Climatic Change and the Fate of Traditional Territories in the Arctic and Tropics
In a highly globalized and industrialized world, multinational and economic interests tend to surpass traditional groups’ needs, causing friction between local idiosyncrasies and states’ national territorial development plans. Late climatic shifts and increasing extreme weather events in the Arctic and Tropical regions have jeopardized traditional groups’ ability to cope and guarantee a constant and sustainable intake of local resources. Such threats have altered the resiliency and inflow of ecosystem services to traditional groups, forcing the migration to new territories where resources are more abundant; the change or loss of local land use traditions; or, land-competing dynamics with states, private sectors, and other groups.
Traditional territories have become challenging battlegrounds from both human and ecological perspectives. On one hand, mainstream society needs these frontiers for its exponential growth, but on the other hand, they do not acknowledge the sacred and long-lived, sustainable livelihoods provided by these lands to traditional groups. Balancing such an equation has been, in most cases, complex, with examples being drawn by developed nations, such as Scandinavian countries, and their land use conflicts with the Sami; Canada and United States and the pipeline projects crossing vast First Nations territories; and emerging economies, such as Brazil, Peru or Indonesia, with increasing deforestation rates due to commodity production and mining.
Among the latter, Canada and Brazil are good examples of the “North’s” last development frontiers (geographically speaking). In both countries, most indigenous groups reside in northern areas. These groups have used traditional territories for millennia, with lifestyles that are intrinsically bonded and adapted to activities off the land, which carry within, a deep knowledge of the surrounding environment, but also, past and present colonization intergenerational trauma. For these groups, land connection goes beyond the material idea of using the resources, touching other dimensions of their lives, such as cultural and spiritual values rarely internalized or shared by mainstream society.
Though facing different climatic challenges due to unique geographical regions, both countries have similar climate change vulnerability contexts considering indigenous groups.
Though facing different climatic challenges due to unique geographical regions, both countries have similar climate change vulnerability contexts considering indigenous groups. For example, Canada’s Arctic sea ice loss has been disrupting Inuit common hunting grounds, exacerbating food insecurity also threatened by food chain bioaccumulation primarily caused by world air pollution. Another example is the Brazilian Amazon region, where deforestation fueled by massive infrastructural projects (dams and road construction) and large-scale agriculture are collapsing forest dependent rainfall recycling mechanisms, causing drought and rainy season shifts, which in turn, decrease forest sustainability and the use of its resources by traditional groups.
These populations are in most cases aware of such environmental and climatic shifts and changes and have been trying to empower themselves to take a more autonomous or shared management approach of territories with successful initiatives. First Nations in Canada, for instance, have acquired a greater level of debate and reacquisition of land rights within Canada’s federal legislation, with numerous Inuit territories being recognized and managed by treaties that permit a more mixed bottom and top down governance approach. Such processes facilitate legislation and negotiation of resource use or conservation within a federal and regional context (though many challenges rooted in the past still linger). Canada’s diverse and stable economic and political situation also allows a better resolution of conflicts with traditional groups. This is illustrated by its contemporary policies with the recognition of land rights, self-government rights, upholding historical treaties and signing new treaties, cultural rights, customary law, guarantees of representation in the central government, constitutional affirmation of distinct status of indigenous people, and so on.
Brazil, in turn, has poorly advanced in its indigenous agenda with many traditional territories (indigenous reservoirs) being constantly endangered by illegal and legal mining, land grabbing, and loss of territory due to urbanization, commodity agriculture, and national and regional state interests. This situation is led by a strong, rural lobby connected to the commodity production and right wing parties that have interests in infrastructural projects such as dams, mines, and roads that can accelerate the exportation of grains to external markets. Dams’ impacts are destructive and can submerge immense forest areas, contributing to methane emissions and loss of river biodiversity, while road projects increase deforestation, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thus, contributing to global warming.
Despite the negative aspects, indigenous advocacy in Brazil has grown, followed by climate change discussions in the COP’s and by the last IPCC reports, which recognized traditional knowledge as a strong strategy for local and regional adaptation to climate change. Still, drawbacks in policy conservation and indigenous rights during the last years are numerous and oppose the country’s constitution. These drawbacks, due to unheard indigenous voices and land claims, decrease opportunities to build resiliency and fast track climate change policies for indigenous populations in the national context. In this manner, only few initiatives are seen, such as the inclusion of a chapter on “Vulnerable Populations” at The Brazilian National Plan on Adaptation to Climate Change.
The Workshop Contribution Rovaniemi-Finland
In the Arctic Change leaders workshop, we were able to grasp some approaches that could be fostered between academics, civil society, and policymakers to tackle climate issues in the Arctic and elsewhere, including traditional territories and indigenous people’s rights. We saw opportunities in both Arctic and Tropical regions when addressing bottom-up approaches where communities take the lead to make decisions with policymakers toward planning future development and use of resources, since they have a deep, local knowledge that can be combined with scientific expertise. Positive dialogues and management examples from the North, such as Canadian treaties, and the experience of indigenous groups autonomously leading and legislating their own territories, could help other indigenous populations to overcome barriers and challenges within local governments, using tools that could be transferred interchangeably.
We are nearing the end of the first day of GMF's #youngprofessional conference on #ArcticChange and have discussed a range of subjects: #adaption, #changinglandscapes, #governance, #TransatlanticRelations, #gmfleadership, #Russia, and #Indigenous Perspectives, to name a few. Participants also went on an in depth tour of the @arktikumofficial. The sun even came out for a beautiful day in #Rovaniemi, Finland! #whereintheworldisgmf
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In this sense, the workshop brainstorming process took us to some specific points that should be considered to overcome the aforementioned challenges.
First, we see the importance of local leadership to emerge from different indigenous groups with empowering voices to bring traditional knowledge to higher government and enhance local adaptation and mitigation initiatives and strategies. This aspect combines with the pro-activeness of local groups and communities that are engaging in public debate, and educating themselves to fight for rights and sustainable use of resources, a process that can be accomplished through participation in resource management in traditional territories.
Additionally, the dialogue between national interests and local views should balance and consider the welfare among traditional use, state policies, and private and scientific development, securing long-term cooperation among actors and stakeholders, thus, improving final decision-making support and the implementation of public policies that foster “the bigger picture.” In other words, making sure indigenous people’s needs are heard and that in the decision process, leaders can capture minorities’ views that can help improve natural resource planning on local and regional scales.
Such framework suggestions aim to inhibit or decrease territorial disputes while securing and recognizing land ownership and usufruct. Finally, scientific expertise and the use of new technologies could play a major role finding alternatives for resource exploration in traditional territories, with less energy intensive development models — considering the richness of ecosystem services provided by the traditional lands — without compromising the intrinsic spiritual value and connection of indigenous groups to their territories.
 The workshop Arctic Change – Global Challenge was convened as part of a Mistra-Arctic Fellowship at GMFUS.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.