How can climate policy be more inclusive of Indigenous rights and knowledge systems, while working toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples? Principles for creating ethical spaces and recognizing the Treaty and constitutionally-protected rights of Indigenous peoples are two ways to elevate Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, and approaches to climate mitigation and adaptation policies.

“We Rise Together,” the 2018 report by The Indigenous Circle of Experts (ICE), describes ethical space as “a venue for collaboration and advice, sharing and cross-validation (where one side validates the other).” Ethical spaces create environments where Indigenous and non-Indigenous systems of knowledge can interact, through mutual respect, kindness, and generosity, to generate an exchange of values. There is a difference between the idea of the ethical space, and the practice of it: “[w]hile agreeing to formally enter ethical space may be straightforward for most parties, actually being within that space together requires flexibility.”

Historical legacies of colonialism prevent Indigenous-led solutions for climate change from being effectively implemented. Consequently, researchers propose calls to action to facilitate Indigenous-led climate mitigation and adaptation policies in Canada; these actions include how climate policy must:

  • prioritize human relationships with land and rebalance the relationship between people and Mother Earth.
  • prioritize Indigenous knowledge systems and equally consider diverse knowledge systems.
  • be multidimensional in order to also advance decarbonization and decolonization.
  • position Indigenous peoples as leaders from diverse nations, having inherent rights to self-determination.
  • be forward-thinking, and promote the well-being of Indigenous peoples.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Image Credit: Lili Popper, Unsplash)

A systematic literature review conducted by researchers from the University of Sydney, and published in February 2022, reaffirms that climate change has direct, indirect, and different effects on Indigenous mental wellness globally. When attachment to land is disrupted by the effects of extreme weather events, the resultant upheaval triggers different emotions among various Indigenous peoples. The relationship among Indigenous peoples, emotions, and climate change effects, varies from place to place.

According to the research study,  emotional responses to the effects of climate change, vary globally among Indigenous peoples. For example, feelings of frustration are documented among the peoples of rural savannahs in Western Africa, who experience erratic weather, caused by climate change. Meanwhile, aggression is noted to increase among Indigenous people in Australia who are impacted by droughts. Inuit experiencing loss of sea ice are documented with ecological grief, and risk factors contributing to PTSD are also documented about Taiwanese communities experiencing typhoons. These examples offer insights into the impacts of direct pressures of climate change on Indigenous wellness, and how the impact can vary from location to location and among various Indigenous communities. In these ways, unexpected, prolonged, and repeated changes in the land can be understood as negatively impacting Indigenous health. There are also indirect pressures of climate change that result in distress and that undermine mental wellness. Indirect pressures include decreased access to land and fewer opportunities to pass along Indigenous knowledge. When land connections are threatened or removed, mental wellness declines. Disruptions to culture and disruptions to land become detrimental to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous community members.

While the effects of climate change on the land brought on by adverse weather conditions are detrimental to Indigenous health, the research study notes how the “intrinsic connection and attachment to land” reduces stress and supports overall mental wellness. For example, Inuit Elders in Rigolet, Canada, have shown how spending time on the land enhances mental wellness among individuals and across whole communities.

Different aspects that affect the vulnerability of Indigenous peoples to climate change and mental wellness of Indigenous peoples include, perceptions and understandings of climate change; place attachment; disruption to culture; food insecurity; and broader, existing social injustices. Across many cultures, maintaining and sharing cultural traditions are ways to cope with climate change. For example, Torres Strait Islander Peoples engage in music, art, and traditional teachings, all known to enhance emotional well being.

