Winter 2022

Arctic Conservation in the Hands of Indigenous Peoples

– Victoria Qutuuq Buschman

Practicing conservation in more equitable and meaningful ways without sacrificing important end goals.

Standing along the shore, where the Beaufort Sea meets the Chukchi, you can dig the toes of your boots into the cold black sands and stare out beyond the edge of the world. Here, at the northernmost tip of Alaska, is a landscape few have seen, and still fewer know. This is the home of my people…

Since birth, I have been raised in a culture and society thriving despite the shadows of contemporary conservation. My roots are deep in the coastal tundra of northern Alaska, in the Iñupiat community of Utqiaġvik, where the management and conservation of land, water, and species have been a subject of debate for decades, and whose impact has been felt since the beginning of colonization. Known as the northernmost town in the United States, we are also home to the largest bowhead whaling community in the world. Our lives are a beautiful mix of the traditional and the modern, largely living off the land and water while partaking in the benefits of a globalizing world. We hunt, fish, and gather all manner of wild living resources and have done so sustainably for thousands of years. Our ability to  thrive in this mecca of ice, rock, and tundra with below -60F temperatures is a testament to our knowledge of this environment, the strength of our practices, and the sustainability of our way of life.

Greenlandic sled dogs pull along Kangerlussuaq Fjord in west central Greenland. Sled dogs are still used for traditional hunting and fishing throughout North and East Greenland, as well as other parts of Inuit homelands. Photo by Victoria Qutuuq Buschman.

The shadows I speak of persist in the form of national and global conservation policies that trickle down to determine something so simple as what our families can serve on the dinner table. Sometimes, traditional foods that have been sustainably harvested for time immemorial such as fish, seabirds, whales, seals, and polar bears become the subject of international outrage, and our ability to feed our families is threatened. We are rarely afforded the opportunity to oppose such restrictions and moratoriums, even when local populations of species remain healthy and abundant, nor are we given the chance to demonstrate the sustainability of our practices or what our knowledge can contribute to science. With limited alternatives, conservation makes criminals of our community members and places the future of our people and our homelands in a precarious position.

I set out across the Arctic to explore how it can be practiced in more equitable and meaningful ways without sacrificing important end goals.

In my effort to understand conservation from both Indigenous and contemporary perspectives, I set out across the Arctic to explore how it can be practiced in more equitable and meaningful ways without sacrificing important end goals. Now I’ve made my home on the other side of our homelands in Greenland and serve as the first Inuk Doctor of Conservation Biology in the world.

International Arctic Policy

The Arctic is the most rapidly warming environment in the world and its Indigenous peoples are experiencing unprecedented change. Our homeland is drastically changing at a rate three-to-four times faster than the global average. The things we see, hear, and smell may cease to exist as we know them before the end of this century, and these dramatic shifts in climatic conditions are impossible to ignore. Across Arctic communities, Inuit and other Indigenous peoples are working to address the pressing climate issues we have inherited in the 21st century, such as: coastal erosion, ocean acidification, pollution, fluctuating and unpredictable wildlife populations, biodiversity loss, unsustainable resource extraction, and data gaps in almost all areas of Arctic research. For us, the effects of a changing climate are tangible and inescapable even as these processes feel like a distant trouble for the rest of the world. We are living, and breathing, change.

The Arctic is increasingly a focal point of outside public interest and engagement, particularly concerning  the conservation of lands, waters, and species under threat of climate change. At the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 26th Conference of Parties (COP26), countries from around the world  touted their development of Arctic strategies, faced with new trade routes under diminishing sea ice extent, new economic pressures and business ventures as melting glaciers and inland ice exposes the Arctic’s rare earth minerals, and an accumulation of black carbon deposits as traffic in Arctic waterways accelerates. These activities are in stark contrast to the global demands for conservation and sustainability that were the focus of COP26. 

Victoria Qutuuq Buschman in Greenland, where she now makes her home. Courtesy Victoria Qutuuq Buschman.

One of the proposed goals is for protected areas and other conservation measures to cover “at least 30% of land and sea areas” by 2030, a goal colloquially known as the 30x30. This should be a win for Indigenous peoples, only it isn’t. Indigenous communities are feeling the constant pressure of externally-imposed conservation. Many contemporary conservation efforts are operating within Indigenous homelands, though they lack explicit recognition for the Indigenous contexts and colonial histories at play. In recognition of the importance of Indigenous peoples within international discussions of climate change, sustainability, conservation, and policy, COP26 hosted the first Indigenous closed-door meeting in the history of the UNFCCC, where Indigenous knowledge holders – myself included – discussed how our values and knowledge guide our approaches to conservation, and how some communities are leading the establishment of new protected areas as a means to assert their rights, protected under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Through international organizations such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council, we are actively engaged in research, management, and decision making within our homelands through international governing bodies including the United Nations, Arctic Council, Convention on Biological Diversity, International Maritime Organization, and others. 

However, the public is largely unaware of the Indigenous contexts that shape Arctic conservation, especially in the pursuit of ethical, equitable, fair, just, and meaningful conservation that supports Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and reconciliation with colonial forces laid out by nationally and internationally recognized rights and responsibilities. Proposed conservation targets and goals, such as Aichi target 11 and the UN 30x30 proposal, aspire to conserve more lands and waters over the coming decades, thus the prevalence of intact biodiversity within Indigenous homelands emphasizes the essential role of Indigenous communities in future conservation efforts.

Indigenous Peoples Lead Conservation

From a global perspective, Indigenous communities are increasingly shaping the conservation of lands, waters, and species around the world, both through science and policy. One-quarter of all land on earth is owned, managed, used, or occupied by Indigenous peoples, representing 35% of all formal protected areas across the world and 35% of all remaining terrestrial areas experiencing low human impact. Within these lands, Indigenous communities’ cultural practices are complementary to conservation goals. They both emphasize the long-term, sustainable use of wild living and natural resources that support traditional and modern livelihoods, cultural continuity, and environmental monitoring efforts. Recognition of this is on the rise, evident in the growing body of international organizations focused on Indigenous conservation and knowledge, protected and conserved areas, and corresponding academic literature, all of which move beyond colonial conservation models and are linked to political, socio-cultural, and ecological benefits. Indigenous relationships to wild living resources are increasingly grounds for establishing new protected areas and developing policies and practices that partner wildlife conservation with Indigenous use. 

Caribou jaws in Qussuk, Nuuk Kangerlua, Greenland. Photo by Victoria Qutuuq Buschman.

Conservation and sustainability are inherently embedded within Indigenous worldviews, have been practiced for millennia, and globally, Indigenous communities are continuing to develop their own motivations and approaches to conservation within modern frameworks. This is equally apparent in the Arctic, where organizing around Indigenous hunting and fishing practices and food sovereignty has made unique contributions to land, water, and species management and conservation.

The colonial legacy of conservation in Indigenous homelands in the Arctic, both historically and currently, strains relationships between researchers, practitioners, and Indigenous communities. Our communities continue to sustainably hunt and fish the charismatic species that have become the global mascots for climate change including seals, whales, walrus, and polar bears. Many researchers and organizations are calling for the end of colonial approaches in favor of those that support Indigenous communities. This comes with the recognition that some conservation approaches mitigate biodiversity loss at the expense of Indigenous communities and undermine Indigenous knowledge and self-determination. Despite a growing body of evidence that Indigenous communities support global conservation efforts through traditional management practices, Indigenous peoples continue to be excluded from access to, and criminalized in, their own lands through externally-imposed, top-down policies that lack the flexibility and adaptability required to support Indigenous livelihoods and cultural practices.

However, decades of gains for Indigenous communities in research, policy, and law, combined with an ongoing shift in perspectives, approaches, and solutions for addressing Arctic issues, are leading to innovative conservation initiatives that enrich what is collectively possible. We are seeing that conservation can be practiced in a way that embodies Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, rights, priorities, and livelihoods. Indigenous knowledge is increasingly becoming a central focus of management and conservation efforts. Furthermore, Indigenous communities and practitioners are clearly calling for collaborative approaches to engagement and research focused on conservation, as well as a recognition that Indigenous ways of life fundamentally facilitate Arctic conservation objectives.

Indigenous Knowledge Informs Conservation

Science has real policy implications, so we as researchers have a responsibility to ensure that our science comes as close to truth as possible. Indigenous knowledge helps us get there. The Arctic remains largely data deficient, and we are learning new things about basic biology and complex processes all the time. In part, these advancements are made possible by Indigenous communities’ contributions of time, labor, and knowledge, and those holding Indigenous knowledge are increasingly being asked to validate findings of scientific research. Recognition of this need in Arctic research was more-or-less catalyzed by an erroneous study on bowhead whales in 1977 that underestimated the population and immediately imposed a conservation ban on Inuit whaling in northern Alaska. When Inuit hunters learned of the ban, they confirmed that the scientists were observing in the wrong areas and led the researchers to the whales’ preferred habitat, thus correcting the mistake. While engagement with Indigenous communities and knowledge is improving, many Indigenous communities and governments are moving forward with their own conservation efforts.

We as researchers have a responsibility to ensure that our science comes as close to truth as possible. Indigenous knowledge helps us get there.

Indigenous knowledge for Inuit is a living, breathing system of knowing that bridges environmental, cultural, and social systems. It is held in past and lived experiences, easily accommodates new information, and has its own validation system. In my line of work, its strength is clearly evidenced in discussing topics like sea ice dynamics, wildlife populations and movement ecologies, and disease emergence and vectors. Yet, we are also experts on countless other things.

Conservation to this day often continues as a modern form of colonialism, but it can also be used as a tool for forwarding Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, subsistence rights, food security, cultural continuity, knowledge sharing, community building, and reconciling past traumas and injustices. Inuit have the right to decide the terms of engagement with our knowledge and our peoples – who, what, when, why, and how. Indigenous communities are strong, knowledgeable, and ready to lead conservation efforts so long as our place in Arctic governance is recognized. 

Emerging Protected Areas

Now is an exciting frontier for Indigenous-led conservation as communities, researchers, land managers, Indigenous organizations, and governments  increasingly work together to find innovative approaches to protect biodiversity in culturally relevant ways.

Hand-made kayaks on the shore of Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area, Nunavut, Canada. Photo by Victoria Qutuuq Buschman.

Indigenous-led protected areas are becoming an ever-more popular approach to protecting biodiversity, though each comes with its own qualities, and are supported through different policies and mechanisms. In 2019, I happened to be in the community of Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay) when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived to announce the landmark establishment of the Tallurutirup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area in the Northwest Passage, an area the size of Iceland that protects critical subsistence species and waters for Inuit use. Its establishment comes with CAD $54 million in Inuit stewardship programs for research, training, and monitoring within the protected area. Some are not explicit about contributions to biodiversity management, but have positive impacts nonetheless. A year ago, I shadowed a hunter in the Aasivissuit-Nipisat UNESCO World Heritage Site between Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, an Inuit-led project established in 2018 that protects the area from mining while supporting sustainable hunting and fishing grounds that have been in use for the past 4,000 years. Some Indigenous communities are bypassing public options in favor of private ones. In 2014, the native village of Eklutna in Alaska conserved the first ever Indigenous conservation easement, protecting more than 1,000 acres of vital subsistence wetlands that provide high-quality salmon and migratory bird habitat. They have conserved more than 7,400 acres of land and waterways in their region.

Global recognition for these contributions, among others, is lacking, but within science and policy there is an opportunity to change the narrative of what conservation is and how we approach it. Indigenous communities are here to stay, so finding a positive way forward to achieving our collective conservation targets and goals is a big win for biodiversity. We are anticipating the establishment of several new Arctic protected areas this decade, including the proposed protection of the Arctic’s largest and most biodiverse polynya, Pikialasorsuaq, which will subsequently become the first-ever bilateral Indigenous-led conservation area once signed into agreement between Canada and Greenland. 

Equity in Management, Policy, and Education

Certainly, many challenges and conflicts remain. Indigenous communities all over the Arctic are experiencing the detrimental effects of salmon fisheries declines, from the Yukon River of Alaska and Canada, to the Deatnu River of Norway and Finland. An ongoing debate within the Greenlandic government on Narwhal hunting in East Greenland has inflamed old tensions between researchers and Greenlandic communities. In order to ensure equity in the decision-making process, Indigenous peoples need to be at the table to ensure that discussions are reflective of Indigenous contexts and environmental realities. But how do we get them there?

One answer is to elevate Indigenous youth in the science and policy spheres where these discussions primarily take place. Wildlife biology, fisheries biology, and natural resource management, are all fields that can be strongly tied to Indigenous livelihoods, and are a natural area of interest for many Indigenous youth, but historically, there have been far fewer prospects for them to pursue modern education than for non-Indigenous students. For example, education in Greenland begins in preschool, where space is limited and waiting lists are long. As Greenlandic students get older, many must choose to leave their communities to continue their lower secondary education at one of few gymnasia (the equivalent of high school in the U.S.) in the country. During this time, students hoping to pursue any education in the sciences must have access to rigorous courses if they hope to enter foreign universities offering degree programs in relevant fields, as no science degree programs exist in the country. 

There are several hardships highlighted here. First, education systems across the Arctic are structured in ways that force Indigenous students to make major life sacrifices in the pursuit of education. Many students must leave their families, friends, cultures, regions, and possibly even their country to obtain the credentials they want. Second, there are serious inequities in the types of education and degrees available to Indigenous students who do not want to leave their homelands. As a global society, we have not invested in the kinds of opportunities and institutions necessary to allow Indigenous youth to study their own lands without moving hundreds or thousands of kilometres to where they must study the Arctic from afar. Third, the lack of investment creates myriad barriers to raising Indigenous perspectives, needs, concerns, and knowledge within science – a detriment to often data deficient fields that could benefit from the expertise of Indigenous communities. 

