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Integrating geographic information systems and Indigenous knowledge in the implementation of impact assessments

April 14, 2021


Madeleine Kopf-Patterson

Arctic states have too often neglected Indigenous voices when making decisions that directly impact Indigenous lands. This results in significant economic, cultural, and environmental impacts on Indigenous communities, ranging from impacting fish populations for subsistence fishing in Alaska to blocking reindeer herding corridors in the Nordic states. This lack of knowledgeable exclusion undermines territorial autonomy and suppresses Indigenous perspectives in international and domestic politics. The Indigenous peoples of the Arctic have a long-standing understanding of the fragile Arctic ecosystem and uniquely vibrant cultures that are under threat from Arctic projects. Continued exclusion threatens to wipe out these communities and their languages and cultures as well. This paper proposes the implementation of Participatory Geographic information Systems (PGIS) as a tool to facilitate cooperation between Western science and Indigenous knowledge as a means of preserving Arctic Indigenous cultures and facilitating their participation in major Arctic projects.

Indigenous peoples have been consistently excluded from discussions over new development projects that directly impact their historic lands and ability to access natural resources to maintain more traditional ways of life. There is a vital need for integration of Indigenous knowledge and Western science to support Indigenous communities in dialogues and negotiations with parties interested in the Arctic. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has been gaining traction as a tool for analyzing the impacts of projects on the environment through required environmental impact statements, and new work has begun to explore the use of GIS to promote Indigenous rights (Gunasekera, 2013). Indigenous populations have been disproportionately affected by development and increased global interest in the Arctic for conservation and resource exploitation. The proposal of requiring impact assessments using GIS aims to promote Indigenous voices, their sustainable uses of their land, and to mitigate the impacts of projects on their communities. Using case studies to illustrate the potential benefits to the Sami community of this method of working with the wind power industry and the potential benefits to the Aleut people in addressing the overlap of traditional subsistence fishing areas and major shipping lanes.

Similar to the environmental impact statements required by many countries and here in the State of Washington when pursuing a new project, the proposed policy would follow a similar principle. Focused on promoting the interests and voices of Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, this policy would commit all Arctic Council Member States to require rigorous impact statements and a mandatory public comment period before any project surrounding Indigenous lands is approved. Rather than a more Western science-driven approach, the assessments would require the participation of Indigenous peoples in identifying and illustrating culturally and economically significant locations, which can then be mapped and overlaid with site maps of regions matching the required attributes to create a ranked suitability map when determining the least impactful means of pursuing the project or even whether the project may proceed at all. GIS is an increasingly relied upon tool for mapping and spatial analysis that has previously been used in tandem with Indigenous knowledge, referred to as Participatory GIS (PGIS), to illustrate the cultural significance of certain sites. PGIS captures anecdotal information and visual illustration of the significance in the people’s own words and associates each location with environmental attributes of the requirements of the project in question (Young et al, 2017). PGIS provides a unique means of projecting spatial data and integrating Indigenous values through the representation of information at each given point, which can then be used to create a suitability map with thresholds beyond which a project may be denied due to impacts on Indigenous communities. Similar to current commonly required environmental impacts assessments, this policy would then involve a public commenting period on an open-source published Determination of Nonsignificance document (DNS), during which concerns may be voiced, documented and addressed before a project is approved (Environmental Impacts Statement Process, Washington). 

If implemented for projects such as the development of wind farms in the Arctic Circle region of Nordic countries, where the Sami people’s tradition of herding reindeer has been directly and adversely affected, the Sami People would be directly involved and gain a voice in the wind power industry, which has previously denied them input (Lawrence, 2014). Due to wind-hardened snow preventing reindeer from foraging, compounded with averse visual cues and sound emitted from turbines, it is important to require that proposed wind farm locations assess and avoid or mitigate such impacts on Sami reindeer herding as a way to preserve the culture and maintain the local economy (Skarin, 2015; Collins et al 1991). The situation between the wind power industry and the Sami people is particularly applicable to the proposed policy because it would allow for the mapping of traditional reindeer herding/migration corridors as determined by the Sami people themselves overlaid with all potential development regions that would support wind farm development. 

