Beyond Melting Ice

9 July 2024 - // Features
Marta Asenjo Fernández
Media and Communication Officer

Integrating Indigenous Knowledge and Scientific Research to Navigate the Challenges of a Warming Arctic.

What comes to your mind when you think of the Arctic? Never-ending icefields, polar bears, clear waters, and towering icebergs? Endless winter nights and endless summer days?  While these images capture some of the Arctic’s essence, the region is far more complex and diverse, especially for the more than 40 different ethnic groups that have called it their home for millennia. For these communities, the Arctic is more than just melting ice, comprising a vibrant homeland with deep and varied cultures, languages, and livelihoods.

The multitude of languages spoken across the Arctic reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the region. Illustration by Samia Singh / REVOLVE over a map by Arto Vitikka /Arctic Centre, University of Lapland.

Although the indigenous population in the Arctic accounts for only approximately around 10% of the total population, these communities have inhabited these lands since at least the end of the last ice age. Each group has its own culture, language, traditions, and unique relationship to the environment.  

The Sápmi, or Sámi, example, inhabit what is called the Sápmi region – colloquially known as Lapland, but a term now discussed because of its derogatory origins  – and which spans along northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Even within the Sápmi community itself, there are different languages, cultures, and livelihoods. However, they are best-known for semi-nomadic reindeer herding.  

For countries such as Russia, Denmark, Canada, or the United States, the Arctic has long been a target for natural resource exploitation, tied with geopolitical and energy interests. These interests have led to a history of colonization, economic submission, and recurring violations of indigenous peoples’ rights.  

With the region warming at a rate at least four times faster than the global average, these exploitative interests do not cease to increase. The so-called Arctic exceptionalism – the understanding of the region as unique, with a set of unwritten rules, beliefs and a history that makes it immune to the rest of the world’s geopolitical challenges – may become a thing of the past, giving way to opportunities for scientific research and resource exploitation that further threaten the livelihoods and cultures of its local communities.   

The challenges now faced by indigenous peoples thus stem from a historical backdrop of socio-economic inequalities. Arctic Indigenous Peoples have endured marginalization, forced sedentarization, land dispossession, and displacement, all rooted in colonization. These communities now face increasing challenges from foreign impacts on their livelihoods, such as  land dispossession and obstruction of reindeer migration routes.  

With the region warming at a rate at least four times faster than the global average, these exploitative interests do not cease to increase. 

These and other challenges lead the Arctic Indigenous Peoples to experience some of the highest rates of food insecurity in high-income nations and, for the Sápmi people in Europe and Russia, the stress of navigating changes to their traditional way of life. These changes have led to adverse effects on mental health, ecological grief stemming from ‘experienced or anticipated ecological losses,’ and a loss of identity.  

Indigenous population in the Arctic. Illustration by Samia Singh / REVOLVE over a map by Nordregio.

To further understand the challenges faced by the region and its local communities, I spoke with Mia Landauer, Senior Researcher at Arctic Centre, Just Green Transition, University of Lapland and Henry Huntington, Arctic Science Director at Ocean Conservancy. The following are excerpts from an interview that you can read in full here. 

Collaboration between the scientific community and Indigenous Peoples may be a step forward in ensuring the sustainable development of the region, helping break the historical circle of external actors’ influence and exploitation of the Arctic and its local peoples. 

Perspectives on the Arctic 

Defining the Arctic is not an easy task. The region is often viewed as simply an area for natural resource exploitation, strategic geopolitical importance, and scientific research. However, the local population’s relationship with the environment is holistic, rooted in age-old traditions and a deep understanding of their land and sea.  

As Landauer claims, indigenous communities are not only stakeholders but also rightsholders and scientists. Recognizing, valuing, and integrating this knowledge into scientific research is crucial. 

These differing views significantly influence responses to climate change and collaboration with the scientific community. As Landauer claims, indigenous communities are not only stakeholders but also rightsholders and scientists. Recognizing, valuing, and integrating this knowledge into scientific research is crucial.   

