monday, groups representing aboriginals from the Arctic Council released a statement in Kiruna, Sweden, which said: "It is time that we join forces and demand that the oil companies and the Arctic states change their path and start to listen to the voices of the indigenous peoples residing in these lands."

The statement has 42 signatories, including major aboriginal groups from Russia, the US and Canada, as well as aboriginal heads from Scandinavia.

In the statement the groups demanded a halt to all offshore drilling in Arctic waters, and stated that the methods to clean up unavoidable spills have not been developed yet.

"The statement has 42 signatories, including major aboriginal groups from Russia, the US and Canada."

The groups have also insisted drilling on traditional aboriginal lands should be stopped until governments and industry display better environmental standards.

"The development of natural resources in a sustainable manner, in which northerners participate and benefit, is central to the economic future of the circumpolar region," the statement said.

"Arctic Council initiatives could be built around and support Canada’s priorities to increase investment and development in the northern resource sector."

Canada last chaired the Arctic Council during its inaugural meeting in 1998, when the forum pledged to encourage co-operation on sustainable development and environmental protection.

Canada will begin the two-year term at a time when the Far North is constantly being exposed to rapid warming and increasing threats, including a rise in shipping, oil drilling and other environmental hazards.

During the meeting, the council members are likely to sign a binding accord on oil spill prevention and deal with the issue of observer status for non-Arctic states, such as China.

The Arctic, with discovered reserves of about 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under melting ice, is increasingly being considered for fossil fuel development. It is estimated that more than 80% of oil and gas in the Arctic is offshore.

Image: North Canada is exposed to rapid warming and increasing threats, including shipping and oil drilling. Photo courtesy of Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, NOAA Corps (ret.).