The research provides different examples from all over the world, and shows how Indigenous communities are experiencing threats to mental wellness brought upon by climate change. Social supports and kinship ties assist Indigenous peoples to adapt to climate change and to uphold coping mechanisms to manage mental wellness. Perceptions and viewpoints about vulnerability and community resilience differ among Indigenous peoples, depending on where they live, how they engage with traditional knowledge, and how they share this knowledge among diverse members of their communities, including among youth, women, and Elders.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Image credit: David Clode, Unsplash)

Indigenous science (or Native science) is “a science of the way of knowing the land.” It involves multiple ways of knowing the natural environment and highlights Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). As part of environmental education, Indigenous science can address climate change by informing government policy, strengthening human connections with nature, and building relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Indigenous scholars are educating policy makers, scientists, and students about Indigenous science in various ways. For example, Dr. Myrle Ballard (Lake St. Martin First Nation), Director of Indigenous Science at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), raises awareness of Indigenous science through a process of “bridging, braiding, and weaving.” Dr. Ballard encourages better government decision making and collaborative research practices through linkages between Indigenous science and Western Science. In another example, at the University of New Mexico, Dr. Gregory Cajete (Santa Clara Pueblo) teaches about Native science, and encourages students to take responsibility for the environment, while also building a connection to it.

The Bunun People of Taiwan have designed an environmental education program involving TEK that engages their own community and non-Indigenous people. A key intention of the Bunun program is to encourage non-Indigenous people to adopt Indigenous environmental practices to combat climate change. The program strengthens Indigenous practices as a way to counter historical injustices caused by colonization.

Together, Indigenous science and environmental education can influence government policy and Western scientific practices, and foster diverse relationships, to address climate change.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Image Credit: Providence Doucet, Unsplash)

Indigenous design draws from Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and brings cultural relevance and innovation to climate change adaptation. Indigenous design is also cognizant and respectful of Indigenous cultural traditions. There are several examples of Indigenous design as it relates to climate change, including practicing cultural burning and building infrastructure and architecture using local sustainable materials harvested locally.

Cultural burning is a form of slow controlled fires. The practice of cultural burning has different purposes among diverse Indigenous communities. In addition to managing wildfires, cultural burning is also practiced for “cultural and language preservation, fuel mitigation, food and medicinal plant revitalization, and habitat enhancement.” Cultural burning is a form of TEK, based on many centuries of experience among Indigenous peoples, and continues to be practiced worldwide. Australian architect, Julia Watson, uses the term “Lo-TEK” to reflect “resilient infrastructures developed by Indigenous people through Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” According to Watson, “Lo-TEK” subverts the term “low-tech,” which is a reference to outdated technology. Watson proposes that the term “Lo-TEK” is a much better description of Indigenous TEK in contemporary designs that work with nature and the climate. In turn, cultural burning is a form of Lo-TEK.

Some examples of Indigenous design in architecture include buildings that minimize environmental impact using sustainable materials like mud, bamboo, and adobe brick. Houses in the Mizoram region of Northeastern India—referred to as Zawlbuk houses—are built using bamboo, which grow readily in the local forests. The houses use “wood, leaves of trees, mud, grass, and straw” and have been known to survive natural disasters, like floods. Building with adobe brick isan ancient construction method…dating back to 8300 BC and a useful alternative to wood in arid regions. Adobe brick is used in building houses around the world, including in rural Kyrgyzstan and among the Pueblo in southwestern United States. This  traditional construction method permits a home to remain cool during the day and for the sunbaked bricks to slowly release heat overnight, revealing the adobe brick’s high thermal mass.

Indigenous design, including climate-related TEK, is at great risk of appropriation by non-Indigenous governments and practitioners, if there are no legal frameworks to protect it. Greater respect for, and promotion of, Indigenous engagement is needed to determine if, when, and how TEK is documented and shared. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has created a toolkit to assist Indigenous communities, and those who work with Indigenous peoples, to reflect upon whether TEK practices are documented (or need to be), and if so, how to do so fairly. Given that climate-related Indigenous knowledge has been recognized by the United Nations as a way forward, intellectual property will remain an important challenge to address before more widely integrating Indigenous design in climate change adaptation planning.

In turn, any effort in advancing the application of TEK, and therefore, Indigenous design, in climate change policy will require that Indigenous peoples are not sidelined from sustainable development policy and planning processes.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

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Climate change and poverty are intimately connected. This connection deserves a closer look, given deepening social and economic inequalities worldwide. The call to integrate climate adaptation measures with poverty reduction measures are ongoing.

