Adapting to Climate Change

Indigenous populations are especially vulnerable to the effects of global climate change. A new research project aims to help them adapt.

Sep 1, 2011
Jef Akst

An Inuit hunter paddles through a stretch of water that is normally frozen in February.GRAHAM MCDOWELL

On a dark autumn morning in 2006, environmental geographer James Ford headed out from the small island of Igloolik in Canada’s Nunavut Territory with a young Inuit man to set up fishing nets under the ice of a lake on the mainland. It was shortly after Thanksgiving, a time of year when the ice at this high latitude—nearly 300 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle—was expected to be quite solid. But as the two followed their snowmobile tracks home later in the day, they suddenly came to a dead end—the tracks vanished. Scanning the surface of the frozen Foxe Basin, they found the continuation of their trail 50 meters to the north, indicating they were standing alongside a crack in the ice that had shifted that distance since they’d passed that morning.

“We both looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, close call,’” recalls Ford, an assistant professor at McGill University. The ice was obviously less stable than they had assumed, and they had not taken the proper precautions. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, Ford says. While the Inuit used to depend on solid, safe ice from early fall until late spring, reports of unstable conditions had become more frequent in the past several years.

And it’s not just happening in the Arctic. Though melting ice at the earth’s poles is one of the most recognizable consequences of the changing climate, populations closer to the equator have also been noticing its effects. Indigenous populations in the Peruvian Amazon and pygmy communities in Uganda are both struggling with unpredictable weather as temperature extremes and changing precipitation patterns plague agriculture and promote disease.

Recognizing the need for a better understanding of how the changing climate is affecting indigenous populations around the world, Ford and his colleagues this April launched a 5-year research program, called Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC), to track the well-being of several native communities in Uganda, Peru, and northern Canada. In Uganda, Shuaib Lwasa of Makerere University and his colleagues are collecting health data from the Batwa people, who were forced to leave their forest home when the Ugandan government enacted conservation efforts to protect mountain gorilla habitat. Now dependent on food grown by surrounding communities, the Batwa people are more vulnerable to altered rainfall patterns, which affect not only crop yield, but water quality and availability in the communities where the Batwa have been forced to relocate. The Batwa are also suffering from malaria for the first time.

“These are marginalized people who have limited access to resources,” Lwasa says. He adds that the Ugandan government does not consider the Batwa as important as other local communities when weighing policy decisions.

A project that could help raise awareness about climate change and encourage efforts to minimize human impact on the phenomenon “is an interesting and important area of work,” says Mona Sarfaty of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. But the main goal of the research is to use the knowledge gained to help these indigenous populations adjust to their changing circumstances. “In better understanding what’s coming, they can get a clearer picture of what kind of adaptations they may be able to make—in other words, how they may be able to live with climate change,” Sarfaty says.

This has already happened to some degree, Ford says. Indigenous communities are vulnerable, but they are also resilient. In the Arctic, hunters are learning when to trust the ice and when more caution is warranted. “Change has become the new norm,” Ford says, “and people are really learning to adapt.” After two and a half years of researching the populations, the IHACC program aims to institute small, focused interventions to help soften the blow of climate change and improve the health and safety of the communities. In Peru, for example, helping people find ways to collect and store rainwater may better prepare communities for the unpredictability of water quality in the local river.

Establishing ways for these communities to sustain their traditions is critical, Ford says. “Hunting, for an Inuit, is more than just a hobby; it’s a way of life. Likewise in Peru and Uganda and elsewhere, many indigenous peoples rely on the environment for their livelihoods.”