Global Team Of Indigenous Leaders Work With Scientists To Monitor Climate Change's Impact

Sep 7, 2017

Dancers from the Kuskokwim Learning Academy perform for representatives of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna on Thursday, September 7.
Credit Teresa Cotsirilos/KYUK

Yesterday, a global team of indigenous leaders, scientists, and wildlife managers gathered at Bethel’s Cultural Center to discuss climate change’s growing impact on the Arctic’s plants and animals.

The working group on the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, or CAFF, is a group that monitors circumpolar biodiversity. It tracks the health of shorebirds, polar bears, and native plants, then recommends sustainable practices to Arctic countries. Representatives from eight different countries are attending the meeting, along with advisors from several indigenous organizations.

"We’re here to ensure that indigenous voices are at the table," said Carolina Behe, an advisor for the Inuit Circumpolar Council, or ICC. "We have to have indigenous knowledge and science there. With only the science, we’re not getting a full picture."

According to Behe, indigenous organizations played a pivotal role in starting the Arctic Council, CAFF’s parent organization, which is a coalition of Arctic countries and indigenous groups that work on Arctic policy issues. The group is supported by Sami from Nordic countries, and reindeer herders from Russia. Today, CAFF Secretariat Tom Barry says that the group makes an effort to meet in predominantly indigenous areas throughout the Arctic.

"They have a direct input into the decision making that we do," he said. "What happens in one part of the Arctic doesn’t happen alone. This enables us to tackle these challenges together."

He added that this week’s meeting in Bethel is the first Arctic Council-related event to ever be held in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Barry characterized this particular CAFF meeting as “preparatory.” The group recently rotated its leadership and is now chaired by Cynthia Jacobson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Anchorage office. Yesterday they discussed the threat of invasive species and outreach programs to Arctic youth in both the United States and other countries.

The group faces several challenges, not least of all funding.

"This has to do with countries and indigenous peoples coming together and bringing information forward in order to form policy," said Behe of the ICC. "That takes money, and time, and energy."

The eight countries that belong to the Arctic Council are asked to make voluntary contributions to the CAFF Working Group, which is looking for outside grants and funding from other countries and organizations. President Donald Trump has referred to climate change as a "hoax" and withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord earlier this year, but according to Secretariat Barry, the Administration's stance on climate change has yet to impact the United States' participation in CAFF or its financial contributions to the program.