In 2021, countries facing the greatest ecological threat were the same as those facing the greatest need for economic support. A longstanding recommendation of the OECD is to increase the adaptive capacity of nations to combat climate change and to address poverty.

A report by The Green Resilience Project highlights four recommendations for Canadian government and climate policymakers to enhance economic vitality of communities while addressing climate change. These recommendations are to:

  1. Incorporate basic income into Canada’s plan for a just transition.
  2. Design income security and climate policy solutions to focus on improving individual and collective quality of life.
  3. Empower people and communities with the tools and resources they need to build or strengthen resilience
  4. Ensure that corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share.

It is time to rethink the term “resilience,” if not to do away with the word altogether, so that governments, corporations, and society can more realistically address the emergent and long-term needs of nations and communities to address poverty and climate change effects simultaneously. Investment into sustainable projects that address the dual problems of climate change and poverty can counter the overemphasis on how nations and communities fight environmental and economic adversity despite all the odds.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

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Outcomes of climate change on water include rising sea levels, warmer sea surface temperatures, and shifts in precipitation types, timing, and amounts. These outcomes have an impact on Indigenous Peoples’ relationship with water. Indigenous communities continue to draw from Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to maintain the overall vitality of human-water ecosystems in the context of climate change.

Sea surface temperatures have been increasing steadily throughout the 20th century and this trend continues. Changes in ocean temperature affect the ongoing presence of plants, fish life, and other animals. Increases in water temperature have also significantly altered the migration and breeding patterns of sea life, including shellfish. Another key impact is the presence and the frequency of the recurrence of “red tide,” a harmful algal bloom (HAB). Harmful algal blooms are toxic microscopic organisms (also known as cyanobacteria) that feed off the energy of light to grow; they are fatal to marine life, and can make humans sick.

The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) network has been monitoring, sampling, and reporting on the levels of toxins among shellfish around the Alaskan Panhandle. SEATOR benefits from Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge to help to predict harmful algal blooms (HAB), reduce poisoning, and harvest shellfish more effectively. Traditional harvesting practices of the Indigenous Peoples of Alaska help to keep Indigenous communities safe from the effects of HAB.

In another example of applying Indigenous Knowledge to manage human-water ecosystems, the Heiltsuk Nation (Bella Bella, British Columbia), on the West Coast of Canada, are applying traditional harvest practices, to facilitate the natural regeneration and resilience of kelp, at a small scale. With the assistance of researchers from the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, the Heiltsuk Nation are showing how their stewardship practices can help manage the growth of perennial kelp to make the kelp resilient to changes in the climate. University researchers were “motivated by the information needs” of the Heiltsuk Nation and together they co-designed a study to “measure the ecological resilience of feather boa kelp…and determine what environmental variables most affected its recovery.” The combination of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western scientific practices permitted the researchers to explore how the social relationship of the Heiltsuk Peoples to the ecological resilience of their environment are affected by increases in ocean temperatures.

Colonization compounds the effect of climate change (and vice-versa) on human-water ecosystem relationships. In Madagascar, for example, while rising sea levels have displaced Indigenous communities, conventionally, being nomadic, by choice, was also a way for Indigenous Peoples to deal with the unpredictability of the climate. However, a shift to sedentary lifestyles, further entrenched by modernization and colonization, have also affected human-water ecosystem relationships in Madagascar.

Drawing from a wide variety of Indigenous bodies of knowledge rooted in both Indigenous experiences and practices, shed light on different ways to manage climate change effects and to better understand the fine balance of human-water ecosystems in a changing climate.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Image Credit: Frank McKenna, Unsplash)

Indigenous communities are taking action to manage and improve air quality. Indoor and outdoor air quality are affected by weather and climate change effects. As noted in Chapter 2 of the Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate Report, changes in ground-level ozone, increases in airborne pollutants due to warmer temperatures, and smoke due to extreme wildfires, all negatively affect air quality and Indigenous respiratory health.