While most obviously applicable to terrestrial development, this policy and use of PGIS would also apply to establishing lower-impact shipping channels near traditional fishing locations for Indigenous peoples. For Aleut communities in the Aleutian Islands, nearby major shipping channels have proven to be a threat to their ability to continue subsistence fishing in traditional locations such as Gambell (Young, 2020, slide 11). There is precedent for this type of mapping being used by Indigenous groups such as the Aleut International Association to identify shipping routes that pose the greatest threat to subsistence fishing based on a deep understanding of the ecosystem and use of impact heat maps created with tools such as GIS (Young, slide 11).

The goal of this policy proposal is to promote the participation of Indigenous communities across the Arctic in assessing projects that have a direct impact on their way of life. Increasing autonomy and influence through the spreading of Indigenous knowledge and this mandatory collaboration would promote cross cultural understanding and respect, while also protecting the community’s way of life and traditions. Many Arctic Indigenous communities are deeply connected with the surrounding ecosystem, and studies have shown both the success of policies and community quality of life benefit from Indigenous inclusion in policy and decision making (Ens et al, 2016). Evaluating the success of environmental policy involving Australian Indigenous communities, a study conducted in 2016 found enormous lasting benefits to the ecological understanding of a little-known (outside of Indigenous communities) region, as well as increased conservation policy effectiveness (Ens et al, 2016). This often goes both ways, with measures promoted by Indigenous communities protecting the surrounding ecosystem and promoting its health. Allowing Indigenous communities more determination in the approval of major projects would benefit both the communities themselves and likely the overall impacts on the ecosystem. Under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous communities have the right to direct involvement in matters related to or affecting their communities, which the proposed policy seeks to carry out (2007). This policy seeks to promote Indigenous voices around sites that are deeply rooted in tradition and culture by requiring their direct involvement before project proposals are approved.

Any form of international requirement is challenging to implement due to differing beliefs and priorities between nation states, but those that potentially limit development or shipping are likely to face extreme hesitation in implementation. Development and international trade, as illustrated in the two cases previously mentioned, are two of the highest priorities on the international stage, and hold significant sway in government, potentially making it extremely challenging to implement any new hurdle in the process of getting a project approved. It is of course crucial that the authorities of each member state requiring such analysis of proposals are honest brokers who truly believe local voices should be heeded, and who are willing to require powerful political actors to modify or even withdraw proposals that have unacceptable impacts. On a more individual level, many may argue that similar policies are already in place, such as the potential impacts on Indigenous communities’ section that many environmental impacts assessments include, such as the Washington State SEPA (Environmental Impact Statement Process, Washington). However, the attention paid to these impacts as a subsection of a much larger document is enormously disproportionate to the potential social and economic impacts that many of these projects have. These documents are usually sent out to impacted parties, including Indigenous communities, but these communities rarely have the capacity to review each of the likely overwhelming number of DNS documents sent for review given that the majority of local projects require these documents be sent out. The adoption of this policy would be challenging given the extreme divide in understanding leading to past struggles with properly integrating Indigenous knowledge into policy (Stevenson, 1996). While there are numerous benefits to Indigenous communities, it could pose a problem to Indigenous communities that may not have the capacity to pay community members to fill the role of representative to conduct impact assessments for projects they may not want done at all. 

The failure of states to center Indigenous rights in their decision making has direct implications for the rest of the world. Changes occurring in the Arctic and any projects of policy put in place there directly impact global climate and sea levels, making strong environmental protections a necessity for the continued health of the Arctic and the entire planet. The initial steps of implementation would be establishing a full framework that is applicable across all Arctic Council member states. The integration of the Participatory GIS-informed impact statement requirement would work to elevate Indigenous voices on a national scale in land surveys for Arctic projects. This can be done by allowing individual Member states to commence early adoption of the policy, followed by a gradual adoption by all member states, based on current infrastructure and an understanding of broad implementation. The use of PGIS mapping to provide, and document for analysis, Indigenous perspectives on potentially harmful project proposals would serve to amplify Indigenous communities’ voices on a large scale and ensure their representation in matters pertaining to the culturally significant lands that they know best. 


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Gunasekera, Rashmin. “Use of GIS for environmental impact assessment: an interdisciplinary approach.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 29, no. 1 (2004): 37-48.

Lawrence, Rebecca. “Internal colonisation and indigenous resource sovereignty: Wind power developments on traditional Saami lands.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32.6 (2014): 1036-1053.

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Young, Jason. (2020, November 11). “Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North.” ARCTIC 200A lecture.