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Arctic Indigenous communities shape conservation planning and policy

From a global perspective, Indigenous communities are increasingly shaping the conservation of lands, waters, and species around the world, both through science and through policy. One-quarter of all land on earth is owned, managed, used, or occupied by Indigenous peoples, representing 35% of all formal protected areas across the world and 35% of all remaining terrestrial areas experiencing low human impact (IPBES 2019). Indigenous relationships to wild living resources are increasingly grounds for establishing new protected areas and developing new policies and practices for partnering wildlife conservation with Indigenous use. This can be controversial as our communities continue to sustainably hunt and fish the charismatic species that have become the global mascots for climate change including seals, whales, walrus, and polar bears. Over decades of gains for Indigenous communities in research, policy, and law regarding our rights to sovereignty, co-management, and food security, and an ongoing social shift in perspectives, approaches, and solutions for combating biodiversity loss, we are collectively pushing the envelope of what is possible in Arctic conservation efforts.

Meaningful engagement with Indigenous communities is critical for forwarding both science and policy. As the Arctic warms six times faster than the global average, it positions Arctic Indigenous communities on the front lines of the most rapidly warming climate in the world. These rapid environmental changes challenge our very livelihoods by altering landscape morphology and species’ spatiotemporal population dynamics which in turn challenge Indigenous food security and cultural continuity. Despite these challenges, now is an exciting frontier for Indigenous-led conservation as communities, researchers, land managers, Indigenous organizations, and governments increasingly work together to find innovative ways to protect biodiversity in culturally-relevant ways.

Science has real policy implications so we as researchers have a responsibility to ensure that our science comes as close to truth as possible – Indigenous knowledge helps us get there. The Arctic remains largely data deficient, and we are learning new things about basic biology and complex processes all the time. In part, these advancements are made possible by Indigenous communities’ contributions in time, labor, and knowledge, and Indigenous knowledge holders are increasingly being asked to validate findings of scientific research. Recognition of the role of Indigenous knowledge in Arctic research was more-or-less catalyzed by an erroneous study on bowhead whales in 1977 that underestimated the population and immediately imposed a conservation ban on Inuit whaling in northern Alaska. When Inuit hunters learned of the ban, they confirmed that the scientists were observing in the wrong areas and were able to correct the mistake by leading the researchers to the whales’ preferred habitat. While engagement with Indigenous communities and knowledge is improving, many communities and Indigenous governments are moving forward with their own conservation efforts.

Indigenous-led protected areas are becoming an increasingly popular approach to protecting biodiversity, though each comes with it’s own flavor and are supported through different policy structures. I will highlight just a few exciting projects here. Back in 2019, I happened to be in the community of Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay) when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived to announce the landmark establishment of Tallurutirup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area in the Northwest Passage, an area the size of Iceland that protects critical subsistence species and waters for Inuit use. Its establishment comes with CAD $54 million in Inuit stewardship programs for research, training, and monitoring within the protected area. Some protected areas are not explicit about contributions to biodiversity management but have positive impacts nonetheless. Only weeks ago, I shadowed a hunter in the Aasivissuit-Nipisat UNESCO World Heritage Site between Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, an Inuit-led project established in 2018 that protects the area from mining while supporting sustainable hunting and fishing grounds that have been in use for the past 4,000 years. Some Indigenous communities are bypassing public options in favor of private ones. In 2014, the Native Village of Eklutna in Alaska conserved the first ever Indigenous conservation easement, protecting over 1,000 acres of critical subsistence wetlands that provides high-quality salmon and migratory bird habitat. In partnership with the Great Land Trust, they have conserved over 7,400 acres of land and waterways in their region.

Global recognition for these contributions and others are lacking, but within science and policy there is also an opportunity to change the narrative of what conservation is and how we approach it. Indigenous communities are here to stay, so finding a positive way forward to achieving our collective conservation targets and goals is a big win for biodiversity. Look forward to the establishment of several new Arctic protected areas this decade, including the proposed protection of the Arctic’s largest and most biodiverse polynya, Pikialasorsuaq, which will subsequently become the first-ever bilateral Indigenous-led conservation area. Please see the provided links and resources for further information and tune in to my short selection of podcasts to learn more about Indigenous and northern experiences in the Arctic.


Threshold Season Two - Cold Comfort,


Buschman, V. 2019. The Arctic Wetlands and Indigenous Peoples Study (AWIPS) an assessment of Indigenous engagement in wetland protected areas. Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, Akureyri, Iceland. ISBN 978-9935-431-84-4.


Information on Pikialasorsuaq -

Information on Tallurutiup Imanga -

Information on Eklutna Conservation Easement -


Victoria Buschman here, an Inuit conservation biologist from Utqiaġvik, Alaska now living in Nuuk, Greenland. I’ve worked the last ten years in conservation and Arctic research, and the last five on my PhD in an effort to explore how Indigenous peoples fundamentally shape Arctic biodiversity conservation – from research, to management, to actualizing the dreams of new protected areas. My role in research is to challenge the colonial legacy of conservation and instead promote partnerships with Indigenous communities, methodologies, knowledge, and governance to develop culturally-relevant and knowledge-based conservation efforts in the Arctic.

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