Sioux Lookout First Nation Health, the Nishnawbe First Nation, Health Canada, and university researchers conducted a research study to measure indoor air quality, explore its links with high rates in respiratory infections among Indigenous children, and find solutions. Study findings were published recently and supported efforts in the Sioux Lookout Region to address associated factors in indoor air quality, such as poor housing conditions, including repairs. and lack of functioning controlled ventilation.

The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) notes that fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke poses the greatest risk to respiratory health. However, remaining confined indoors during a wildfire poses additional health complications, including mental health impacts and physical inactivity. In 2014, Yellowknife Dene partnered with Ecology North and created videos to show how they organized physical activities to escape from the “Summer of Smoke” and social activities to prevent the isolation of community members.

Changes to both physical infrastructure and social activities within Indigenous communities can go far to improve air quality—a serious factor affecting Indigenous health in a changing climate.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

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Solid waste management is a climate change issue. The decay and combustion of solid waste contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane and nitrous oxide. Indigenous communities that do not have adequate solid waste management systems face challenges to their health, safety, land and water. Additional funding and community education can benefit Indigenous communities to meet the environmental challenges of solid waste management more effectively.

Solid waste is often referred to as garbage. Solid waste management involves “collecting, treating, and disposing of solid material,” which is thrown away because it is deemed to be no longer useful. If waste is not managed properly, it can result in environmental pollution, vector-borne diseases spread by rats and insects, and outcomes associated with poor sanitation. Improper waste disposal techniques in managing landfill wastes can result in the leaching of contaminants (i.e., leachates) into well water, ground water, and surrounding surface waters (e.g., lakes, rivers, and streams).

Two First Nation communities facing challenges to solid waste management are those of the Garden Hill First Nation and Wasagamack First Nation in Northern Manitoba. In 2018, a research study outlined how both Garden Hill and Wasagamack communities resorted to open dumping and burning toxic waste, including styrofoam and electronic waste (i.e., e-waste) in backyards disposal pits, because of poor infrastructure for safe and effective solid waste disposal and management. The study asked Indigenous community members to identify key issues in solid waste management that required attention; these included:

  • Lack of waste management for toxic wastes including plastic and e-waste.
  • Lack of funds dedicated for waste management.
  • Lack of curbside waste collection, leading to the proliferation of multiple community garbage dumps, including in backyards, and close to homes.
  • Lack of enforcement of environmental regulations by federal governments on dumping by off-reserve contractors.
  • How “reserves provide a black hole for toxic waste, stewarded products, and recyclables.”

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has called for funding for First Nation communities to increase the capacity of landfill and transfer stations, to store or accommodate wastes, and to innovate sustainable solutions to solid waste management. Projects like a proposed engineered wetland in Wasagamack First Nation hold the potential to reduce the adverse effects of leaching and its residual effects. The human-made wetland would use phytoremediation—a mitigation practice of introducing native plants in former disposal pits to reduce the concentration of leachates contaminating the environment. Educational projects like the Seventh Generation Waste Warriors are also promising, to inform Indigenous youth about how to develop waste diversion projects in their own communities. The lack of funding to both rural and urban Indigenous communities for solid waste management is corroborated in a 2021 report by Indigenous Services Canada that evaluated the First Nations Solid Waste Management Initiative (FNSWMI), a program that funds Indigenous solid waste management initiatives.

Indigenous communities need adequate and sustained funding to design, operate, and maintain solid waste management systems. Community education programs that foster collaborative approaches also deserve focused attention.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Image credit: Sara Cottle, Unsplash)

Natural hazards are one of the top seven climate change risks to Indigenous peoples’ health, as reported by Health Canada. According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a natural hazard is not a human-made hazard; it is “an environmental phenomena that [has] the potential to impact societies and the human environment.” The Canadian Disaster Database offers an inventory of disasters affecting Canadians since 1900.

