Open access

Indigenous-led conservation in the Arctic supports global conservation practices

Publication: Arctic Science
8 February 2023


Amid growing recognition for the role of global conservation initiatives in protecting biodiversity and mitigating climate change impacts, the interest in Indigenous-led and Indigenous-centered conservation in the circumpolar Arctic is also on the rise. Through literature and practice, Indigenous communities in the Arctic are shaping the global discourse around conservation approaches, mechanisms, and strategies, and are challenging colonial conceptions of how lands, waters, and species should be used, managed, and protected. Indigenous approaches, mechanisms, and strategies often differ from those found in the global conservation toolbox and rather focus on local priorities, Indigenous knowledge, traditional practices, sovereignty, and self-determination. Direction on how conservation should evolve and overcome challenges and related burdens is best given by Indigenous communities, scholars, organizations, and governments. Valuing Indigenous knowledge and supporting community-level initiatives, strategies, and practices comes with the benefits of understanding, forwarding, and implementing community priorities, needs, and values through attention and focus on funding, Indigenous-led research and management, and mutual mentorship. In addition to benefiting conservation itself, biodiversity research conducted within Indigenous homelands has the opportunity to serve as a model for how regional, national, and international initiatives best engage with Indigenous knowledge, conservation practice, and policy development in the Arctic and beyond.
As the planet warms, the Arctic and its lands, waters, and species are increasingly focal points of global public and political interest. In response to climate change, biodiversity conservation in its many forms is promoted by international initiatives that touch every corner of the globe and are actively implemented across Indigenous homelands (Garnett et al. 2018; IPBES 2019). However, few people are acutely aware of the Indigenous contexts and colonial histories that shape conservation within Arctic Indigenous homelands, and many communities, researchers, practitioners, and policy makers must grapple with these colonial forces and structures in the design and implementation of conservation efforts (Kashwan et al. 2021). Conventional conservation and management methods such as wide-scale hunting bans, fishing moratoria, bag-catch limits, seasonal restrictions, the broader “wilderness movement”, and the proposal and establishment of exclusionary zones through protected areas are often not in line with Indigenous perspectives and conceptions of sustainable use. Arctic Indigenous peoples have thrived continuously in the Arctic for time immemorial, and continue to thrive to this day within land and seascapes shaped by conservation efforts (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Arctic Indigenous peoples are not separable from the physical, ecological, cultural, societal, and spiritual roles they have in their homelands. Inuit continue to live both within and near formal protected areas, as well as have their livelihoods shaped by conservation initiatives and decisions made at all scales of governance. Many of these places have been actively managed and conserved through use for millennia. (A) hunters take their lunch in the small community of Sarfannguit, situated within the 2018 designated Aasivissuit–Nipisat UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland); (B) students line their practice qajait up on the shores of the 2019 designated Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area in Nunavut, Canada, a protected area roughly the size of Iceland that comes with Canadian $54 million dollars in support for Inuit stewardship programs; (C) a young female hunter takes her dogs out on Kangerlussuaq Fjord, Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), which serves as a major transportation corridor for Inuit hunters and fishers in both the winter and summer months; and (D) a woman eats traditionally dried capelin on the shores of Sirmilik National Park, situated on an island opposite the community of Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Nunavut, Canada.
While global initiatives may facilitate conservation in partnership with Indigenous peoples and vice versa (Garnett et al. 2018; Fa et al. 2020; O'Bryan et al. 2021), they also have the potential to burden communities through externally imposed and colonial conceptions of how conservation should be practiced (ICC 2015; Moola and Roth 2019; Snook et al. 2020; Dawson et al. 2021). These burdens directly impact the connections between nature and Indigenous ways of life, food security, cultural practice, health, safety, and wellbeing by restricting access to lands, waters, and species that have been historically and sustainably used by Indigenous communities for millennia. Additionally, much of the conservation work that has historically occurred within Arctic Indigenous homelands has contributed to the misled, forcible removal, or physical exclusion of Indigenous peoples to protect wildlife populations or preserve “wilderness areas”, and has contributed to the erasure of Indigenous ways of life and use within these areas, or even failure to acknowledge the existence of Indigenous peoples in conservation plans and reporting (Burnett et al. 2016; Bruno 2017; Moola and Roth 2019; CAFF 2019). In some countries, regions, and international conservation programs, this erasure continues to this day and contributes to significant knowledge gaps on whether, and to what extent, Indigenous communities are engaged in the establishment and management of protected areas within their homelands (CAFF 2019).
Global efforts must be cognizant of these external pressures and approach conservation with an openness to mechanisms, practices, and strategies that facilitate Indigenous communities in achieving their own conservation targets and goals. This requires significant understanding of, and attention to the role of Indigenous knowledge, sovereignty, self-determination, and recognized rights and responsibilities in these efforts. This understanding and attention ensures that the practice of conservation is ethically conscious, culturally relevant, and fully knowledge-based, and leads to locally supported and benefited outcomes.

