Indigenous Communities Lead Sustainable Change in the Arctic

November 29, 2021
Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Russian Arctic are developing sustainable solutions to mobility issues, economic challenges, and more caused by climate change.

In the Russian Arctic, reindeer herding is central to the Nenets and Saami peoples’ way of life. They rely heavily on their reindeer, using them for food, clothing, tools, transport, and more as they move across the tundra each year. For generations, the community has migrated seasonally with their herds. But today, without fast and effective climate intervention, this lifestyle is at stake. 

Climate change is warming the Arctic roughly twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Each year, the Arctic loses enough sea ice to cover the state of West Virginia, affecting coastlines, animal habitats, and weather patterns. Indigenous communities who call the Arctic home have one of the clearest views of how these changes impact human lifestyles and livelihoods. 

In winter, recurring thaws and freezes bury tender lichens and mosses beneath layers of ice, and herders must relocate to keep livestock well-fed.  Late autumn freezes make traversing lakes and rivers a dangerous task for both herds and humans due to thin and inconsistent ice formation. Using snowmobiles during this time can be deadly.  

In summer, their all-terrain vehicles damage delicate tundra ecosystems, which are often snowless longer than before. Surrounded by privatized pastures, many herders cannot simply follow the reindeer’s food sources. This leaves accessible pastures damaged and depleted, no longer able to support large herds. 

Reindeer herding is essential to the Nenets and Saami peoples’ way of life.

Adaptation methods have served Arctic Indigenous communities well for generations. But as weather patterns now shift unpredictably, Traditional Ecological Knowledge is not always reliable.  Partnering with climate researchers can help communities pair their expertise with scientific study to devise sustainable adaptation strategies that meet these pressing challenges. 

Eurasia Foundation is supporting a coalition of Indigenous communities, climate researchers, and nonprofits in the U.S. and Russian Arctic to place human stories at the center of climate research. “As Arctic researchers and advocates, we are interested in amplifying Indigenous voices and grievances,” says the project’s organizer. “Indigenous people, scientists, and non-profits together can make a difference and help Arctic communities adapt to climate change.” 

Researchers travel to the Arctic to listen and learn as Indigenous people paint a picture of what climate change means to them, their well-being, and their way of life. By promoting stories of ongoing Indigenous resilience, the group hopes that these narratives, backed by science, will drive future research and intervention.

This partnership has been critical for communities that rely on fishing along White Sea coastlines. Many face economic uncertainty as warmer coastal waters drive valuable species like herring and Atlantic salmon away from stable shores. 

Meanwhile, non-native species like humpback salmon overwhelm these warming coastal habitats. In 2021, invasive humpback salmon infested Arctic lakes and rivers. Their bodies polluted coastal areas and their smell disrupted daily life. EF’s coalition met with local Indigenous communities and other research partners to deal with this threat to the community’s economic and physical well-being. They decided to put the fish to use as fertilizer for crops.

Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Russian Arctic partner with climate researchers.

By centering Indigenous voices in climate solutions, the coalition prioritizes tailored adaptation plans like this, ensuring that climate interventions adequately protect and promote Indigenous ways of life. This partnership has already helped communities to adopt eco-friendly stoves, alternative planting methods, and other tools that equip them for long-term climate resilience. 

Throughout the project, coalition researchers have also learned from Indigenous communities’ decades of experience in climate communications. Noting the power of human narratives to spark understanding and action, the coalition reframed their scientific presentations to highlight Indigenous people’s stories. 

“We are collecting Indigenous artwork that will increase mutual understanding of Indigenous issues in the U.S. and Russian Arctic,” says the coalition’s organizer. “One Saami student is helping record reindeer herders as they share their stories. Other artists are drawing images from these stories and creating an animated video. Stories and art are critical to making climate change’s effects interesting and accessible to diverse audiences.” 

Rather than focusing only on data, the coalition weaves local perspectives and outside research together to color their audience’s perceptions of ecological issues. Their hope is to bolster Indigenous resilience while helping other researchers, policymakers, and the global community comprehend the human impact of climate change and act—not in a far-off future, but now.