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Researcher Bruce Forbes builds bridges between scientists, politicians, and indigenous peoples

28.9.2021 8:21

In 1989, Bruce Forbes travelled to an international science conference hosted by the Soviet Union in Surgut to talk about permafrost. Forbes had already worked on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia.

There was little talk about climate change at the time, but forest fires and the melting of permafrost were discussed at the tables of scientists, in the press and gradually even in politicians' speeches. However, these actors did not cooperate very closely.

Now Forbes, 60, is a research professor in the Arctic Global Change Research Group, which he has chaired during 2004-2020. Forbes has worked at the Arctic Centre since 1993, and in the same year, he got his PhD in Geography at McGill University in Canada.

Forbes has been doing fieldwork in the Arctic region for more than 36 years. During this time, he has studied the ecological and social impacts of the oil and gas industry, especially in Russia, Alaska in the United States, and Canada.

– The way the oil and gas industry are managed, the agreements and decision-making are based on documents written twenty years ago during the presidency of George W. Bush, says Forbes.

This year too, Forbes was supposed to do fieldwork among reindeer herders in Russia in the Yamal region, but the COVID-19 pandemic ruined the plans.

The essential role of local communities

Throughout his career, Forbes has sought to improve dialogue between different disciplines. He has listened to local communities and indigenous peoples, whose knowledge and issues have been essential in the research. Over the years, he has become close friends with reindeer herders in Finland and Russia.

– Farmers have been observing the weather for hundreds of years. The same applies to reindeer herders, who have enormous knowledge of the weather and environmental changes. They need to be involved in decision-making and processes.

In 2013, more than 60,000 reindeer died suddenly in the Yamal region of Siberia. The evidence gathered by researchers showed that nothing similar had occurred during the 100-year reference period.

Local reindeer herders asked Forbes what caused the mass deaths of the reindeer.

– They said that if this becomes the new normal, they will not have time to prepare for such extreme weather changes.
The reindeer suddenly starved to death because the fluctuating weather melted the snow that became icy, and the reindeer could not feed through the ice crust.

Forbes leads the CHARTER project, which started in summer 2020, involving 21 research institutes from nine countries. Of the approximately EUR 6 million co-financing, the Arctic Centre will contribute about EUR 900 000. The research project will focus on how changes in biodiversity and climate in the Arctic will affect local communities and traditional livelihoods, particularly in Northern Europe and Northwest Russia.

Forbes says that for decades, politicians and the scientific community in Finland have decided how many reindeer the herders should keep without listening to the local community and the representatives of indigenous peoples. In Canada, Forbes saw how the Inuit collaborated with the government instead, and together they made decisions on permits to hunt polar bears or whales.

Now decisions are made in cooperation and interaction also in Finland. Forbes notes that the increase in dialogue between scientists, local communities, indigenous peoples, and politicians is one of the most significant developments during his career.

It is increasingly important to take advantage of traditional knowledge, to listen to the masters of tacit knowledge.

– I am optimistic because political governance is more adaptive nowadays. Reindeer herders, indigenous representatives, researchers, and politicians should all be involved in the debate now and in the future.

Approximately forty per cent of Finland's surface area is reindeer herding area. In 2006, Forbes and his working group wrote a book on reindeer management in northernmost Europe.

Reindeer increase the reflectiveness of the ground by preventing open fell areas from getting shrubificated and afforested. This way, the reindeer can contribute to the fight against climate change. Forbes and his colleagues also collect long-term data on this.

For decades, Forbes has invited local populations and indigenous peoples such as Nenets, Inuit, and Sámi to share their experiences. He wants to keep the dialogue between reindeer herders, indigenous peoples, politicians, and scientists as extensive as possible.

Dialogue and cooperation between the different groups are essential to combat climate change and adapt to it, especially in the Arctic region.

Forbes names research professor Florian Stammler as one of his closest colleagues. Stammler has also done a lot of fieldwork in Russia. With him, Forbes wrote his first research article twenty years ago. Among his other colleagues in the Arctic Centre, Forbes mentions Minna Turunen, Sari Starck, Sirpa Rasmus, Mia Landauer, John Moore, Markku Heikkilä, Philip Burgess and Nicolas Gunslay.

– Finland has a lot of knowledge of Arctic research. The more we can work internationally, the better.

Text and picture: Johannes Roviomaa