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AAAS Coalition Explores Perspectives of Indigenous Communities on Climate Change

The threat of climate change is not some distant apparition for the indigenous peoples who dwell along the shores of Alaska’s bays and rivers—it is something they are confronting today. And it affects the major pillars of their society, speakers said recently at AAAS.

According to federal reports, 86% of 226 Alaskan Inuit villages are subject to significant erosion and flooding because of the warming of Alaska, said Jose Aguto, a policy advisor at the National Congress of American Indians. More than a dozen are under imminent threat and qualify for permanent relocation; some are already becoming climate refugees forced to leave their ancestral lands.

At the same time, an 80% decline in the sea lion population has brought change to many of those villages, Aguto said. That’s not just the loss of a major food source. When they lose the sea lion, they also lose a critical aspect of their culture, their spiritual life, and the fabric of their community.

One elder has spoken of how “he has lost his authority with the younger generation because he cannot take out his son and other young people to understand and practice the ways [of putting food on the table and interacting with their environment] they have been practicing for thousands of years,” Aguto said. “With that you get social decay, a lack of authority, a fraying of the social fabric.”

Jose Aguto

Aguto was speaking at the 23 January meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, during a panel discussion on “Indigenous Voices in Scientific Debate: Human Rights, the Environment and Climate Change.” The Coalition, an initiative of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, is a network of scientific and engineering membership organizations that works to build partnerships within the scientific and engineering communities and between these bodies and the human rights community.

The most recent meeting focused on the importance of involvement by indigenous peoples in climate and environmental issues. The program included working group meetings, training workshops, and panel discussions, including: “Research Collaborations with Indigenous Scientists and Communities,” “Indigenous Peoples, Human Rights, Science and Technology,” and “ Benefit Sharing: A Human Rights Approach to Indigenous Knowledge.”

Those discussions made clear that preventing, mitigating, and adapting to the challenges of climate change will require continued engagement between scientists, policymakers, and indigenous peoples.

A History of Scientific Exploitation

Indigenous peoples in the United States can be suspicious of science because of the ways it has been used against them in the past, Rebecca Tsosie, director of the Indian Legal Program at Arizona State University, said in a talk that opened the meeting.

Under the “doctrine of discovery,” which guided European colonization of the rest of the world, indigenous peoples were considered uncivilized and had no legal ownership of the land they had inhabited for centuries, she said. It could be claimed by the Western nation that first planted its flag there and had the force of arms to back up the claim.

In the United States, the 1803 Lewis and Clark Expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast was billed as a scientific expedition, but the underlying motive was to strengthen the American claim to territory claimed also by Great Britain and France, and then annexed into the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

President Thomas Jefferson gave the explorers instructions “‘to go out there and tell me who those indigenous peoples are living on the land. How do they live? What can we do to persuade them to cede their land to us?’” Tsosie said.

The core of 19th century anthropology was basically to demonstrate the inferiority of all other racial groups to whites. In the infamous Dred Scott case, the U.S. Supreme Court drew upon these ideas to assert that blacks “did not have the intellectual or moral capacity to be citizens. Indians had the capacity, they are just uncivilized,” she explained. And while the 14th Amendment made former black slaves full citizens, it did not extend to Indians.

Science and policy in the 19th century worked hand-in-glove “to divest native peoples of their land, their cultural identity,” she said. “Lewis and Clark renamed all of their places” and in doing so removed much of their meaning, which she called a form of “cultural trespass.”

According to Tsosie, the old wariness of science continues to be reinforced by continuing engagement with modern researchers. One example she cited: Pharmaceutical companies that seek to identify and extract a singular active ingredient from the practice of traditional medicine—often without compensating the original practitioners—when in fact the larger benefit is obtained through a subtle interplay of the myriad components of a traditional healing practice.

There is a both “a scientific and an ethical component to indigenous knowledge—it tells native people what is the right thing to do,” she explained. “It tells us what is effective management and what are the consequences of destructive or harmful management. That aspect of sacred knowledge cannot be left out of the discussion.”

Aguto echoed that sentiment. Indigenous peoples do not think of natural resources as assets but as living relatives, he said. “When you look from that perspective, then your approach to natural resource management is far more sustainable.”

The Intersection of Law, Religion, and Science

Climate change is a human rights issue, according to the United Nations. The 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) pulled together into one place themes that had been articulated in a number of earlier U.N. documents, said Kristen Hite, interim director of the climate change program at the Center for International Environmental Law.

A “rights-based approach” to the issues of climate change that are restructuring the global economy is “about doing it in a context that enables sustainable development,” and that includes issues of food security, Hite said.

Kristen Hite

Added Tsosie: “A lot of what we are going to be talking about in the future is a spiritual linkage between indigenous peoples and their traditional lands. Even if they [the lands] are no longer under their jurisdiction, they still have a relationship, an attachment. This is often seen as a religious issue for purposes of the First Amendment of the Constitution, but it is much more than this. It is a different way of understanding the relationship between people and the land, as well as the duties that arise from this.”

“Indigenous rights are intergenerational,” she explained. “There are duties that people have to their ancestors as well as future generations. We have to care about what is happening to that relationship as we are formulating our public policies. How do you talk about spiritual attachment to the land?”

“What the tribes are trying to prove is beyond the category of experience that is shared with the dominant society. That aspect of sacred knowledge cannot be left out of the discussion.”

Aguto said past negative experience has left many indigenous peoples reluctant to talk with outsiders of the spiritual aspects of their lives. A more viable model for interaction between scientists and indigenous peoples is to talk about “actual natural resource management practices without going into the cultural and spiritual elements.”

“We Have Learned the Hard Way”

Chris Farley, a national climate change specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, said integrating this perspective into the agency’s operations can be challenging. Beliefs and practices can vary greatly from tribe to tribe. And, Farley said, it is sometimes difficult to establish criteria for the legitimacy and validity of local traditional knowledge.

“Traditional knowledge is in some ways elevated up to the level of a traditional Western science approach” under newly proposed Forest Service planning procedures, he said. “It can’t be either/or. It has to be all of the above.

”We have learned the hard way over the past 30 years, forest management is as much an art as a science. You will fail if you don’t have the legal rights pieces taken care of and local knowledge incorporated.”

Chris Farley

Farley believes one has to synthesize science and tradition. He used the example of forest area controlled by Menominee Indians in Wisconsin. Satellite photos show the tribal area as a verdant green, easily distinguished from surrounding forestland controlled by others. The tribe has operated a sawmill for over 150 years, but it has done so in a manner that is sustainable for the land.

At the international level, one of the main ways to guarantee inclusion of indigenous peoples in processes concerning climate change is through safeguards by the major lending institutions. Hite said the World Bank has established policy guidance “to make sure that what they are doing doesn’t cause more harm that what you are trying to correct.”

“Safeguards are not a guarantee that human rights will be addressed effectively,” she said, “but they are a step in the institutional process to go from an aspirational goal to how to operationalize that in practice.”


See presentation materials from the 23 January event, “Indigenous Voices in Scientific Debate: Human Rights, the Environment and Climate Change”

Learn more about the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition