“It is a very complicated issue and it is systemic; it extends well beyond the current challenges of climate change. It’s completely tangled with power relationships, with identity issues, with political relationships, with economic hardships and constraints… We have to first think of where are we, who we are, and where we’re going.” – Dr. Isabel Rivera-Collazo
Across the varying contexts, from the Pacific Islands to Louisiana to the Caribbean Islands to Alaska, community land acquisition, within the specific context of the history of lands and traditions, emerges to the forefront of community priorities when faced with climate-driven displacement. Particularly in the context of increasing climate-driven risks, land stewardship and access can mean safety, as well as increasing food security, self-determination, and sovereignty to stay connected and identify with one’s Indigenous roots. Coastal fishing communities in Boriké, for example, face coastal erosion that threatens their homes and livelihoods; communities living in the mountains are threatened by rain and landslides that can disrupt their pathways and access to food and resources. The island is experiencing increasing sea level rise, more frequent intense rainfall events and associated coastal flooding, and saltwater intrusion, along with storm surges and high energy wave action that will likely cause coastlines in Puerto Rico to be submerged or greatly reduced in extent (Bhardwaj et al. 2018; Ezcurra and Rivera-Collazo 2018; Gould et al. 2018; Hopkinson et al. 2008; Mercado-Irizarry 2017).
Elder Nogueras-Vidal and Dr. Isabel Rivera-Collazo, both from Boriké, explain that for the Indigenous communities in Boriké, Bieke, and Culebra (Puerto Rico), it is important to signal the challenging circumstances around relocation or site expansionFootnote 3 as part of climate change adaptation. Indigeneity in Boriké has to be contextualized in historical processes of identity disenfranchisement, and the complex geography of a multiethnic archipelago. Similar to Barbuda (Boger et al. 2019), traditional household tenure in Boriké includes continued occupation on the same location along generations of the same family. This traditional practice however means that many often do not hold legal title to their traditional lands and lack the acquisition power or financial means to either purchase the land they live on or other land where they could relocate to if needed. This reality also impacts their possibility of rebuilding a house after a disaster, as land tenure and title are required for insurance and permit processes.
In addition, Elder Nogueras-Vidal emphasizes that the Indigenous People of Boriké live in pocket communities scattered around the island, where they practice their traditional culture wherever they are able to do so. COVID-19 has dramatically impacted these practices, given that many of their community members are elders at-risk who need to remain safe from infection. Governmental restrictions on gatherings and travel between communities have also disrupted their traditional practices, and technology (including phones, computers, and internet) are not widely available. They are also unable to thrive because of the lack of adequate land ownership, which is needed in order to develop a sustainable and self-sufficient way of life and economy for and by the community. In recent years, particularly after Hurricane Maria, they have experienced land grabs by powerful groups and big corporations, such as Bitcoin (Bowles 2018), and the growing tourism industry which is developing projects within their communities, disrupting and destroying sacred lands and the people’s ancestral legacy. Furthermore, pharmaceutical and other chemical companies have been discharging toxic waste in the air, water, and land for decades, causing major health issues in the island’s population including cancer, diabetes, asthma, birth defects, emotional traumas, and other issues in the surrounding communities.
Boriké (Puerto Rico) is at very high risk due to climate change and the Islands’ geographical location (Keellings and Hernández Ayala 2019). Their people presently find themselves in a constant risk of impact due to more intense and sudden or unexpected atmospheric events throughout the year, such as hurricanes. Cumulative and on-going climate impacts compound the effects of landslides, loss of mountain roads, regular flooding, loss of houses, permanent mold exposure within damaged houses, and coastal erosion, among others (Seara et al. 2020; Butterworth et al. 2017; Ferré et al. 2019; Ramos-Scharrón et al. 2020; Barreto-Orta et al. 2019; Rivera-Collazo 2020). In addition, regular strong earthquakes, thousands of which have been experienced since January 2020, contribute to uncertainty, livelihood insecurity, and overall stress, severely impacting community members’ mental and physical health. There is a real need for the co-development of a mitigation plan that can enable the people to survive the onset of disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, as well as land-loss due to sea level rise, taking into consideration their needs and priorities as Indigenous Peoples of Boriké (Barreto-Orta et al. 2019; Butterworth et al. 2017; Ferré et al. 2019; Keellings and Ayala 2019; Ramos-Scharrón et al. 2020; Rivera-Collazo 2020; Seara et al. 2020).
Similarly, the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians of Louisiana (IDJC-BCC) are prioritizing obtaining land where their community can safely resettle and maintain their cultural integrity, especially given the ecological transformation and impacts that climate change is having on their lands, including flooding due to hurricanes, storms, and sea level rise, which already has and continues to displace families. Sea level rise is increasing the frequency and extent of extreme flooding associated with coastal storms (USGCRP 2017), and hurricane-induced rainfall rates are projected to increase, resulting in increased flooding along the Gulf Coast, including Louisiana (Frankson and Kunkel 2017). Ninety-eight percent of the Island’s 33,000 acres of landmass has vanished due to relative sea level rise, erosion, oil and gas infrastructure, and levee development (Maldonado 2019). The initiative to purchase land has been in the works with the Louisiana government for nearly two decades (IDJC-BCC 2020).
