Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But their holistic approach to the environment and the natural elements can play a crucial role in stabilizing the climate. In the Arctic, indigenous groups are still fighting to make their voice heard in the discussions at local, regional, and international levels.

The Arctic is warming faster than other regions of the globe. According to the 2017 SWIPA (Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic) report, the temperature of the region has risen by more than twice the global average rate during the past 50 years.

Approximately 4 million people live above the Arctic circle, 10% of which are indigenous. Traditionally, Arctic indigenous people have been involved in hunting, fishing, herding or plant gathering. Even though many today take part in other business activities, a strong connection to land and the environment is still the cornerstone of indigenous identities. However, indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands are frequently under threat from a variety of extractive industries. The rapid melting of the ice made natural resources available for exploitation to the surrounding states, affecting directly indigenous way of life. Such projects, including those producing green energy like wind farms, have caused many conflicts with the local populations, especially the indigenous communities engaged in traditional economies.

Extractive industries aside, climate change is posing a major threat to the indigenous way of life. Reindeer herders from the Nenets community, nomadic people from the Russian Far North,  lost a large proportion of their herds in 2003 and 2016, after icy rains covered the pasture lands, making food inaccessible until the following spring. Altogether, more than 80,000 reindeers died from starvation. The Nenets have been practicing reindeer husbandry for centuries, using the animal for food, clothing, housing supplies and transportation. The practice is therefore central to the Nenets culture, and strongly linked to their identity.

The melting of the permafrost is releasing powerful toxic gas in the atmosphere, causing thaws, changing the flora and provoking fatal diseases among animals and humans. Recently, scientists have discovered massive natural reserves of mercury buried under the icy ground. The toxic element is already known to build up in fish, birds, seals, polar bears, and other animals. High levels of mercury have been found in the blood of Arctic indigenous people who rely on subsistence hunting for food. Resultantly, with the permafrost thawing, more is expected to be released into the ecosystem and affect the food chain.

Scientists next to a hole in the Yamal peninsula (Russia), caused by the thawing permafrost. Picture: ZAMG/Bartsch. Flickr Creative Commons

It is proven that indigenous and local populations are affected by climate change. Despite that, the Arctic region is still often portrayed by international actors as either a terra nullius, a people-less area that has to be conquered or industrialized in order to “develop” the region, or rescued and protected by scientists who see it as a “global sanctuary”. Most of the time, these two discourses do not take into account the local peoples’ existing resources and knowledge.

In most Arctic countries, the indigenous people represent a minority, with little to no rights concerning their lands. Local communities have to cohabit with industrial workers and scientists, and deal with projects on their territories, often without giving their free, prior and informed consent. The principle of FPIC (Free, Prior, and Informed Consent) was established by the United Nations to engage indigenous peoples prior to the beginning of a project that might affect them or their ancestral territories.

Indigenous peoples’ lives have for thousands of years depended on their relationship to the environment and the natural elements. In the Arctic, this allowed them to develop their livelihoods despite extreme weather conditions. Yet, they are still often not invited to the discussion table around climate change. James Stotts, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska, told Arctic Deeply: “We feel that science and scientists today are dismissive of the value of indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is actually based in indigenous culture and that has its own worldview and its own way of looking at what’s important.”

James Stotts and Okalik Eegeesiak from the Inuit Circumpolar Council at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks (USA) in 2017. Picture: Arctic Council Secretariat. Flickr Creative Commons

Many indigenous groups around the world, however, did not wait for an invitation to the table. They have created their own platforms to spread the word about indigenous cultures and the effects of climate change.

Arctic indigenous organizations have had the status of Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council since its founding in 1996. Through this, the six organizations representing the Arctic indigenous people can have an influence over the various projects and in the working groups. However, this is not without challenges. Traditional knowledge is not always incorporated into scientific studies and different member states are not using it to the same degree.

Indigenous knowledge has already proven to be necessary and useful in different projects in the Arctic, like in the discussions relating to the shipping routes and the preservation of marine animals in the Northwestern Passage, or in helping scientists revise their survey methods to estimate the size of whale population.

Improvements are also made on the global scene. The Paris Agreement of 2015 includes references to the indigenous peoples, stating that countries need to respect their rights when taking action to address climate change. The agreement also recognizes the importance of combining science and traditional knowledge for mitigation and adaptation measures. However, some indigenous voices were critical over the fact that indigenous rights were cut from the binding portion of the agreement and only relegated to an inspirational preamble.

On the practical aspect, the Local Communities and Indigenous People’s Platform was finalized and presented in Bonn last November during the climate change conference. It aims to create a space for these communities to actively contribute to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) process and allow them to share their highly valuable knowledge with scientists and policy makers. This platform is a vehicle for indigenous and local communities to interact directly with the different stakeholders and to make sure that their rights are respected. Okalik Eegeesiak, Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, welcomed the initiative in Bonn and recalled: “Inuits are in the Arctic, so work with us. We know the way through the snow storm”.

The resilience of Arctic indigenous peoples has allowed them to pursue their traditional way of life in extreme weather conditions for thousands of years. However, major climate change effects accelerated by extractive industries are threatening the prosperity of indigenous livelihoods. Today, scientific discussions on climate too often neglect to include indigenous knowledge, which has proven to be highly valuable in various projects, and which allow the latter to be in line with international requirements on Indigenous Rights. Whether new platforms like the LCIPP will be actively used by both indigenous groups and scientists around the world remains to be seen. But greater cooperation between western science and indigenous and local knowledge will need to be achieved in order to target efficiently the dangerous impacts of climate change.

Mélodie Viallon

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