Natural hazards include:

  • Avalanches
  • Earthquakes
  • Floods
  • Hurricanes
  • Landslides
  • Severe storms
  • Storm surges
  • Tornadoes
  • Tsunamis
  • Wildfires

Natural hazards in the form of extreme weather and climate emergencies, like fires and floods, can cause land degradation, including permafrost degradation, and the destruction of spaces of cultural and environmental significance. These effects can increase the risk of human injury and fatalities as well as the loss of Indigenous traditional knowledge and skills about working with the land.

Indigenous peoples may become displaced from their traditional territories, as a result of natural hazards in a changing climate. Consequently, the emotional health of Indigenous peoples must also be considered in relation to climate-induced displacement. Much of the research in this area has focused on the lives of Inuit living in the Arctic, and more research is needed that involves other Indigenous communities.

Chapter 2 of the Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate: Advancing Our Knowledge for Action describes hazard mapping in Kashechewan First Nation and Peavin Métis Settlement’s FireSmart Program as ways of managing natural hazards and enhancing Indigenous health.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Image Credit: Raychel Sanner, Unsplash)

Individual gardens, grown in backyards, balconies, and containers; community gardens developed in public spaces; and Indigenous demonstration gardens developed collaboratively, all play a role in helping local small-scale climate adaptation. Gardeners can show how to practice agency in managing climate change, while Indigenous demonstration gardens can offer public education about, and promote traditional uses of, Indigenous plants.

Gardeners face many challenges of climate change effects such as fluctuating temperatures, erratic weather extremes, water shortages, droughts, and flooding from rainstorms. These challenges are on top of common hindrances of gardeners, including, weeds, insects and animal pests, and necessary watering restrictions imposed by governments. When gardeners recognize that they have agency as “both stewards and guardians of our environment,” then there are actions that they can take locally to adapt their gardening practices to climate change. These practices are noted by the National Wildlife Federation, and include:

  1. Using human-powered yard tools vs gasoline-powered tools to reduce energy consumption and minimize pollution.
  2. Growing diverse native species of plants to manage the impact of so-called “invasive species.”
  3. Learning about the connection among birds, bees, and other pollinators in order to appreciate how plants grow, and how gardens depend on symbiotic relationships with diverse insects.
  4. Reducing water consumption and protecting topsoil by using rain barrels and by practicing mulching.
  5. Composting both yard waste and kitchen waste. While this can be done with the support of municipal services, it is also important to consider how compost can be a source of soil nutrients and as work as a natural fertilizer for diverse community gardens.

Indigenous demonstration gardens, even in high-traffic urban areas, can highlight how to manage plants in the midst of climate change, while also promote traditional uses of Indigenous plants. For example, the Bickford Teaching Garden is a biodiverse garden with five plots: pollinator plants, Indigenous sacred medicinal plants, herbs, sun-friendly plants, and a plot for seed saving. The garden, one of several Indigenous gardens in downtown Tkaronto (Toronto, Ontario), was designed and installed by Miinikaan and is maintained by volunteers. The garden beds were developed using the sheet mulching method which regenerates soil without cutting into the ground.

Another Indigenous demonstration garden is the Na’tsa’maht Indigenous Plant Garden – a “living classroom” located on the traditional territories of the Lkwungen and Wsáneć peoples, on the lands of the Landsdowne Campus at Camosun College in Victoria, BC. In addition to supplying space for Indigenous-led education, it also offers opportunities for the study and practice of sustainability at the college. Na’tsa’maht is a Salish word that means “unity or working together as one” or “being of one mind, one spirit.”

All these examples of gardens offer local, human-scale examples of climate adaptation. Whether gardening in a community garden, backyard, or apartment balcony, or volunteering in an Indigenous demonstration garden, gardening can offer opportunities to take individual and collective action in the context of climate change.

 

By Leela Viswanathan

 

(Image Credit: Steffi Pereira, Unsplash)