Climate change and conservation in a global frame

Global framings of conservation are often woven into initiatives and negotiations that address climate change vulnerability and adaptation as one mechanism by which biodiversity may be protected from, or made resilient to climate impacts (Constable et al. 2022). Here, conservation refers to many activities, including both western and Indigenous conceptions of conservation that encompass the management of wild living resources, ecological restoration, biodiversity observing and monitoring efforts, and the establishment and management of protected areas through both western and Indigenous practices. Sustainability and conservation are inherently embedded within Indigenous worldviews, and globally, Indigenous communities are recognized for their support of global conservation initiatives through traditional management practices (Nakashima et al. 2012; IPBES 2019; Constable et al. 2022) and are continuing to develop their own motivations and approaches to conservation within modern frameworks (Reed et al. 2020). Decision making in the Arctic is complicated by global external pressures such as increased interest in Arctic affairs by international bodies and non-Arctic states, difficulties in coordination between local and international governance systems, and differences in perspectives and needs at these scales (Huntington et al. 2022).
International initiatives and negotiations such as the UN Decade on Ocean Science, UN Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, Convention on Biological Diversity and related Aichi targets, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, among others, have significant implications for Arctic Indigenous communities, and despite being significant opportunities for forwarding Arctic conservation, were not originally and specifically designed in partnership with Indigenous peoples. The prevalence of intact biodiversity within Indigenous homelands emphasizes the critical role of Indigenous communities in future conservation efforts (Dudley et al. 2018; IPBES 2019; Fa et al. 2020; O'Bryan et al. 2021). Amid growing international recognition for the unique role of both formally and informally recognized Indigenous protected and conserved areas (IPCC 2019; Zurba et al. 2019; Tran et al. 2020) and a global interest in identifying existing Indigenous effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs), so too are there opportunities to facilitate Indigenous-centered and Indigenous-led conservation initiatives. However, externally imposed pressures and long-standing colonial approaches to conservation may also contribute to ongoing burdens for Indigenous communities to engage in conservation (Shackeroff and Campbell 2007; ICC 2015; Dawson et al. 2021; Kashwan et al. 2021). Many institutions, organizations, and Indigenous peoples are calling for the end of colonial approaches to conservation in favor of those that support Indigenous communities (Eckert et al. 2018; Moola and Roth 2019; Witter and Satterfield 2019; Kashwan et al. 2021). These communities around the world are taking ownership of, and changing discourse around, conservation practices, in part in response to externally imposed conservation initiatives and pressures (Dawson et al. 2021), as well as a global elevation of the importance of decolonization (Kashwan et al. 2021), self-determination (Dawson et al. 2021; Constable et al. 2022), and the recognition of Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and practices as legitimate mechanisms for maintaining sustainability (Constable et al. 2022). These discussions are of equal importance in the Arctic where Indigenous communities have a long history of effectively advocating for themselves internationally and within the conservation discourse.

