When Lucy Gray thinks about global warming, she knows that her people—the Inuit of Nunavik, Canada—intuitively understood that their world was changing long before they heard the words “climate change.”
Arctic indigenous people have always been the first to feel climate change and the effects of pollution from fossil fuels and other man-made causes, Gray said. Their ancestral knowledge, based on their connection to the environment, allowed them to determine these climatic changes in great detail.
Despite this understanding, many Western scientists admit that they have struggled for years to work hand-in-hand with the indigenous people who live in the places they seek to study and protect, or to recognize indigenous knowledge as a reliable resource, given their a biased attitude towards information that cannot be measured scientifically.
but now a new paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environment reviews research on endemic mercury poisoning in the Arctic and concludes that there were in fact many examples of collaboration where this work on the toxin would “not have been possible without the involvement of indigenous peoples.”
Accumulation of mercury in the Arctic comes from both the atmosphere and “circumpolar” rivers, and may increase if climate change continues to alter these rivers and release mercury from warming soils. Mercury, a potent human neurotoxin, is a naturally occurring element that is concentrated in the environment through industrial processes such as coal burning and mining. It also accumulates in fish and wildlife at levels a million times greater than those found in the environment.
The paper — “Indigenous Contributions and Perspectives on Mercury in the Arctic” — cites more than 40 mercury projects conducted with indigenous peoples in the US, Canada, Greenland, Sweden, Finland and Russia, “as well as cases where indigenous knowledge population contributed to understanding [mercury] pollution in the Arctic”.
The document recommends building collaborative processes between scientists and indigenous peoples, citing “an apparent gap in the community [mercury] research in many Arctic countries. It calls for “sustainable funding for community-led monitoring and research programs. These activities, the document concludes, “should be well linked to circumpolar/international initiatives.”
Magali Houd, one of the paper’s two lead authors and a Ph.D. Environment and Climate Change Canada’s aquatic ecotoxicology research scientist said of the journal publication, “We didn’t know how it would be received by the scientific community because it was different, but it was accepted.”
Although the scientific community still has a long way to go to successfully co-produce knowledge with indigenous peoples, she said their publication and inclusion in the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program’s Mercury 2021 report gives her hope that mindsets are changing.
The level of indigenous participation in each project varies from region to region depending on the country’s jurisdiction, laws, and political and economic interests. For example, in Nunavik and other parts of Canada, programs work with outside scientists, but their research must respond to community needs and concerns and use Inuit knowledge, the article said. The United States has fewer resources and programs to develop such cooperation.
In Greenland, where the majority of the population is Inuit, indigenous peoples are not considered separate communities, while in Sweden, Finland and Russia there are still very few programs to support public monitoring of pollutants.
Eva M. Krumel, co-lead author and Ph.D. an environmental toxicologist associated with the Circumpolar Council of Inuit in Ottawa explained that the success of these partnerships requires collaborative work between federal agencies, territorial and provincial governments, government departments and Indigenous partners sitting around the table and making decisions.
Another key success factor is continued funding for the scientists, which includes money to pay the local people they work with, explained Kaare Sikuak, an Inupiaq from Alaska who was not involved in the paper. He said that over the years, one of the key factors that has contributed to successful projects between scientists and communities is building long-term mutually beneficial interactions. But most scientific systems aren’t built for that, Siquak said.
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In the United States, for example, it is rare for any scientist to have enough funds to carry out research for many years. The way to obtain these funds is through grants for specific research, for which scientists must constantly apply.
Siquak said that even when they ask that scientists reach out to communities as a precondition for grant approval, the lack of consistency in funding, combined with the cultural inexperience of some researchers who aren’t trained to work with communities, has created a competitive system over the years, in in which scientists write sentences from their point of view without the consent of the village.
He also said that exploring the Arctic is not easy. In Arctic history, some of the most successful examples of collaboration between scientists and local communities began because scientists saw the value of their knowledge.
The best way to work together is to really understand the issues at hand and what the community needs. “Scientists who do it right go far beyond the funding they receive,” he said. He said that the barriers are not the scientists’ fault, but the system in which they are embedded.
Another important thing to consider in order to successfully learn from each other is to see indigenous knowledge as something different than science, but equally important, said Gray, an Inuit activist from Nunavik. She said there is a science to indigenous knowledge because it is based on accumulated observations and direct interactions with the environment that have been passed down through generations over centuries. “It is no less [than science] either, that’s why you need this working collaboration,” she said.
Looking at the world only through the scientific method, people lose, she said. Instead, by working together, they empower each other. “We live in the real world, and the real world has many layers, and the real world has many things interacting every time, all at the same time, and sometimes science ignores that,” she said.
According to NOAA the report, climate change “continues to significantly alter” the Arctic region. That’s why people like Krummel are working to increase collaboration between indigenous peoples and scientists.
According to the United Nations, indigenous peoples make up 5 percent of the world’s population, but care for 22 percent of the Earth’s surface and help protect approximately 80 percent of its biodiversity.
The hope is that these kinds of collaborations, Krummel said, will become the new norm to avoid misguided decisions and policies on the issues facing these regions. “Mostly there are good scientists, and scientists should be open to working with indigenous peoples, and indigenous peoples should also be interested in working with scientists.”