Appreciating ‘Place’ in Relation to Climate Change and Indigenous Health

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An appreciation of place is crucial to understanding the impact of climate change on the health of Indigenous peoples. A place-based understanding of climate change can help to recognize how changes in the environment effect physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual facets of both individual and community health and well-being.

The terms ‘place-focused’ and ‘place-based’ are used primarily by non-Indigenous governments, academics, and planning and design professionals. For example, the Government of Victoria, Australia has offered explanations for how they use both place-focused and place-based approaches in their work. Place-focused approaches involve highlighting a particular place to ensure that government-driven or other service-related plans cater to the characteristics and experiences of people living in a specific geographic area. By contrast, place-based approaches engage with people from a particular geographic area to bring meaning from their cultural and environmental contexts, histories, and practices, to develop solutions to problems, using a process of shared-decision making.

While land dispossession and other impacts of colonialism, and climate change effects continue to disrupt the attachment to place for many Indigenous communities, not all place attachments have been lost. Increasingly, Indigenous communities are engaging in their own community planning processes that could be considered by non-Indigenous planners as “place-based.” Examples of Indigenous-led community plans in Canada, that incorporate elements of culture, health, and well-being, include the Six Nations Community Plan and M’Chigeeng First Nation Comprehensive Community Plan, among others. By comparison, Canadian municipal official plans often exclude direct references to cultural and health factors; these become the content of supplementary plans and policy reports. However, place-based approaches to community planning and official plan processes are becoming more popular among local governments for reasons that often include climate change resilience.

The emotional and psychological health effects of climate change among Indigenous peoples around the world are largely understudied, however, the existing literature attributes these effects to “changes in place attachment, disrupted cultural continuity, altered food security and systems,” and other factors. For example, in the community of Nain, located in Northern Labrador, Canada, an “appreciation of place” is crucial to understanding how sea ice, and its uses by the Inuit, have a positive impact on Inuit mental health, even with the increase in physical injuries, and reduced access to their traditional environments, brought upon by climate change.

Focusing on the ongoing impact of the current combined pandemics of climate change and COVID-19, the Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC) program highlights a connection between the protection of key places for Indigenous foods and medicines in remote Indigenous communities in Uganda, the Peruvian Amazon and the Arctic ecosystem, and the protection of Indigenous knowledge, practices, and rights of Indigenous peoples to access their lands.

Place, climate change, and Indigenous health are connected. Together they reveal how different threats to Indigenous traditional environments negatively impact overall Indigenous health. Subsequently, the contributions made by Indigenous-led community plans to reduce climate health effects on Indigenous communities are also worth further exploration.

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Photo Credit: Erik McLean, Unsplash)

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