Gardening clams: Indigenous ingenuity and resilience in the face of climate change

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By Alison Fliss, Freelance Writer

Published December 9th, 2021

Climate change has taken up its position on the world stage as one of the most pressing issues addressed at COP26. The conference was primed to showcase the coming together of the international community to combat the current climate crisis through innovative and intensive solutions.

However, with its lukewarm reception, huge international forums like COP26 have proved to be nothing more than a paltry platitude, focused more on bureaucratic brown-nosing and abstract goals rather than definitive plans. What the world needs are forward-thinking and ingenious ideas to kickstart the path to climate adaptation, revival, and flourishment.

Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples (2014-2020) of Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF) speaking at COP26. | COP26 / Flickr

I now turn to the focus of this article; Indigenous leadership and ingenuity in undertaking adaptive environmental measures. Indigenous communities are vital, ancestral stewards of the world and take care of almost ‘one-fifth of the total carbon sequestered by tropical and subtropical forests (equivalent to 218 gigatons)’.

The stewardship of carbon-sequestering forests, such as the Amazon rainforest, is of the utmost importance, as they act as a carbon sink and are one of the most natural ways to combat climate change. Indigenous lands also ‘encompass 40% of protected areas globally’ and house much of the world’s biodiversity, providing crucial stewardship and protection of vulnerable environments.

With many of these protected areas and biodiversity at severe risk due to climate change, Indigenous communities are also some of the most vulnerable to the effects of our rapidly changing climate. Issues such as ‘food insecurity; displacement as a result of catastrophic flooding, drought, and fires’ are all consequences of climate change that Indigenous communities are particularly at risk.

‘[Indigenous communities] take care of almost one-fifth of the total carbon sequestered by tropical and subtropical forests.’

Colonization has also financially impoverished Indigenous communities and forced them to be reliant on an economic system that largely excludes them. With many of these communities relying on industries such as hunting and fishing to earn an income, climate change proves to be yet another economic challenge.

Despite having extensive stewardship knowledge and responsibilities, vulnerable Indigenous communities have largely been left out of the climate change solutions conversation. This exclusion is due to ‘limited access, power imbalances, and differences in worldview.’

Member of the Sungai Utik community in West Kalimantan, harvesting a tree that will later be replanted. | icooke / Flickr

While Western science knowledge systems rely primarily on ‘facts’ alone, Indigenous knowledge systems emphasize ‘relationships to spiritual and biophysical components,’. They see our relationship to the environment as a reciprocal relationship, where we take care of one another.

Indigenous knowledge systems of environmental reciprocity are one of the key reasons why these diverse communities are particularly adept to climate change resilience and mitigation. One example of resilient environmental stewardship in the face of climate change is that of the Sungai Utik community in Indonesia.

Logging and palm oil companies, both resource industries that have hugely detrimental environmental effects, have continuously pressured this community to allow extraction in their ancestral forest. Despite the potential profit, the Sungai Utik maintained a firm resistance to these industries, arming themselves with ‘stakes’ as they resisted these powerful companies.

‘A way to express our gratitude for having this area is that we need to protect it.’

The Sungai Utik also maintain sustainable forestry practices alongside their resistance to extractive companies. Every year, each family in the Sungai Utik community plants 30 Petai trees and 1000 stems of Agarwood in order to replace the ones harvested and used by the community. This gives the community the ability to maintain a sustainable and cyclical use of resources that provides for generations to come.

As the world faces growing deforestation, we can look towards the Sungai Utik for community-oriented solutions in order to maintain sustainable forestry. They challenge Western and colonial notions of resource extraction and demonstrate what true resistance to climate change looks like. It is important that we centre these knowledge systems as we look toward the future; as a member of the Sungai Utik community so beautifully put, ‘a way to express our gratitude for having this area is that we need to protect it’.

The use of cultural and ancestral knowledge systems can also be found in climate change solutions and adaptations within the Swinomish Tribe of the Pacific Northwest in the United States. The Swinomish Indigenous community lives on the coast of Washington State and relies on important sea species—such as crabs, shellfish, oysters, salmon, etc.—for nutritional, economic, and cultural values. However, with rising sea levels and temperatures due to climate change, the coastlines and sea creatures integral Swinomish ways of living are increasingly threatened.

The Swinomish are facing this challenge head-on and have implemented the ‘Swinomish Climate Change Initiative.’ The initiative aims to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the Swinomish Tribe by implementing a series of community-based environmental solutions. One such solution is the creation of a clam garden.

Clam habitats along the Swinomish coastline are threatened due to increased sea-level rise and wave energy. In order to mitigate this, the Swinomish Tribe is turning to an ancestral practice by building a clam garden in coastal tide areas.

‘Clam gardens also ‘restore [Swinomish] practices and [are] related to [Swinomish] ancestors.’

The clam garden acts to enhance habitat restoration techniques in order to increase the clam population. Courtney Greiner, a marine biologist associated with the Swinomish Tribe, describes the clam wall as a rock wall that is placed along the shoreline and that is only visible during low tide. Sediment and broken shells fill in the space behind the wall, which flattens the tidal landscape to the optimal level for clam production.

Alana Quintasket, a Swinomish Senator, explains that clam gardens benefit not just the clam population but also helps to support different sea creatures in the area and increase the food supply for the Swinomish people. Clam gardens also ‘restore [Swinomish] practices and [are] related to [Swinomish] ancestors'. The act of clam gardening not only mitigates the harmful impacts of climate change but is an act of decolonization and community organizing on behalf of the Swinomish Tribe as they breathe new life into ancestral tools.

Partially submerged ancient clam gardens in Kwakshua Channel, British Columbia | Simon Fraser University / Flickr

As we collectively turn our gaze to climate adaptation, it is important we recognize that Indigenous knowledge systems and communities provide some of the most innovative and holistic solutions to climate change. Indigenous communities are at a high risk of losing key environmental, cultural, and nutritional aspects. Colonization and Western scientific ideology have also largely left them out of climate change solutions and adaptation measures, furthering their marginalization in environmental projects.

We need to move past measly and indecisive climate change solutions, like the ones showcased at COP26. Moving forward, it is vital that Indigenous communities are at the forefront of climate change solutions. In the face of unprecedented natural destruction due to climate change, Indigenous communities are defining what it means to forge climate ingenuity, leadership, and connection.

Featured Image: Hendrojkson | Wikimedia Commons

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