Assessing Knowledge, Resilience & Adaptation and Policy Needs in Northern Russian Villages Experiencing Unprecedented Climate Change

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Tuesday, 19 January 2010: 4:45 PM
B213 (GWCC)
Susan A. Crate, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA

An urgent challenge of the 21st century is to understand levels of knowledge, resilience and adaptation and policy needs in populations confronting the local effects of unprecedented global climate change. This project represents a novel approach to these ends by advancing knowledge through partnering with rural native Viliui Sakha communities in northeastern Siberia, Russia to explore ways to effectively address the local issues of global climate change. The research questions are: 1) What local effects of global climate change are Viliui Sakha communities witnessing and how is it affecting their subsistence survival? 2) What knowledge is there about how Viliui Sakha adapted in the past to climate perturbations and how are contemporary Viliui Sakha adapting to the local effects of global climate change? 3) What knowledge and record is there about past local/regional climate perturbations and what knowledge is being generated on local/ regional/ Republic-wide level about contemporary global climate change? 4) What information about global climate change from other western scientific sources is both relevant and constructive for Viliui Sakha communities? 5) What global climate change policy exists at the local, regional, and national levels, how effective is it for rural Viliui Sakha communities, and how can it be made more effective? The four-village, three-year study is a collaborative effort involving the active participation of the targeted communities, field assistants, native specialists, an in-country research team and an international collaborator. The project is founded on the PI's fifteen years of ongoing research and work with rural Viliui Sakha communities and on her fluency in both the Sakha and Russian languages.

Sakha are a Turkic-speaking people whose ancestors migrated from Central Asia to southern Siberia around 900, then migrated northward, along the Lena River, to their present homeland beginning in the 1200s. This is a sub-arctic region, characterized by continuous permafrost and average winter temperatures of -50°C. Viliui Sakha are native horse and cattle breeders inhabiting the Viliui River regions of northwestern Sakha Republic, northeastern Siberia, Russia. Viliui Sakha are a stellar case of adaptation, adapting to an extreme climate, Russian colonization, the last 100 years of Sovietization, and contemporary post-Soviet decentralization. The newest challenge, and perhaps most difficult for local communities to perceive ways to adapt to, is climate change. In 2004, while surveying inhabitants of four villages for a 3 year community sustainability project, 90% of participants expressed their concern about local climate change—that it was causing unprecedented change in their local areas and that it threatens to undermine subsistence. Although comprehensive local climatic data is lacking, village elders possess vital ecological knowledge about how the climate was and has changed. Based on preliminary interviews in the summer of 2005, elders cited the following observed changes in climate and local ecosystem: temperatures “softening” (not as cold in winter or as hot in summer), increased precipitation (too much rain at the wrong times, too much snow in winter), increased thunder, increased humidity, more intense sunlight, and new species appearing from the south. These climate perturbations threaten the subsistence survival of rural Viliui Sakha who depend on harvesting a substantial amount of hay to fodder their herds and supplementing their diet with hunting, fishing, gardening and foraging.

A central focus of this project is to document local traditional knowledge on at least three levels: 1) Community-level: To survey community capacity, the research team will organize focus groups and interviews in each of the four villages to document community observations and concerns, past and present actions, future plans, and to generate local rosters of community knowledge of and adaptation to global climate change. The research team will document the community meetings in order to inform a community-based assessment of both the process of knowledge generation and the development of each roster. The roster data will be used to create a household survey to administer during the project's second summer. The team will share “resources,” in the form of a compilation of the experiences of other communities elsewhere, for the community at hand to draw upon. Based on analysis of comprehensive field data and interpretation of results, the team, with input from each of the four communities, will develop a final roster of community knowledge of and adaptation to global climate change for the targeted communities' use and information and also to inform the policy needs component of the project. 2) Elder knowledge-level: To survey the knowledge and experience of the villages' elder populations. The end objective is to document and disseminate within the communities of origin, elder knowledge oral histories (both life experience and narrative from parents and grandparents) about how Viliui Sakha adapted in the past to climate perturbations and its relevance and pragmatic use to their contemporary climate challenges. To these ends, the research team will organize an elder knowledge project as followed in the 2003-2006 project. The team will develop a comprehensive list of climate concerns based on the project's first field season's interviews (in community research above), task village assistants to work with local youth to interview elders during the winter season, and decipher elder knowledge about past climate that is both relevant and pragmatic to contemporary needs. The team will also conduct follow-up interviews in summer with select elders to probe further and also to understand the culturally-specific linguistic and symbolic issues of climate. For example, the Sakha word for weather and its differentiations from climate; knowledge pertaining to seasonality and changes over time and discussions of the Viliui Sakha understandings and language of the seasons. The comprehensive results from these inquiries will be incorporated into each community roster as the elder knowledge component. 3) Secondary data level: To survey existing archival, archaeological, oral historical and historical sources to produce a comprehensive assessment of past Viliui Sakha adaptation to climate change. This will involve secondary data analysis in relevant archives, libraries and collections.

The project team has just returned from the second summer of field work and this presentation will cover the project results to date.