Climate change necessitates Indigenous-centered Arctic conservation

A circumpolar perspective and approach to Arctic research, management, and policy is needed to navigate and address these global conservation drivers, climate change impacts, and anticipated changes for Arctic biodiversity. These changes are intimately felt by our Indigenous communities. The 2022 IPCC Report on Polar Regions highlights these changes in several regions including within Inuit homelands where climate change has notably affected sea-ice conditions for safe travel to food sources by Indigenous hunters in Greenland (Nuttall 2020), Canada (Dawson et al. 2021; Simonee et al. 2021) and Alaska (Huntington et al. 2016; Nyland et al. 2017). Similar complications affect hunting grounds in Siberia (Ksenofontov et al. 2017; Mustonen and Shadrin 2021), and in Sámi homelands, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and carbon-intensive economies contributing to climate change have affected access to pasture land for reindeer husbandry (Uboni et al. 2020; Constable et al. 2022). Across the Arctic, additional environmental and anthropogenic shifts in species distributions and dynamics affect intimate connections between those species and Indigenous peoples, and although climate change undermines many subsistence activities including hunting, fishing, herding, and harvesting, Indigenous peoples are resilient and adaptable (Fall et al. 2013; Ford, McDowell, and Pearce 2015; Ford et al. 2020; Huntington et al. 2022).
In the Arctic, motivations around Indigenous food sovereignty and security have uniquely shaped the management and conservation of lands, waters, and species and continue to be a priority area of Indigenous-led and Indigenous-centered conservation efforts. In response to both climatic and non-climatic drivers, Arctic Indigenous communities are leading the conservation of wildlife and critical subsistence resources through management strategies (Gadamus et al. 2015), the establishment of protected areas (Ban and Frid 2017; ICC 2017; Artelle et al. 2019), and the development of biodiversity observing and monitoring programs (Johnson et al. 2021). These collaborative and co-productive approaches are supported by both Indigenous communities and practitioners (Jasanoff 2004; ITK 2018; Raymond-Yacoubian and Daniel 2018; Wheeler et al. 2019; Miller and Wyborn 2020), and position Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous management and conservation practices at the forefront of adaptation. In this vein, Indigenous knowledge is critical for making real-time decisions reflective of conditions on the ground (Huntington et al. 2017). In some cases, Indigenous knowledge provides biodiversity information that is currently unavailable at actionable spatial and temporal scales, for example, identification of preferred habitats of wildlife species during critical life cycle stages (NWAB 2016), the emergence of wildlife-related diseases (Henri et al. 2018), and the detection of long-term marine changes currently beyond the capability of scientific instruments (Mustonen et al. 2018).
While global conservation efforts certainly shape the practice of conservation in the Arctic, so too the unique approaches forwarded by Indigenous-led and Indigenous-centered conservation efforts shape the global discourse on approaches to conservation that address recognized rights and responsibilities, Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, and that are truly ethically conscious, culturally relevant, and fully knowledge-based.

Towards centering Indigenous peoples in Arctic conservation

Many barriers and challenges remain to ensuring that conservation supports Indigenous-centered and Indigenous-led practices. Ensuring that researchers, managers, and practitioners partner ethically with Indigenous communities and knowledge towards conservation action is one of these challenges. Non-Indigenous conservation actors can engage in these partnerships only through demonstrating openness and eagerness to follow Indigenous leadership. Direction on how to overcome these challenges and the related burdens placed on Indigenous peoples is best given by Indigenous communities, scholars, organizations, and governments.
Positioning Indigenous communities at the center of Arctic conservation and facilitating Indigenous peoples to lead conservation initiatives requires an openness to emerging partnerships, processes, strategies, mechanisms, and tools that may look different than those present in the global conservation playbook. While additional guidance for working with Indigenous communities in biodiversity contexts is forthcoming, numerous materials and perspectives have already been provided, including advice for how to work within Arctic Indigenous communities (Pedersen et al. 2020; ICC 2021), how to facilitate and respect Indigenous sovereignty in natural resource management (ICC 2020), and insights that model how Indigenous-led conservation planning processes are scoped (ICC 2017). Across the Arctic, Indigenous peoples are already being called upon to supply critical information to fill knowledge gaps by contributing time, labor, and knowledge to biodiversity research (Higdon et al. 2014), short- and long-term observations (Henri et al. 2018), management (Raymond-Yacoubian et al. 2017; Mustonen and Huusari 2020), and policy (Raymond-Yacoubian and Daniel 2018). Two areas that benefit both Indigenous peoples and conservation efforts are (a) recognizing and valuing Indigenous knowledge and (b) supporting community-level initiatives and strategies.
Indigenous knowledge is underappreciated, underutilized, and subjected to the credibility gap rather than trusted as a valid and valuable knowledge system (Thornton and Scheer 2012; PAME 2016; Pfeifer 2018; Ogar, Pecl, and Mustonen 2020; ICC 2021). Trusting and valuing Indigenous knowledge, traditional management practices, and Indigenous ways of life as sufficient understanding to direct and achieve sustainability are positive steps towards meeting both local and global conservation targets and goals. Thus, prioritizing Indigenous voices and perspectives within conservation design, implementation, and evaluation helps researchers and practitioners alike support necessary adaptations and Indigenous-centered and Indigenous-led efforts. Looking towards existing Indigenous-led restoration and conservation projects that partner science and Indigenous knowledge for effective action (Brattland and Mustonen 2018; Mustonen and Huusari 2020) and meet conservation targets and goals will help to expand the conceptions of how conservation can be practiced more broadly.
Beyond the recognition for Indigenous knowledge and traditional practices, additional coordination is needed to support community-level initiatives and strategies. This includes the necessary funding and support for the identification of community-level conservation priorities, objectives, values, and measures of success, and potential lands, waters, and species that may be good candidates for either additional protection or formal recognition for traditional conservation practices already in place. This may be facilitated by direct funding to Indigenous communities and organizations, support for knowledge engagement between communities, researchers, practitioners, and policy makers both within Indigenous and academic structures, the funding of Arctic observing and monitoring initiatives that employ active hunters, fishers, gatherers, and other knowledge holders who necessarily have valuable knowledge and experiences to contribute to biodiversity conservation, and the creation of formal guardianship programs that support communities in becoming the active managers of particular sites and management programs (Reed et al. 2020). Additional support may be given to long-term mutual mentorship between researchers and community members, research mentorship and improved access to science education for Indigenous youth, support for the employment of youth as linguistic and cultural translators (Pedersen et al. 2020), and support for the transfer of Indigenous knowledge and traditional conservation and management strategies between generations.

