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Noor Punam is a visiting researcher at the Arctic Centre.

Indigenous knowledge is essential to combat climate change, says researcher

3.8.2021 15:04

Four million people live in the Arctic region, and their lives are changing rapidly due to growing industrial activity and the effects of climate change. The most vulnerable of all are indigenous peoples, who account for about ten per cent of the Arctic population.

As a researcher, Noor Punam, 33, has focused on human rights issues and the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples in the Arctic. She is a PhD student at the Faculty of Law at the University of Lapland and a visiting researcher at the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law of the Arctic Centre.

Previously, she has worked at a law firm in Italy. She has a Master of Laws from the University of Eastern Finland, where she specialised in environmental and climate change legislation and EU law.

In her PhD thesis work, Punam examines the ways of reconciling indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and international climate change legislation in the Arctic region, and the ways the indigenous peoples living in the Arctic are consulted in connection with sustainable development and climate change. She wants to break down the hierarchies of knowledge by combining scientific research with local knowledge.

Local or traditional knowledge may be related to livelihoods, mobility, culture or, for example, cultivation.

– Scientific research and local knowledge must meet to combat climate change and adapt to and prepare for it, says  Punam. 

The indigenous peoples of the Arctic regions include the Sami people living in the northern parts of continental Europe, the Nenets, Khanti, Chukchi and Evenks in Russia, the Aleuts, Yupik, and Inuit (Iñupiat) in Alaska, and the Inuit in Canada (Inuvialuit) and in Greenland (Kalaallit).

Indigenous peoples are connected by a special relationship with the land and habitat that they have inhabited for thousands of years. The peoples are separated from the majority by culture, language, and traditional livelihoods such as fishing, hunting and reindeer husbandry.

Indigenous peoples have been organised politically for decades. This has led to the recognition of indigenous peoples and improvements in human rights. Indigenous peoples are, in principle, entitled to natural resources and land, but in practice, the implementation of their rights varies greatly from country to country.

Indigenous peoples have been actively involved in Arctic policy even before the Arctic Council was established. For example, at UN events, Arctic indigenous peoples have talked about the importance of international legislation from the outset, says Punam.

– The Arctic states understand that indigenous peoples are the most affected by climate change. They must be involved in the drafting of legislation and allowed in common negotiating tables.

Indigenous peoples, such as Inuit and Sami, are very active in the Arctic Council. The Inuit were one of the first to discuss climate change and human rights in the Arctic Council, says Punam.

Indigenous Arctic organisations are Permanent Participants in the Council and participate in the Council’s work at all levels.

However, they do not have the power to decide, but the Council takes its decisions by consensus.
In the future, Punam wants to combine the work of a researcher and climate educator and to become increasingly familiar with the effects of climate change from the perspective of minority groups, including outside the Arctic regions.

Punam intends to continue with the themes of climate change and sustainable development with young people in Bangladesh. She was born in Bangladesh and moved to Finland in 2014. Research professor Kamrul Hossain, who is her doctoral advisor, is also from Bangladesh.

Punam thinks that the people of Bangladesh may be the next climate refugees.

She is involved in the Climate Reality Project, founded by Al Gore, which aims to raise awareness of climate change among non-governmental organisations and communities around the world. Since December, Punam has been teaching a group of sixteen people about climate change and sustainability.

Text and photo: Johannes Roviomaa