Svalbard Global Seed Vault: A Tale of Two Treaties
I am not entirely content with the degree of whiteness in my life.
Jenny Diski, Skating to Antarctica.
The plane is surrounded by so much white as we touch down on Svalbard. I’m reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s words on “an ultimate dim Thule” in Dream-Land (1844):
… a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of space – Out of time.
I was fairly certain that I was content with the degree of whiteness in my life. Dull white clouds in our journey here, broken only by the topography of Tromsø, where we stopped off was enough, I thought. But the sharp-dull white of the Arctic Ocean as we come into land, and the sudden mass of bright white snow-covered coal-rich rock emerging from the clouds is a thrill. What isn’t white is black.
The pictures and the films of wild white tundra aren’t quite honest though. Because the second thing that strikes me is that Svalbard’s main town – Longyearbyen – has something of the frontier town about it. It is an industrial frontier town, founded in the late 1800s as a tourist base, but developed in earnest in the early 1900s by an American industrialist, John Munroe Longyear, for his Arctic Coal Company. The heritage of its coal-mining existence makes the landscape: the aerial coal conveyors criss-cross and bracket the town. You can even stay in the old miners’ dormitories. Most of the mines are closed now, and the buckets and cables have been removed from the conveyors, but the masts, the spoil tips, the shafts don’t allow forgetting. They masts march towards a conveyor station, on stilts, on the side of one of the steep escarpments that quickly rise up from the town below. Built heritage pre-1945 on Svalbard is automatically protected, and though later than that, the masts are too. All the protected cultural heritage of Svalbard relates to exploitation of nature in some way: coal extraction, whaling, hunting, fishing, trapping. Mining is just one human indent on the tundra. Longyearbyen has grit and dirt and labour and toil written all over it. Overwritten now by North Face and Santa Claus and the drive to conserve this Arctic sublime.
It’s not very far at all from the airport to Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV). Indeed, it’s not wilderness that brought the vault here: it’s the ice, yes, but also the infrastructure, and Svalbard’s curious global geopolitical status. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 gives sovereignty of the Svalbard Archipelago to Norway, but it prohibits military infrastructure and Svalbard’s use in any “war-like” activity. It also commits Norway to the environmental conservation of the area. The juxtaposition of that treaty – negotiated so carefully to allow access to resources to all its signatories – with the attraction now of its Norwegian neutrality and prohibition on military installations is in harmony with the juxtaposition of the dirt and hurt of the work of natural exploitation, and Svalbard’s attraction for its natural diversity, protected now in a range of nature reserves.
The vault’s entrance is the star of the show – a dramatic concrete edifice with an LED light display: an ark emerging from the rock in which the world is invited to send its seeds to safety, or a sort of portal to the back-up hard-drive therein. SGSV is a repository for 855,000 crop seed varieties – phenotypes – representing 5000-odd species. To put this in context, the world’s genebanks contain 2.2 million varieties. Here, then, is a good proportion of the world’s agriculture, bedded down in the SGSV. Construction began in 2006. Funded by the Norwegian government in response to a requirement identified during the negotiations of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, enacted in 2004.
Article 1 of the International Seed Treaty, as it’s known, sets these out:
…the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.
The SGSV is co-run by Nordgen – the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre – and the Crop Trust – an independent international organization that works towards the objectives of the Treaty. The first seeds were deposited in the vault in 2008. These seeds are often discussed as “back-ups” – “copies” of the seeds held by the genebanks that send them. They are “orthodox” seeds: seeds that can be dried and stored.
There’s a pink dawn glow over the mountain the morning we’re scheduled to see the vault. The lights from the airport stand out in the white of the snow and ice and ocean. The “one or two others” that our contact at the SGSV had forewarned us would share in this visit to the vault seem to have multiplied, and no wonder, because this week sees the first opening of the vault to visitors since the first withdrawal was made from it; and COP21 convenes shortly in Paris to debate climate change and a global future.
Svalbard is south of the North Pole, at 78° N, 15° E, within the Arctic Circle. The vault is built 120 metres into a sandstone mountain, Platåberget, ensuring seeds are stored deep in the permafrost, providing a natural cooling system should the artificial system fail. It is 130 metres above sea level, the polar caps are melting, after all. We follow our guide into the rock-hewn vaults where the seeds sit in their boxes, representing the global agriculture of the world. By their nature these seeds are culture: bred and rebred, domesticated, farmed. They might be in cryogenic animation, but they are the embodiment of humanity’s creativity in natural exploitation. The vault is maintained at -18°C, powered by the coal locally mined on Svalbard: nature and culture, wild and weird. The world has been coming to Svalbard for a while now to take advantage of what it offers.