• Blake Gentry

III. Climate Adaptation and Indigenous Migration

This 3rd blog in the series, Climate Adaptation and Indigenous Response in the Arctic, illustrates some ethical, legal, and practical responses to the continuum of indigenous climate adaptation and migration in the Arctic region. It shares information on a second indigenous climate adaptation tool for sea ice.

Blake Gentry





The Arctic is a region comprising territories of the eight circumpolar nations and the Arctic Ocean.[1] Internationally, climate adaption planners will necessarily have to look at a broader regional policy responses to make climate migration humanitarian and equitable with relocation, land titling, and adaptation services for displaced communities.


In the Alaskan context, human obstacles to planning are explored below. However, a fundamental question is pressing in on indigenous communities in the Arctic in general, and in Alaska in particular. To ask the question recognizes the underlying dilemma posed to indigenous communities. Are climate change impacts going to force migration for communities not able to adapt for the multiple reasons which comprises their unique relationship with lands they live and rely on for their daily substance?


I write this knowing, as an indigenous Cherokee person, forced migration is an abominable prospect. Where human forced migration has left an enduring legacy of racism and dispossession, no indigenous community should be forced to migrate given the genocidal legacy of indigenous removals in North America. Other colonial legacies remain in the seven non- indigenous arctic national governments. Indigenous community displacement and repression has historically been used to clear land for European settlers, now our neighbors for nine generations.


However, our own pre-historic indigenous migration stories also inform us that our relationships with other species and lands have changed over very long timeframes. Increasingly in situ adaptation is no longer possible for all indigenous peoples, nor for all non-indigenous peoples, for that matter. The determination of in situ or ex situ climate adaptation in indigenous communities is currently determined by inaction and in Alaska, bureaucratic disarticulation of the unified governmental response to its citizens’ most basic needs. Arctic governments are not alone in their inertia. From a legal and human rights perspective, the international and UN adopted Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Climate Agreement and national climate adaptation planners have so far generally not directly engaged indigenous communities as equal partners with scientific climate knowledge - nor tapped into their adaptation skills.


State responses generally lag iterative regional climate impacts and are still moving rather slowly toward integration with adaptation planning, or not at all. Alaska is no exception. Multi-national engagement in Arctic adaptation policy formation for the region is overshadowed by other anthropogenic threats to the Arctic environment as the North Arctic Sea melt opens up yet another multinational fossil fuel feeding frenzy [2] (Oreskes and Conway: 2014). At the regional level beyond National Adaptation Plans, there has not been a coordinated multinational regional climate adaptation policy among post-colonial modern governments for indigenous or non-indigenous peoples. An exception to the vacuum created by national governments, which have so far failed to act, is an indigenous initiative called the Yeendoo Diinehdoo Ji’heezrit Nits’oo Ts’o’ Nan He’aa Declaration.


For Indigenous Ni’inlii Peoples in Northwest Canada whose cultures adapted for several millennia to the unique geological and climatic features of the Arctic, the need for on-going climate science is understood most readily. Their alternative views are voiced in the Yeendoo Diinehdoo Ji’heezrit Nits’oo Ts’o’ Nan He’aa Declaration, partially stated below.[3]


. . .The Vuntut Gwitchin Council . . . on May 29th, 2019 at the village of Old Crow , Yukon Territory of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and other concerned actors adhering to this declaration hereby Declare that climate change constitutes a state of emergency for our land., waters, animals, and people, and that we will accordingly utilize our local, national, and international forums and partnerships to achieve meaningful progress on the Paris Accord and the inception of an Indigenous Climate Accord that shall call for coordinated efforts with our relatives around the world, and Call to Action, local, national, and international communities, governments, organizations, and movements to respect the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples as well as established science and utilize all available powers, resources, and abilities to coordinate and mobilize efforts to prevent the rise of global warming temperatures 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. .


Even as climate change impacts mount and pressure indigenous societies. Government’s national and state (or provincial) responses to date are in the main, reactive.


Transnational indigenous climate migration, partially due to climate impacts, has already begun from Central America to North America (WFP: 2017[4], International Mayan League: 2019)[5].


To date there are no supra-national rights granted to such climate immigrants, and no legal consideration of the displacements and on-going dispossessions of indigenous peoples from their traditional land; often marginal lands which were historically occupied by indigenous peoples only after being pushed out of more fertile land bases. Neither indigenous land rights nor their right to transmigration are contemplated in the Sendai Framework. For Example, within the Arctic circle, regional migration which crosses national borders is a possible scenario for indigenous survival.






The adaptation horizon for indigenous communities in the Arctic circle in Alaska, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Greenland and Russia now poses deep cultural and social challenges to their existence as indigenous peoples. Tellingly, the first building built permanently at Newtok, Alaska was in 1949, a full generation prior to this juncture. Given their cultural practices tied to land uses constitute a geographic scope far larger than the prescribed location of the new community, the traditional seasonality of the village practiced up to the point of relocation remains a guidepost to their future actions - regardless of the new location of their community.





Indigenous knowledge of lands and climate is based on a complex and productive knowledge of natural resources and the migration of resources across biomes in timespans long ago truncated by industrial time and modernity. Still, the seasonal monitoring of sea ice and arctic climate changes are a deeply ingrained perennial practice of arctic peoples, in the circumpolar region. As mentioned in the first blog post of this series, Lanjon Brower who adapted simple technology used by modern science to measure melting in “meat lockers” undertook a path to adaptation from traditional indigenous land use. The measurements obtained from his device will not stop the need to adapt, but rather it will indicate when ice lockers may no longer preserve meat in the arctic tundra.


As well, in Northern Canada, at Gjoa Haven, King William Island, Inuit Hunters’ traditional knowledge is used to endure the risk that melting Siku or sea ice poses to their game hunting. Their active use of traditional knowledge led to the creation of mobile phone app for documenting and projecting environmental conditions and wildlife populations hunters seek: seals, narwhal, rabbits, and polar bear.


Inuit and Cree peoples have formally integrated such indigenous traditional knowledge for 30 years through the Arctic Eider Society,[6] the group whose efforts produced this phone app, which applies traditional understanding of sea ice conditions and harnesses modern satellite technology for documenting locational data. Collectively, arctic hunters act to avoid increases in ice melt related accidents experienced by hunters. They are adapting to climate change and transferring technology, old and new, to overcome risk and support pan-arctic indigenous survival.






The 4th and final blog in the series, Climate Adaptation and Indigenous Response in the Arctic, reviews the gaps in approaches used for regional climate adaptation policy making and the priorities of some arctic governments in the region.


References: [1] (DOD: Arctic Strategy: 2019).

[2] See: Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2014. The collapse of Western civilization: a view from the future. https://doi.org/10.7312/columbia/9780231169547.001.0001, and See: Arctic oil: it is madness to celebrate a new source of fossil fuels, John Sauven, the Guardian, 18 April, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/18/oil-arctic-putin-gazprom-fossil-fuels

[3] Yeendoo Diinehdoo Ji’heezrit Nits’oo Ts’o’ Nan He’aa Declaration, Council of the Vuntut Gwitchin, 19 May, 2019,

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6024860-Yeendoo-Declaration.html


[4] Food Security and Emigration, Why people flee and the impact on family members left behind in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, August, 2017, https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000022124/download/?_ga=2.213960087.102193405.1503476858-197666741.1485441955


[5] Presented at the Climate and Migration Workshop, University of Arizona, Sept, 2019.


[6] App helps Inuit hunters navigate thinning sea. Leyland Cecco, The Guardian, 8 December, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/08/app-sea-ice-inuit-hunters-canada-arctic?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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