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Arctic Connectivity: Indigenous Knowledge meets western science

May 30, 2017


David Rivera

Renee Sauve, the chair of the Arctic Council's Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME)
Renee Sauve, the chair of the Arctic Council's Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group, discussing their projects and accomplishments under the U.S. Chairmanship.
Feature Series

Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience

International Policy Institute Fellows in the field

The residents living in the Arctic region currently number around 4 million – 400,000 of which are considered Arctic Indigenous people. While some areas of the Arctic have been developed and are relatively healthy such as those in the European nation-states, other rural communities are struggling. The lack of basic services, such as power, healthcare, and affordable groceries, forces these communities to rely more heavily on subsistence hunting and fishing. While they have had no issues in the past managing their own ecosystems, warming temperatures and increased human activity has placed these vulnerable communities under more stress. Effective policy and management are crucial to ensuring the survival and growth of the rural Arctic communities.

The U.S. policy of “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, and Responsibilities” was an effective theme for managing the effects of climate change and increased human activity in a regional manner. The Week of the Arctic encouraged members of Indigenous, scientific, policy, environmental, and economic communities to coordinate and collaborate on the issues affecting their livelihoods. The focus of working together on a regional level as well as integrating different sectors to help address environmental and economic issues is part of what it means to be “one Arctic.” Communication is therefore key to the successful management of the changing region.

The International Arctic Interchange Forum, an event consisting of lecturers and panel discussions, approached management issues from a cross-sectoral perspective that allows business professionals, community leaders, researchers, and educators to collaborate at a higher level to develop effective policies that better protect the region. The idea of breaking Western management boundaries, which are traditionally more science-based, by utilizing both Indigenous and local knowledge as a compliment to science was the theme of this particular event. The example of the subsistence harvesting of bowhead whales, discussed in one of the lectures, provides an example of successful co-management. In this particular example, Western science and management strategies were implemented to better manage this resource without seeking any sort of local consultation, which resulted in a complete mismanagement of the whale species due to a flawed technique used by scientists to monitor population sizes. The bowhead whale makes up a large part of the Indigenous diet. In the end, the local communities were able to co-manage the bowhead harvest after convincing environmental scientists to utilize their knowledge of a species that they have been surviving on for the better part of four millennia.

The successful management of the bowhead was a product of the cooperation of both scientists and rural communities, but the availability of financial support dedicated to this

project was the real cause of its earlier failure. This implementation of more holistic perspective in environmental management should be considered a breakthrough and used as a model for future policy making. It is imperative that enough financial resources are available for proper management. Addressing the lack of financial capacity can be addressed through a “one Arctic” mentality.

This is not to say that there is a one-size-fits-all technique for dealing with other policy issues that the Arctic faces, but we must not turn a blind eye to local communities in the region that have a much greater stake in the management of their resources despite their lack of “scientific knowledge.” Fisheries management in the United States is currently considered to be the gold standard, and many countries around the world look to us for help in improving their own management. These more successful management models that work with Indigenous peoples to better manage Arctic resources, can be adapted by other countries. These management models not only provide frameworks for communities, but community participation also illustrates the need for more grassroots movements to help address issues on a local scale.

Community-based mapping and monitoring are becoming increasingly popular northern Alaskan coastal communities, largely due to a lack of financial resources for community data acquisition. These communities have decided to take matters into their own hands by directly participating in efforts that can help create better policy. While the concept of citizen-based science is not new, the Arctic is unique in the sense that the local populations have a great deal of environmental knowledge that surpasses scientific experts to some degree. By connecting these smaller communities and getting local residents involved in these activities, it is possible to make policy that better help rural Arctic communities by protecting their environment.

The Aleut International Association is one example of an Arctic Indigenous organization that has actively utilized community-based participation and has developed several programs that encourage their communities to help collect data that will be used for policy creation. One project example includes community fishermen who map out fishing areas with iPads; the information they collect will be compiled and forwarded to the U.S. Coast Guard to better manage ship routes. Pollution monitoring is another example that could contribute to knowledge about the effects of an increasingly warming climate, including ice loss. Furthermore, with future plans to build a new broadband network along the Alaskan coast, it will now be possible to connect these isolated communities with one another and the rest of the state and to share data from these projects. These residents are considered some of the most resilient peoples in the world where they have lived in harsh conditions for thousands of years through effective resource management. By addressing policy problems together, it is possible to overcome the threats of climate change faced by these communities face. This will take leadership, and it is up to the Arctic Council to lead the way by showing the rest of the region what co-management looks like on a governmental level as well as a cultural level by integrating Indigenous knowledge with Western science and connecting members of these respective communities.

This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.