Image Alt


Enhancing Climate Research in the Arctic With Traditional Knowledge

The threat of climate change affects everyone, but the precise impact of global warming trends will vary across different regions. One example of the variable impact of climate change is the abnormal migration being observed in some animal species, which is dramatically changing regional ecosystems. Finnish geographer Tero Mustonen believes that Indigenous Arctic cultures are a key source of insight to help determine how to respond to this particular challenge arising from a changing climate. The importance of Indigenous TK in understanding the impact of climate change, and the valuable insights held by Indigenous communities in mitigating the impacts of climate change implicate the idea of access and benefit sharing agreements. As explained in more depth here, access and benefit sharing regimes are the legal frameworks that govern how researchers, industry, and other stakeholders access genetic resources and associated Indigenous TK in Indigenous territories, while also governing how they can be used and how benefits resulting from their use are to be shared with the source community.



Mustonen and his colleagues conducted research that focused on the species and biodiversity of nature, rather than simply rising global temperatures. The results show that some animals, like beavers and the red fox are moving North towards the Arctic’s cooler temperatures, which may disrupt fragile Arctic ecosystems. This can lead to the loss of regional habitat for some species, like the Arctic fox as the red fox outcompetes it for resources. Mustonen argues the Indigenous communities of the Arctic and their relationship with nature will become an increasingly important source of information regarding how to survive in this changing landscape.


Some existing solutions to manage biodiversity such as the conservation of land via parks will help society deal with climate change, as effective land management helps preserve biodiversity. However, Mustonen argues something else must also be done. His research notes that wildlife migration patterns are shifting, so solutions will have to be dynamic in order to account for this alteration in the natural range of certain species. One solution he offers is to establish buffer zones around ecological heartlands that should be kept intact. This will allow experts to determine how to respond to transitioning species. This would also be of benefit to Indigenous communities, since a United Nations University article reported they utilize 22% of the world’s land surface, maintaining 80% of the biodiversity, while only comprising 4% of the total population. ABS helps ensure that TK from this relatively small population relying on large land areas is respected.


When asked how to improve governance of natural resources in the Arctic, Mustonen responds, “We need specific and strong recognition of protected areas that are also friendly or welcoming to the indigenous people.” He noted that Siberian communities do not have a lot of access to cash flow access nor to the global economy. This parallels many Indigenous communities across Canada, including the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic. He stated there should be free, prior and informed consent from the Indigenous communities. This fits with the Canadian government’s intention of implementing the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This commitment was also seen when provincial and federal leaders promised in the Vancouver Declaration to “engage Indigenous peoples in the development of the pan-Canadian framework on clean growth and climate change.” Some progress is seen as Indigenous community reports are being used in a project with the Geological Survey of Canada on geoscience tools that can support environmental risk assessments of metal mining in the Canadian Arctic. The Inuit in Canada are experts on the climate of the Arctic. There is valuable knowledge in learning the changes they have seen, and how they are adapting to the effects of climate change.


Access and Benefit Sharing represents an important framework under which Indigenous TK can be accessed and used by Western climate scientists and government stakeholders looking to combat climate change. Indigenous TK serves to increase the pool of knowledge about climate change from a people who have mastered sustainable living in the Canadian Arctic and other sensitive ecosystems. As Mustonen notes, Indigenous cultures have preserved relationships with ecosystems for thousands of years. This sustainable relationship with nature should be a source of guidance going forward as the world responds to the threat of climate change, as recently seen in the Paris Agreement. It would be misguided to ignore the people who live in these environments, but it is also unfair to use their knowledge and experience without first seeking their prior informed consent. Access and Benefit sharing agreements therefore represent one way for governments eager to learn from Indigenous peoples to do so in a respectful manner, mindful of the mistrust created by the colonial dynamic, and with a view to mutual benefits for all.