Environmental change and Indigenous vulnerability

My focus for the last week or so has been on literature concerned with Indigenous peoples’ perceptions of environmental change. This literature can be split cleanly enough in two categories: firstly, studies concerned with Indigenous peoples’ observations of environmental change, frequently but not always focusing on how these observations correspond to scientific understandings; and secondly, studies that go beyond observations to understand what these changes mean to Indigenous people, seeking how and why these changes might be significant to them. In this second tranche of studies there is an overwhelming focus on the vulnerability of Indigenous people to environmental change and the need to improve their capacity to ‘adapt’. Cameron (2012), who I will get to shortly, calls this the “vulnerability and adaptation” approach. This approach follows the reckoning that because Indigenous and ‘traditional’ peoples’ cultures and lifestyles are closely connected to the environment, environmental change brings about irreparable changes in culture, which underlies an acute vulnerability – reducing this vulnerability by improving adaptive capacity intuitively becomes a research and policy priority.

Research into Indigenous perspectives of climate change and its effects in the arctic is particularly prevalent in this literature.  It is dominated by the the vulnerability and adaptation approach and paints a grim picture for Indigenous people in the arctic. Trudging through this literature, I was refreshed to come across Cameron’s (2012) article “Securing Indigenous politics: a critique of the vulnerability and adaptation approach to the human dimensions of climate change in the Canadian Arctic”. In this article Cameron reviews the current discourse and highlights how it has served to lock Inuit people’s perspectives of environmental change in space and time. Specifically, she argues that the vulnerability and adaptation approach binds Inuit knowledge, and therefore their contribution to climate change discourse, to the local scale, and narrows considerations of Inuit culture to that of ‘traditional’ and ‘pre-colonial’ practice. Practices commonly cited as underpinning Inuit culture and threatened by climate/environmental change include navigating ice floes, hunting and fishing, sledding, and the transmission of language and culture. Cameron is careful to acknowledge the significance of the studies she is looking at, mentioning that many of them have been supported by Inuit people and have contributed an important human voice in arctic climate change discourse. However at the same time, she stresses that such a narrow framing of Inuit relationships to climate change ignores a variety of ‘contemporary’ climate change-related issues that are equally relevant for Inuit people, including increased resource extraction and the opening of new shipping channels. These changes, although relevant, fail to warrant mention, primarily because they do not fit a particular and colonially-constructed idea of what it is to be ‘Indigenous’.

Without the “vulnerability and adaptation” approach as a part of the Indigenous people and environmental change literature, there really isn’t much of a story. From my experience in the Kimberley, the dominant narrative suggesting that Indigenous people cannot observe, understand and synthesise environmental change without being made vulnerable by it seems way off the mark. I do not suggest that there is no vulnerability, or that it shouldn’t warrant considerable mention in the literature; however, it does need to be at least checked, particularly considering it has the tendency secure Indigenous people within a rigid imaginary and politics, locked in space and time.

One thought on “Environmental change and Indigenous vulnerability

  1. This is a persistent feature of the literature on indigenous communities and their responses to change. The narratives are bound by a declensionist structure and everyone knows how the story will turn out.

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