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Indigenous Knowledge, Climate Change, and Building Anticipatory Capacity: An Interdisciplinary Challenge; ABS lecture by Dr. Karim Kassam

February 13, 2013 2 comments

This may be super long so I apologize. I found this lecture to be very interesting.

A review of an Applied Biodiversity Science lecture – Indigenous Knowledge, Climate Change, and Building Anticipatory Capacity: An Interdisciplinary Challenge

Dr. Karim-Aly Kassam is an international professor of environmental and indigenous studies in the college of agriculture and life sciences at Cornell University. He conducts applied research that has immediate impact and is relevant for communities. His interests are very similar to the key concepts we have learned throughout the GEOG 430 Environmental Justice course – participatory action, ways of knowing/ knowledge, and capacity for resilience (ones that stood out to me).

Dr. Kassam presented two case studies. The first case study was about the Iñupiat people of Wainwright, Alaska and the impacts of climate change on the sea ice. The character of knowledge determines the nature of research methodology, achieved and communicated through participation. In order to get a sense of the impacts, one must first  gain knowledge of their relations with sea ice and how they are being affected. This is where the process of human ecology research comes into play – 1. Identify community and its institutions to work with 2. Discuss project objectives and action research method to community institution 3. Discuss project objectives and etc. at community meeting 4. Establish meaningful partnership with community institution (set start date, develop interview protocol, make icons, workshops and training) 5. Research (interviews) 6. Publish.

Many observations from the Iñupiat were identified from this research: a warming trend over 15 years, stranded polar bears, and shorter hair on furry animals due to a warmer fall. Ice formations had also changed making subsistence hunting dangerous because of the less robust sea ice – ice is central to their activities (i.e. eating). He then went into detail on the discussion of the science of ice – decreasing leads, pressure ridges, and winds and currents are changing; No lead = no food. Not only does the shrinking of sea ice affect food security, it affects much more; there are many more subsistence implications involved. The migration patterns of marine mammals may change, loss of ability to hunt marine mammals and certain birds, greater pressure on terrestrial mammals and the implications of cultural and social ( the bearings they have on the social structure). When this research was occurring, GIS was not available, so SAR images were used to prove this discussion of scientific results. The Iñupiat’s observations were correct – but they missed the details of how it is happening. There is a diminishing capacity for resilience, a deep interconnectivity between nature, culture and values that exist in human ecological relations. The fundamental value is sharing, the one value that kept it together, but that value fundamentally is based on the ecological base (sea ice).

The second case study presented was about the Pamir Mountains (agriculturalists) and the dramatic impact of climate change◦ Increasing water levels due to rapid snow melt , causing lower elevations to lose agricultural value of land. The increasing temperature caused a change in quality or inability to grow certain fruits at low elevation (vernalization … not enough cold days in the autumn). One would think fruit needs warmer temperatures to grow (like the oranges in Florida), but this is not the case for them. If interested in diversity, one should not look at the mean, look at the outliers because impact varies depending on context – we cannot look at it as global climate change. Human ecological knowledge is context specific, related to and contained within a group of people who live in a defined geographic region. The impacts created anxiety for the people and their inability to now predict the time as referencing to the calendar of the human body, what is known as phenology time method, by linking their body to their ecology in order to measure time. Dr. Kassam suggests that they are in need of anticipatory capacity. The mere fact that they would mark spots in the mountains and built their homes to mark times when the sun hit a certain spot to mark times, tells us that we have a mechanism to anticipate, we don’t have to invent something new – but things are changing and the people are losing knowledge on the role of the phenology. Greatest challenges for them will be the inability to anticipate context specific seasonal changes – the fundamental festivals of plowing and sowing. Just the fact that this time measurement method is still around, attests to its ecological and sociocultural significance; giving their calendar meaning, not just time. In order for them to understand what climate change is and why their calendar is changing, requires mixed method and a participatory approach, and the significance of grounding knowledge in generations (culture and values).

During the Q & A session at the very end, Dr. Kassam presented a very interesting point regarding the first case study (inupiat people of Alaska). Methane deposits and a ton of rich oil and gas create great potential for the Alaska coast. Dr. Kassam had a conversation with one of the locals about offshore drilling there. They had invested in a sub-contract to provide food and so on in Afghanistan and Iraq,  and they made 17 million dollars that paid for electricity, power, etc. – they needed every cent of it. Even though it is “illegal” to drill offshore in Alaska, Shell Oil Company created an island to drill on in the middle of the arctic, to go around this barrier, technically not offshore drilling. Even though the president does not want this, they needed the funds from it. The inupiat people’s entire food system is right where all of the oil and gas deposits are. Fishermen told the community that it was safe and not to worry, until one day it blows up. The young leaders in the community who pushed for the drilling to occur now do not know what to do. Dr. Kassam ends the discussion that he thinks there is still hope for the inupiat people, they have been around for a very long time; but someone needs to stand up and point out that there is a contradiction in that investment and conserving the enjoinment. How to do that is a challenge.

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