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Report, 2011

Learning from our Elders : aboriginal perspectives on climate change and reindeer/caribou habitat in the circumboreal forest

Löf, Annette; Carriere, Naomi


The northernmost regions in the world are projected to suffer the most severe consequences of climate change. Natural resource-based communities and Indigenous peoples have been identified as particularly susceptible and research efforts are increasingly directed at exploring the potential consequences of climate change on the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. Using Indigenous (IK) or Traditional knowledge (TK) as a ―canary‖ or early warning for climate change as well as a complement to ‗western scientific knowledge‘ or to supplement the lack of observational and diachronic data is also gaining increasing popularity. However, whereas interest in IK /TK has grown exponentially over the last two decades, research has tended to neglect taking a critical perspective on learning processes and knowledge transfer mechanisms. Research has treated IK/TK more as an artifact handed down through generations or as information to be automatically appropriated when spending time on the land.With rapid changes in their environments, Indigenous peoples and communities with close connection to the land will face the most severe challenges. How a changing climate is viewed by the people and how they adapt, will be learned, in part, through trial and error. These newly-learned experiences will be understood, transmitted, communicated and translated in their first language. New terminology in that first language may evolve to help identify and explain climate change phenomena. New practices will have to be developed to help people cope with these changes. The connections between climate change, livelihood, and survival are thus highly significant culturally in addition to those identified through statistics and numerical trends.Against this backdrop, in view of the complexity and severity of potential climate change ahead, we recognise the need for in-depth studies, unveiling people‘s own conceptions and understandings of their livelihood situations and possibilities to adapt to climate change (cf. Keskitalo 2008). We also recognize an empirical need to strengthen our understanding of those residing and acting within forested ecosystems in the Circumboreal North.

By exploring two Indigenous communities, one reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) herding community in northern Sweden and a woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) hunting community in Saskatchewan, Canada, this research project aims at partly addressing this knowledge gap. These communities are linked by the key species of reindeer/caribou (culturally and ecologically) and shared climatic challenges. Each locality is also embedded within a model forest and the two regions have become partners in order to share learning and practice with each other. To date, they have initiated cultural collaborations and exchanges among elders and youth and have committed to conducting research and other activities that support mutual learning.The purpose of this study has been to link understandings of species distributions of reindeer/caribou based on Indigenous observations of climate change and habitat conditions to herders‘ and hunters‘ adaptive strategies in two model forest regions: Prince Albert (Canada) and Vilhelmina (Sweden) Model Forests. As we conducted the research, it became clear that it is also important to consider how these changes link to learning processes and how learning is layered within these communities. For example, which different knowledge transfer mechanisms are activated? Which are the most important learning arenas? And can different types of learning and adaptive decision-making (such as ad hoc, contextual, 'on the spot‘ decision-making; thumb-rules; and more value-based, normative understandings) also be linked to different mechanisms 

and arenas? By exploring these dimensions, the research explicitly addressed the relationship between individual and collective learning about climate change in the two model forest regions. In summary, the research attempted to give voice to northern Indigenous residents and their descriptions of a rapidly changing world, particularly in terms of climate change, and present an analysis of the challenges and opportunities to securing the flow of Indigenous knowledge by exploring inhibitors and opportunities to learning in a climate change context.Our study shows that changing weather patterns is a major concern of Indigenous residents in the circumboreal forest region. In Sweden climate testimonies concern a range of observed environmental changes; extreme weather events, long-term cycles and shorter-term cycles in weather patterns and vegetation. Whereas these observations cannot be directly seen as consequences of global climate change, they are strikingly similar to effects as projected by for instance the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).In the Prince Albert Model Forest, climate testimonies concern changes in weather patterns, extreme weather events, and shifting climatic conditions. The testimonies suggest observational changes such as limitations in vegetation growth, loss of species, new migratory species, impacts on insect cycles, fatalities in small fur-bearing animals, changes to fish migrations (possibly interfering with spawn), and loss of amphibians.

Drawing on the accumulation of experiences and observations stored within these two cases of Northern Indigenous communities we argue that these serve well as canaries of potential climate change. Furthermore, as exemplified in the Swedish case, not only may Northern Indigenous communities function as valuable qualitative and local information sources, they may further act as active stewards of combating negative effects of climate change in how they adjust land use activities over large areas.The study also shows that the current observed changes in weather patterns as well as contemporary social structures (e.g. ―westernized‖ forms of education) pose serious threats to Indigenous Knowledge practices; partly in content and partly in the reduction of opportunities to transfer that knowledge across members of a community, including to future generations.In order to understand impacts of climate change on reindeer and woodland caribou populations and the adaptive capacity of Indigenous people, we relied on observational and qualitative methods and suggested some differences and similarities across the two regions. Comparisons relate to climate and climate change, increasing anthropogenic and industrial activities, impacts of local and regional governance, and long and short term changes in culture (see Section 4). We note that northern Indigenous communities are not standing passively, they are proactive and it is in their nature to be stewards of the land. The study shows that they have adopted a range of strategies and approaches in dealing with impacts associated with climate change, drawing on a combination of tradition, previous experiences and modern technology. Climate change may not be the greatest threat in the regions at this point; however, the implications of climate change compound other issues such as increased competition from other land users and losses associated with the imposition of western cultural values.

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Publisher: Umeå University

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
    Climate Research

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