As biodiversity loss threatens Indigneous ways of life around the globe, a new international project is aiming to bring Indigenous knowledge to the forefront of research and conservation efforts.
The Ărramăt Project, based at the University of Alberta, aims to highlight the links between biodiversity loss and Indigenous health and well-being. It’s being led by Indigenous scholars and activists and involves more than 150 Indigenous organizations, universities and governments worldwide.
Brenda Parlee is one of six co-principal investigators on the project. She’s a non-Indigenous scholar and professor at the University of Alberta who is working with partners in the Northwest Territories.
“I’m really looking forward to the opportunity, not only for myself to learn from organizations right across the territory, but also to create opportunities for those Indigenous communities to learn from one another as well as network with a broader fleet of projects across Canada and globally,” she said.
“It’s really exciting to see those opportunities for Indigenous communities to come together in support of one another on some critical issues.”
Parlee said threats to biodiversity can have “reverberating impacts on health” like food security, culture, livelihoods, and a sense of hope for the future.
“These issues of biodiversity are not just ecological or environmental issues, they’re so interconnected with the sustainability of economies, of culture, and health,” she said.
‘Our land is just like gold’
Chief Wanda Pascal of the Tetlit Gwich’in Band Council said protecting the land, water and air is important for members of her community.
“Our land is just like gold to us,” she said.
“For people in the Gwich’in area, I know they look after the land really good and they watch and they hunt and trap and fish, picking berries.”
Pascal said she has seen impacts from climate change like floods, forest fires and melting ice in the Arctic. Meeting with other project partners, she said, opened her eyes to how much Indigenous people have been impacted globally.
“It was really heartbreaking to hear … what they’re going through around the world.”
According to the project, while Indigenous people account for less than five percent of the world’s population, 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is located in Indigenous territories.
Pascal said she’d like to see more research on the impact climate change has had on fish and animals in her region, as well as a workshop on berry picking.
“Berry picking is really one of my hobbies,” she said. “I love going out and exploring different places and picking berries.”
John B Zoe, an advisor for the Tłı̨chǫ Government, said unlike other Western research projects, the Ărramăt Project focuses on Indigenous values, and connects Indigenous people from around the world.
“The climate and language might be different, but we can learn from each other and see if there’s any inroads made in other places,” he said.
Zoe said ongoing work he would like to see includes the revival of traditional economies and inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in land and animal management to protect food security.
“We need to re-evaluate how we’ve been doing business in the past and how that business might not have taken into consideration Indigenous knowledge,” he said. “It means that type of engagement and it means partnerships and it means informing the theories and individuals.”
The six-year Ărramăt Project has been granted $24 million in funding from the Canadian government.
Parlee said more than half of that will go directly to Indigenous governments and organizations. Later in 2022, a request for proposals from Indigenous partners will be released.
Ărramăt is a concept in Tamasheq, an Indigenous language spoken by the Turageq people in North Africa, that describes a state of well-being shared by the environment, animals and humans.
Biodiversity in the NWT
According to a 2016-2020 report, the NWT is home to an estimated 30,000 species of plants and animals. The main threats to species include climate change, diseases, and habitat change.
There are currently 12 species on the NWT list of species at risk.
Northern communities also face risks from climate change like permafrost thaw, floods, wildfires, and coastal erosion.
Some Indigenous communities have expressed concern about the impacts of resource extraction.
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation has called for a federal apology for the long-lasting contamination of their traditional land caused by Giant Mine and the resulting social, environmental and economic harms.
Others in the territory worry about the impact of federal plans to release treated oilsands tailings water on downstream communities.
There are currently two Indigenous protected areas in the NWT: the Edéhzhíe Protected Area in the Dehcho region and Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve outside Łútsël K’é. Ts’udé Nilįné Tuyeta in the Sahtu is a future protected area, while Dınàgà Wek’èhodì on the north arm of Great Slave Lake is a candidate for a protected area.