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How climate change is affecting cultural heritage

A bridge in a rain forest
Members of the Bedamuni People of Western Province, Papua New Guinea. The researchers argue that there is a need to broaden both the focus and the geographical scope of research on loss. (Photo: Guy Jackson)

It is not just the environment and the economy that are threatened by a warmer climate, but also culture and traditions around the word. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden and the University of Queensland in Australia have mapped what little is known about how climate change is eroding local knowledge and cultural heritage.

“We risk losing the memory of Indigenous people’s ways of life without this type of documentation”, says Guy Jackson, postdoctoral fellow at Lund University.

He is one of the authors of a literature study that includes 100 scientific articles, most of which focus on North America or the Northern Arctic Circle. One of the conclusions of the study is that cultural heritage is primarily seen as something of material value, such as an archaeological site or historic building. In addition, the loss is seen as a potential future problem, even though there is evidence that it is already happening.

“Research must broaden its geographical scope. It is telling that so few studies look at the loss of cultural heritage on small island nations, for example, which are at risk of completely disappearing as sea levels rise”, says Guy Jackson.

Focusing on material losses also means that important traditions and knowledge systems are overlooked.

“There are many non-material losses that are valuable for both individual identity and group identity”, says Guy Jackson.

The study shows a clear connection between loss of Indigenous cultural heritage and changes in the natural environment. For example, songs and working methods change when groups lose traditions linked to a physical location. One scientific article points out that for the Inuit in Canada, identity is closely linked to the environment: “Inuit people are people of the sea ice. If there is no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?”

According to Guy Jackson, this could lead to several consequences. Loss of traditions and cultural heritage can make it more difficult to deal with climate change, and weaken social cohesion, as people lose touch with traditional ways of life.

“Our research reveals how quickly local knowledge can change, and how strongly it is affected by changes in the physical environment. Apart from the fact that Indigenous culture could be eradicated by climate change, it raises the question if we can expect Indigenous people to protect and preserve rainforests and other ecosystems”, he says.

The researchers hope that the literature study can lead to more targeted research. In particular, they want to see a larger focus on how to handle, minimise and counteract future losses.

“Science should contribute by developing practical solutions and strategies that help with adaptation to the losses that have already happened”, Guy Jackson concludes.

Publication

Guy Jackson

Contact:

Guy Jackson is a post-doctoral fellow currently working on the project Recasting the Disproportionate Impacts of Climate Change Extremes, DICE, at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS.

guy [dot] jackson [at] LUCSUS [dot] lu [dot] se

Ten examples of cultural heritage and local knowledge threatened by climate change

 

  1. The loss of burial sites due to sea-level rise throughout the Pacific, for example in Kosrae, Micronesia.
     
  2. The loss of the Warao peoples’ territory and culturally valuable resources in the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela due to sea level rise.
     
  3. The increasing loss of Diné Nation forests in the U.S. due to less rainfall, rising temperatures and more fires.
     
  4. The loss of glaciers and bofedales (culturally-shaped productive wetlands) which Aymaran communities living near Sajama National Park in the Bolivian Andes depend upon.
     
  5. Sea-level rise, more frequent storms and increased coastal erosion are having a significant impact on the traditional practice of making the sweetgrass basket, an ‘iconic craft tradition’ for the Gullah Geechee communities in the southeastern U.S.
     
  6. Changing seasonality and weather affecting indigenous knowledge and identity in Erub Island communities in the Torres Strait, Australia.
     
  7. Loss of sea ice in the Arctic affecting sense of identity, indigenous knowledge and hunting practices amongst Inuit communities, for instance in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
     
  8. For Kazakh mobile pastoral herders in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, cultural practices and products such as songs and instrumental tunes, musical instruments, tools and textiles, work patterns and ceremonial gatherings have all been disrupted as a result of climate change.
     
  9. Climate-induced relocation in the Pacific Islands is leading to loss of identity and sense of place, for example in villages in Vunidogoloa, Fiji.
     
  10. Cultural heritage is being impacted by sea level rise, increasing humidity and shifting rainfall patterns in Europe (Dublin Castle and the Hellinstic roads and ruins in Cyprus.)