From Alaska, a Lesson on the Value of Conservation Partnerships With Indigenous Communities


In late summer 2010, thousands of walruses came ashore, or hauled out, within earshot of the Iñupiat Eskimo community of Point Lay on the northwest coast of Alaska. Small numbers of these marine mammals were known to haul out from time to time in this region, and a massive herd had first done so a few years earlier. But this was the first time the animals had chosen a spot close to human settlement. That proximity to the village of 275 people opened the marine mammals to the threat of disturbance. Walruses are easily spooked, including by the ordinary activities of humans in their daily lives, and the animals often respond by stampeding, killing, and injuring other members of the herd.

To their credit, the people of Point Lay, in keeping with their traditional values of environmental stewardship, went to great lengths to protect the walruses. Villagers curtailed noisy activities, especially when the wind was blowing toward the walruses, pushed for restrictions on airplane traffic, and limited the number of reporters and other visitors going near the site. The haulout has become an annual event, and the Iñupiat of Point Lay have continued to push for conservation measures, drawing on their own ideas as well as advice from hunters from the coast of Chukotka, Russia, where haulouts have occurred for decades; the World Wildlife Fund brought the Chukotkan hunters over to share their expertise with the Iñupiat. In recognition of the villagers’ efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has management authority for walruses, awarded the Native Village of Point Lay an “Outstanding Partner Award” in 2011.

Success stories such as this highlight the potential for alliances among indigenous communities, management agencies, and conservationists. Indeed, many organizations and governments recognize that indigenous communities should be involved and should have a say in matters that affect them. For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has a “Standard on Indigenous Peoples” that recognizes indigenous rights and interests and commits the IUCN to respecting them in its work around the world. In the U.S., an executive order directs federal agencies to consult with Native American and Alaska Native tribes on policies that will affect those communities.

Such aspirations, however, are easier stated than accomplished, and successes like Point Lay’s should not cause us to overlook the many obstacles to effective partnerships. One hurdle is the familiar conflict between those pushing for protection of a faraway resource and those who live near that resource and would be directly affected by the conservation measures.

For example, people living next to critical habitat might have to limit their activities to conform with rules intended to protect that habitat. At the same time, the benefits of that protection could extend far and wide—for example, when the habitat sustains a migratory species that people enjoy viewing or hunting throughout its range.

Tensions often become particularly acute when, for example, a proposed industrial project that promises to provide revenue and jobs for indigenous communities also poses a threat to the environment—and to a community’s traditional activities, such as hunting, fishing, and gathering. What constitutes “balance” between conservation and development is often in the eye of the beholder, and disagreements over that can strain the ties that sustain a partnership.

For indigenous communities, many of which struggle economically, an influx of jobs and revenue can be particularly appealing. Sometimes, proponents of conservation efforts emphasize economic potential, too, in the form of jobs such as those for park rangers, businesses such as tourism services, or programs such as environmental monitoring. For that promise to become reality, however, takes investment and local training, most likely from governments or NGOs, and policies to promote local hiring, all of which should be outlined before a conservation-minded group presents a proposal to a community. Developing local capacity for such roles can require more of an initial investment than relying on, say, eager volunteers from afar who are looking for a remote adventure rather than an income. But that investment can pay off in the form of sustained economic benefit and local support for a conservation effort.

Involving indigenous communities in conservation efforts is hard work, but failing to do so can doom, or at least greatly complicate, a project. For example, in 1916, the United States and Great Britain, the latter acting on behalf of Canada, signed the Migratory Bird Treaty, a landmark step in conserving avian species throughout much of North America. In keeping with the practices of the time, however, the governments paid scant attention to how the treaty’s provisions would affect indigenous peoples. The oversight was particularly egregious because the pact banned hunting of migratory birds during spring and summer, the only seasons the species are in the Arctic. That lack of attention to Arctic residents resulted in decades of confusion and enforcement conflicts, undermining indigenous-government cooperation on this and other conservation initiatives. The problem was resolved only after years of negotiations led to a 1995 amendment to the treaty that allows spring bird hunting for remote communities where such activities are traditional.

The Point Lay experience, in which local residents developed conservation measures with encouragement from a government agency and an NGO, reminds us why supporting indigenous conservation efforts is worthwhile and why we should hold up such successes as examples for others to follow. At the same time, those considering a conservation partnership with an indigenous community should take a clear-eyed view of what is at stake for each potential partner and what can plausibly be achieved. Much rhetoric on this topic, as with so many community-based ideas, is phrased vaguely and in the future tense: something “will” be done or “will” be saved, some opportunities “will” be created. To achieve real partnerships, such promises must be replaced by specific initiatives, backed by the resources necessary to carry them out. By acting on the lessons of what has worked and what has failed in the past, we can turn the theory of partnership with indigenous communities into real and lasting gains for all.

Henry P. Huntington is a senior officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts, where he directs the science work of its Arctic programs.

This piece was previously published in Environment.

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