The ongoing green transformation in the Nordic Arctic, driven by the EU Green Deal, has already raised issues over land use and resource extraction, which can further threaten these indigenous groups’ livelihoods and cultures.  It is not only about mitigating the effects of climate change, but also dealing with industrial planning efforts, or how mining can affect the environment and local populations, for example.  

Polluting ship on broken sea ice. Photo: Pixabay

Effective collaboration requires a coproduction of knowledge that combines scientific and indigenous knowledge, fostering transdisciplinary research to tackle the challenges of Arctic transformation and environmental justice.  

Integrating local communities in scientific research  

Landauer recognizes and values the scientific community’s increasing acknowledgement on the importance of integrating local Arctic communities to ensure research relevance, ethical conduct, and positive impacts on the wellbeing of these communities. Many projects in the Arctic, such as REBOUND, are employing a community-based research approach, where researchers collaborate with local communities at all stages of the project – from its inception to its completion.  

For her, without inclusive scientific approaches there cannot be culturally relevant, socially responsible, and sustainable research outcomes. 

Woman and man standing on cracked sea ice. Photo: Unsplash

While Huntington agrees on the improvements made in this area, he still acknowledges the remaining challenges, such as the fact that it takes time and effort to work in an inclusive way. The lack of time often incentivizes scientists to take shortcuts or avoid working with Indigenous communities. For those taking the time and effort, however, there are many professional and personal rewards from working closely with these local communities.  

A good way to go forward is by starting with free and informed consent, ensuring that everyone involved participates willingly, with full knowledge, and can withdraw at any time. Although the integration of Indigenous knowledge into research and studies is a good first step, it cannot be and end by itself. More needs to be done to respect and enhance the sovereignty and self-determination of Arctic peoples.  

Huntington strongly emphasizes the need for relationship-building to create ethical partnerships. This can range from simple discussions to long-term programs. Scientists need to be open to learning about and respecting local communities’ ways of life, knowledge, and perspectives of the world. This collaboration can ultimately lead to more long-term sustainable practices and the creation of better climate adaptation strategies. 

Addressing historical inequalities and prioritizing indigenous rights

Mia Landauer sees the increased presence of scientists in the region as a factor that may lead to “research fatigue” among local communities. However, this presence can also help raise local voices and influence planning and decision-making, as well as create job opportunities and other economic benefits through employment, contracting, and collaboration. To avoid negative environmental and socio-economic consequences, there needs to be collaboration, respect, and equitable partnerships.

To avoid negative environmental and socio-economic consequences, there needs to be collaboration, respect, and equitable partnerships.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) outlines the respect of traditional knowledge and cultural practices for adaptation policy development and support in the Arctic. For Landauer, the rights and perspectives of indigenous peoples should be incorporated into decision-making processes, ensuring self-governance and equality.  

Aurora Borealis natural phenomenon over landscape. Photo: Pixabay

Mitigating the impact of industrial activity and international cooperation

“When intensive industrial activity forces people off of their lands and waters, it can disrupt age-old patterns and practices that have developed for good reasons,” says Huntington. This can lead to further disruption of traditional practices, causing economic and social upheaval.  

Mitigation requires proceeding slowly and carefully, building relationships and partnerships, and respecting Indigenous peoples’ decisions. In the end, Arctic communities should have the autonomy to decide how to engage with industrial activities. 

“When intensive industrial activity forces people off of their lands and waters, it can disrupt age-old patterns and practices that have developed for good reasons,” says Huntington. 

International agreements, such as UNDRIP, can serve to uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples, promote sustainable management of Arctic ecosystems, and tackle climate change’s challenges. Landauer sees these agreements as opportunities to support efforts to preserve indigenous languages and cultural heritage and provide forums for collaboration among Arctic states, indigenous organizations, and other stakeholders.  

By respecting and integrating Indigenous Knowledge, fostering equitable partnerships, and prioritizing Indigenous rights, we can create a future where both scientific advancement and the preservation of indigenous ways of life and ecosystems are achieved.  

Marta Asenjo Fernández
Media and Communication Officer

Join Planet
REVOLVE today

We strive to communicate sustainability for a better world for the next generations.

Support us by becoming a member of REVOLVE Planet today.

Become a Member