Overline: Climate change
Headline: A Duty of Care: How Indigenous Knowledge Can Help the Arctic

Retreating ice, more shipping, fewer reindeer – climate change is already leaving its mark in the Arctic. How are people on the ground coping with these changes? At a recent event in Potsdam, indigenous scientist and entrepreneur Jocelyn Joe-Strack explained why numbers don’t tell the whole story and how her people in the Canadian Arctic are rebuilding their holistic relationship with nature.

Jocelyn Joe-Strack visited Potsdam at the invitation of the Embassy of Canada in Berlin, the Alfred Wegener Institute and the IASS.
Jocelyn Joe-Strack visited Potsdam at the invitation of the Embassy of Canada in Berlin, the Alfred Wegener Institute and the IASS. IASS/Bianca Schröder

While her talk was titled “Climate Change in the Arctic: How Indigenous Knowledge and Science Can Help”, Joe-Strack emphasised that knowledge was not what was at stake here: “It is not about trying to integrate knowledge systems, it is our way of being that we are trying to reclaim.” She spoke about the challenges facing the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations with Hugues Lantuit (Alfred-Wegener-Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research), Volker Rachold (German Arctic Office, Alfred-Wegener-Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research), Kathrin Stephen and Vilena Valeeva (both IASS Potsdam).

The panel of experts (f.l.):  Kathrin Stephen, Vilena Valeeva, Volker Rachold and Hugues Lantuit.
The panel of experts (f.l.): Kathrin Stephen, Vilena Valeeva, Volker Rachold and Hugues Lantuit. IASS/Bianca Schröder

A duty of care to protect nature and the climate

Jocelyn Joe-Strack talked about the conflict surrounding a hydroelectric power plant located on Champagne and Aishihik First Nations land. Yukon Energy Corporation has drawn water from Lake Aishihik to generate electricity for over 40 years. The company has defended its operations at the site, using scientific evidence to show that fisheries are stable and the lake remains healthy. However, the indigenous population claims that the lake has suffered significant harm and thus they have demanded that Yukon Energy restore its natural water level.

The two sides struggled to find common ground in lengthy negotiations that ended in September 2018 without a result. Commenting on the conflict, Joe-Strack concluded that indigenous people approach the issue from a different perspective: “Indigenous people don’t ask: “Is the lake sick?” But: “Are we fulfilling our obligations as stewards of the land?”” For the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations the focus was not on ownership and control, but on the duty of care and the common good. This perspective, she noted, could also guide efforts to curb climate change.

Canada has granted far-reaching powers to First Nations

The Canadian scientist noted that many First Nations people had become estranged from the traditional way of thinking and living. In the past, people would bury their belongings in the ground when there was a fire and only returned once the danger had passed. “But today we have cars and houses and are very much entrenched in society as everybody else. We’ve lost our connection with the animals, we’ve forgotten how to listen.” Her company Subarctic Research & Strategy is currently leading the development of a progressive land-use plan for her people’s traditional territory. The plan will prioritize the development of a harmonious connection between the people and the land rather than financial benefits.  

Volker Rachold noted that Canadian First Nations are in the unique situation of being able to administer their own territories; no other Arctic state has granted indigenous peoples such far-reaching powers. Vilena Valeeva stressed that there is a growing awareness of the value of indigenous knowledge in other countries. “In my experience with the Nenet people in Russia, Participatory Scenario Development offers a sound tool to involve indigenous peoples in decision-making.” This method of developing different responses to possible future developments provides a framework for the integration of diverging views and forms of knowledge.

Application-driven research crucial for Arctic peoples

The ability to bring together different perspectives on a subject is a skill that should be learned early in life, said Kathrin Stephen. “Combining knowledge from multiple subjects is important and it has to start with cross-curricular learning in schools. We need to learn to reflect upon our own point of view in order to better understand the limits of its validity.”

For scientists working with Arctic peoples, this will mean focussing more on the effects of climate change, Hugues Lantuit explained. “People often don’t ask about the causes of coastal erosion; instead, they want to know what its impacts will be.” In other words, their interest is focussed squarely on application-driven research.