YK Delta forms climate adaptation plan based on international model for indigenous communities

Ideas paper the walls at the Bethel Cultural Center as residents develop a regional climate adaptation plan. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur/ KYUK)

Once again, Bethel hosted a meeting on how climate change is affecting the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Bethel hosts a lot of these meetings. Many say the same things: temperatures are warming and the weather, land and life is changing. The latest group on the scene hopes to advance this conversation by developing a plan to work with those who live in the region to find and implement ways to adapt and protect its resources.

In Stebbins this winter, residents burned their old fish racks and sheds for firewood. The sea ice that people were used to crossing to gather driftwood never formed, yet the cold had set in. Suddenly, knowing what had happened in the past no longer applied to the present. Mary Pete is originally from Stebbins and shared this story to show how climate change has challenged one of the region’s most valuable resources: traditional knowledge.

“The reality of climate change has made some of our knowledge problematic, or obsolete, or inapplicable,” Pete said.

For two days, local leaders from along the coast and Kuskokwim River met at the Cultural Center in Bethel to identify what resources are being threatened by climate change, what they want to protect and how they’re going to do that. Participants from the Yukon were weathered out and unable to make it.

The Western Alaska Landscape Conservation Cooperative and its consultants led the session. The group partners with entities throughout Western Alaska to conserve natural resources. The approach they took was an international model used around the world by indigenous populations to adapt to climate change. Ian Dutton helped start the model with an Aboriginal group in Australia a decade ago and has seen it work over time.

“It’s just extraordinarily heartening to go back into a place that 10 years ago was suffering from all sorts of social challenges and had a lot of environmental issues and is starting to build that healthy ecosystem approach that both people and the ecosystem depend upon,” Dutton said.

In Australia, Western farming practices had degraded the land. When local Aboriginals took over as co-managers, the land started healing and so did the community. Native plant and animal species returned. Youth suicide and incarceration decreased, and local jobs multiplied as co-management expanded.

“It’s not something that’s exogenous or comes from outside the community,” Dutton explained. “It’s actually something that comes from within the community and recognizes the expertise and skills that exists in those communities.”

Since then this model, called Healthy Communities, has traveled around the world to New Zealand, Canada and now Alaska.

The goal is to create a regional plan for adapting to climate change and protecting its valued resources.

For example, people value an undisturbed tundra. A threat to that is the unregulated use of ATVs, which can damage plants, increase erosion, scare off wildlife, and spread trash. A way to help that situation is to designate and fortify trails.

For everyone at the meeting, the stakes are personal. Megan Leary’s son is a year and a half old. Her family lives in Aniak on the Upper Kuskokwim, and meeting the kinds of goals in the Healthy Communities plan could allow him to live the lifestyle of his culture.

“I want him to be able to have that opportunity,” Leary said. “To go out some day when he’s older, or even now, and be able to harvest the things he needs to sustain himself [and] his family in the future.”

The meeting is the first in a series coming to the region on the issue.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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