Linking Arctic conservation to global conservation

Centering Indigenous communities in Arctic conservation not only contextualizes its practice with the realities experienced by Indigenous peoples, but it also creates the necessary regional relevancy and local legitimacy that is necessary to support these large global initiatives. Global conservation initiatives cannot be successful without linking to local conservation initiatives, targets, goals, and successes that are happening on the ground in real time. Identification and acknowledgement for how Indigenous-led initiatives especially are being elevated into the international sphere signals what kinds of conservation efforts are salient, credible, and desirable in a region experiencing unprecedented changes. Beyond conservation practice, it can be the role of biodiversity research to model how regional, national, and international initiatives should engage with Indigenous knowledge, conservation practice, and policy development.
Conservation will continue to evolve, strengthening the potential for Indigenous partnerships in conservation here in the Arctic, though this is contingent on continuing to grow space for Indigenous perspectives, worldviews, knowledge, and ways of life within broader conservation efforts. Supporting these ways forward should aid in ensuring that Arctic conservation efforts support Indigenous-led and Indigenous-centered initiatives, as well as mutually expand the discourse around how conservation should be practiced as protection against, mitigation for, and adaptation to climate change within Indigenous homelands more broadly. On the global stage, Indigenous communities will continue to shape conservation in ways that challenge colonial legacies and encourage the meaningful and inclusive evolution of its practice.


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Information & Authors


Published In

cover image Arctic Science
Arctic Science
Volume 9Number 3September 2023
Pages: 714 - 719


Received: 30 April 2022
Accepted: 14 October 2022
Accepted manuscript online: 13 December 2022
Version of record online: 8 February 2023


This communication is a contribution to the T-MOSAiC special issue “Terrestrial Geosystems, Ecosystems and Human Systems in the Fast-Changing Arctic”, with publication funding from the Network of Centres of Excellence ArcticNet.

Data Availability Statement

This communication does not include data observations.

Key Words

  1. Arctic
  2. biodiversity
  3. policy
  4. self-determination
  5. circumpolar



International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA
Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, Nuuk 3900, Greenland
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Writing – original draft, and Writing – review & editing.
Enooyaq Sudlovenick
Centre for Earth Observation Science (CEOS), Department of Environment and Geography, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Writing – original draft, and Writing – review & editing.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization: VQB, ES
Funding acquisition: VQB
Investigation: VQB
Writing – original draft: VQB, ES
Writing – review & editing: VQB, ES

Competing Interests

Victoria Buschman served as a Guest Editor at the time of manuscript review and acceptance; peer review and editorial decisions regarding this manuscript were handled by Warwick F. Vincent.

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