Students in the Nutendli nomadic school. Photo courtesy Snowchange Cooperative.

Why do Indigenous youth want to pursue science and research opportunities at all? Arctic research is uniquely difficult, and Indigenous communities contribute to research in remote parts of the Arctic in which other researchers don’t want to live. Youth are increasingly becoming involved as advocates for their communities, and as cultural and linguistic translators between researchers and communities who provide  nuanced understandings of how Indigenous knowledge and science inform each other. Many youth are experts themselves and provide unique, forward-thinking solutions to the problems their communities face. Take for example, the Ikaarvik project, which brought together Inuit youth in Canada to develop guidelines for researchers looking to conduct research in Inuit Nunangat (Canadian Inuit homelands). These youth outlined concise and useful points that a researcher must consider when entering an Inuit community. This report is a testament to the fact that Indigenous youth can help shape research, science, and education when given opportunities.

Several things can be done to improve access to science education and research opportunities. Investing in institutions and programs that bring science into Indigenous communities, including training for Indigenous youth who want to work in research and on climate issues in their own communities, is one way forward. Ikaarvik is one great example of a successful Indigenous youth in science initiative. Expanding the available educational options for Indigenous youth and removing the current hardships of leaving homelands to pursue a secondary level education is another. Focusing on developing science curriculum for Indigenous contexts is also necessary. Finally, Indigenous youth need more opportunities to interface with policy and governance through mentoring and leadership programs that elevate Indigenous voices at all levels of governance. 

Indigenous communities will continue to shape conservation efforts in ways that challenge colonial legacies and encourage the meaningful and inclusive evolution of its practice.

While opening opportunities to conventional education, particularly in the sciences, will help to elevate Indigenous perspectives, worldviews, and decision-making regarding climate change, one revolutionary dream is also here. Support for Indigenous youth and education is important, but Indigenous peoples should not need an advanced education to have a voice in this world. I hope for a future in which Indigenous youth do not have to follow this path to meaningfully contribute to the governance of our homelands. While one Indigenous youth pursuing a science education can support a community’s abilities to engage with research, management, and policy, simply being an Indigenous person and finding ways to help heal our planet and our peoples is, in itself, enough to make positive change.

Inuk elder sitting in Sirmilik National Park, Qikiqtaaluk, Nunavut, Canada. Photo courtesy Victoria Qutuuq Buschman.

Challenging the Arctic Narrative

Conservation as a discipline and practice will continue to evolve. Strengthening the potential for ethically-conscious, culturally-relevant, and fully knowledge-based conservation in the Arctic is contingent on continuing to grow space for Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and ways of life. There are many opportunities to influence future directions. These include creating opportunities for discussions around Indigenous perspectives of conservation best practices, making space for improved collaborations around research and conservation that connect local practices to global targets and goals, and growing Indigenous research networks. We must prioritize community-driven research, invest in science education for Indigenous youth in new and emerging programs, and encourage youth to partake in the cultural revitalization of any locally vulnerable hunting, fishing, and other subsistence practices. In short, we must maintain Indigenous knowledge and protect individual, community, and societal wellbeing. For Indigenous communities, the biodiversity and cultural benefits of Indigenous-led conservation efforts are salient, even if the literature is only beginning to accumulate the evidence. 

What is certain is that Indigenous communities will continue to shape conservation efforts in ways that challenge colonial legacies and encourage the meaningful and inclusive evolution of its practice.

Victoria Qutuuq Buschman (MSc. Wildlife Science, MPA. Environmental Policy, Ph.D. Conservation Biology) is jointly affiliated with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources where she lives in Nuuk, Greenland. Originally from Utqiaġvik, Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States, she has formerly served as a Fulbright-National Science Foundation Arctic Research Fellow at the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna biodiversity working group of the Arctic Council in Iceland, and as a Conservation Research Fellow in Greenland through the American-Scandinavian Foundation. Having lived and worked across the circumpolar Arctic, she promotes how Indigenous peoples fundamentally shape Arctic biodiversity conservation from research, to management, to actualizing the dreams of new protected areas. Her role in research is to challenge the colonial legacy of conservation and instead promote partnerships with Indigenous communities to develop culturally-relevant, ethically-conscious, and fully knowledge-based conservation initiatives. By empowering Indigenous voices in Arctic research, policy, and decision making, she believes we can better achieve our global conservation targets and goals.

Cover photo: Indigenous woman in Sirmilik National Park, Qikiqtaaluk, Nunavut, Canada. Courtesy Victoria Qutuuq Buschman.