Indigenous wisdom: Leaders of Arctic tribes visit Imperial

Hunters look at the ship in Uelen, Chukotski region, Russia
Uelen, Chukotski region, Russia (c) KadnikovValerii

The Imperial College Environmental Society and Pacific Environment recently hosted an event with four Arctic indigenous leaders, who discussed climate change and its effects on indigenous communities in the Arctic. Richard Knight, Research Postgraduate at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy, reflects on the fragility of the environment Arctic communities depend upon, and how it can be protected.

“It is like we do not exist, and yet we are still here.”

So finished Delbert, who was met with another round of applause from a moved audience. Though his English was a little broken, it hadn’t hindered his ability to communicate. Perhaps, then, leadership qualities are universal; Delbert had been ear-marked to lead the Savoonga village while only a child, and was revelling in that capacity as he presented to a lecture theatre full of Imperial students. He was joined by three other leaders from tribes within the Arctic Circle, who are all under threat from environmental and ecological damage. All four had come to Europe to raise awareness of this, and to find a means of protecting themselves against it.

5 Arctic indigenous leaders standing in front of a screen presenting to the audience

(c) Richard Knight

Indigenous Arctic communities are facing ecological disaster

All four leaders are witnessing ecological disaster caused by human activity. Tribes living within the Arctic Circle are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. As the Earth warms, it has a pronounced effect on the interaction between ice and ocean, and the currents that help dictate fish migration. Over time, this has rendered ancestral knowledge of where to source food less effective, risking the indigenous way of life.

To make matters worse, the melting of ice has meant new shipping routes have opened across the Arctic Circle. Though current traffic is low, Eduard Zdor, of the Chukotka tribe, estimates that up to 1,000 ships a day will soon cross the Bering Sea area unless adequate regulation is introduced. Without regulation, increased traffic on shipping lanes would further disrupt fish habitats and migration patterns, undermining the indigenous food supply even more. The consequences of this go far beyond Arctic tribes: one third of the world’s fish live in the Bering Sea. If something is not done to protect its ecosystem, the impacts will be felt by all fisheries and communities that depend on its waters for sustenance. This includes groups in the United States of America, Canada, Russia and even parts of China.

Can sovereignty bring the protections necessary?

The indigenous tribes see sovereignty as the key to averting ecological damage, and are lobbying to become recognised as a state by the United Nations. In doing so, they will be better protected by UN conventions, and will have greater legitimacy when trying to defend their way of life in the international court of law.

Previously, tribes within United States territories were afforded some property rights to land by the former President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. This restricted oil exploration in the area, which allowed the local ecosystem time to recover and thrive. However, his successor, President Donald Trump, revoked these property rights after pressure from the American oil and gas industry. As a result, oil exploration has resumed in the Arctic Circle, exacerbating environmental damage in an already vulnerable area.

What else can be done?

In the face of globalised industry and the current political landscape, getting the voices of indigenous peoples heard is a major problem. To help, we must lend them our own voice and share their story where we can, which will help legitimise their call for sovereignty. One way to do so is by following the work of Pacific Environment, the organisation helping to rally tribes together and raise awareness of their situation.

After the presentation, the audience were invited to speak with the indigenous leaders. Face-to-face, I was struck by their sincerity and conviction, traits I hope will help them gain their sovereignty. I recently visited a museum exhibition in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which stressed that ecological solutions could be found from our indigenous past. However, hearing from these tribal leaders proved to me that an indigenous way of life – while it may seem like ancient history to some of us – is still a modern way of living in some parts of the world. The world simply needs to take notice, and give them and their environment the protection it needs.

You can watch the discussion in full here:

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