Most recently, the IDJC Tribal leadership’s continued efforts in planning for resettlement included engaging with the State of Louisiana. The State’s proposal for the US Housing and Urban National Disaster Resilience Competition in 2015 included the Tribe’s Resettlement Plan, focused on cultural preservation and reuniting the Tribe, including those who had already been forced to move (Lowlander Center 2015). In 2016, the State was awarded the funding, including $48 million to build the Tribe’s envisioned resettlement (Comardelle 2020). After working to locate the plot of land that the IDJC Tribal Council designated as a safe place where their entire community—not just individual families—could relocate to, the State’s “slow response and improper execution” of the grant, and their last significant amendment (No. 5; see Louisiana Office of Community Development-Disaster Recovery Unit 2019) to the resettlement “made it clear that the IDJC Tribe was no longer a beneficiary of nor involved in the grant process” (Comardelle 2020). As Chief Albert Naquin put it, “The State hijacked [their] project.” The IDJC Tribal Council and many IDJC Tribal citizens have witnessed the State abandon its commitment to support the Tribe’s distinct vision articulated in the funded application and in doing so, undermined the Tribe’s efforts to preserve their cultural heritage, improve their economic conditions, enhance their cultural resilience, and protect their Tribal rights through the resettlement process. The State’s vision for resettlement is proving to be assimilationist, with potential disastrous results in moving people from the coast without preserving and strengthening social relationships and distinct traditional lifeways that have been strained by this imposed crisis of land loss (IDJC-BCC 2019; see also Dermansky 2019a, b; Jessee 2020; Yeoman 2020).
Without protection from increasing land loss, repeat flooding, and storm surges, there has been no other alternative for the Tribe but to move north. The Tribal leadership is looking into other funding sources that may be more supportive of the Tribe’s vision and priorities for their resettlement, to uphold the Tribe as rights-holders with historical ties to their ancestral territory and each other and committed to cultural continuity and future generations of IDJC Tribal family, knowledge, and ways of life. The IDJC Tribe’s cultural survival depends on it (IDJC-BCC 2019). Even with the ecological transformation and challenges experienced through the resettlement process, the Tribe continues to advocate for and work to perpetuate their culture and preserve their place (Comardelle 2020).
For the village of Shishmaref, Alaska, located approximately 30-miles south of the Arctic Circle and home to approximately 600 Inupiat people, Elder Fred Eningowuk articulated how climate change is impacting the land and ocean, from which they sustain life. As Mr. Eningowuk articulated, “The ocean and land are our garden and supermarket and how we survived for thousands of years” (Rising Voices 2015). In recent winters, the temperature did not reach −30oF as it used to; the community has noticed many environmental changes, such as earlier spring ice breakup, later ice buildup, changes in how slush builds on the shores to form a natural wall for the community, melting permafrost, less snow each year, less berries because of changing snow patterns, and erosion because of lack of accumulated snow (Rising Voices 2015). They have also witnessed unusual low tides, as well as high water without storms, signaling the need for localized data on sea level rise (Rising Voices 2016). As a community, they voted to relocate in 1973, 2002, and again in 2016 (Shishmaref Interagency Planning Work Group, n.d.), before a major storm and subsequent flooding leads to further damage, including loss of human life. While they have worked on the relocation process for nearing two decades, they are trying to adapt to climate change, such as harvesting spring mammals 1 month earlier than before.
Considering, in part, a community’s constraints to obtain services in-place once they are ear-marked for relocation (Marino 2015), the word “relocation” was removed through a local election when the Native Village of Shishmaref decided to move. They changed the wording to “site expansion” to enable more projects for the community. For example, since they removed the word “relocation” and used the word “site expansion,” their community has gained a new fuel tank farm, a new health clinic, an expansion to their public school, worked on getting paved roads, a new washeteria, and repairing and upgrading the airport. Nonetheless, they still need money to build an additional seawall to protect their island from erosion, and the community remains, for the most part, without running water, impacting residents’ health. The clinic, school, and washeteria are the only services with running water. During winter, they can drink ice water and during rainfall season, they have that water supply available. However, these water resources are not available year-round; in their home, they have to work for their water (Rising Voices 2018).
Relatedly, in Oceania, Marshallese Islanders and their government have been concerned about climate change and its implications for long-term adaptation. The Marshall Islands and surrounding ecosystem have already experienced warmer air temperatures, warmer sea surface temperatures that lead to coral bleaching, serious flooding, and increasing sea level rise, among other climate changes (RMI 2014). According to Maloelap Atoll Councilman Mark Stege, an atoll adaptation specialist from the Marshall Islands, they have two horizons for adaptation strategies. They are presently in the short-term horizon, which includes coastal and flood protection infrastructure, climate proofing, and strengthening water and food security as well as job resilience. The concern is that many of the smaller islands are already low-lying atolls and have no elevation for communities to move back or up to, thus making it evident that their first line of defense, the short-term mechanisms currently in place, may be their last defense as well.
Relatedly, in the Central Pacific Ocean, Marshallese and their government have been concerned about climate change and its existential implications for their atoll nation (Letman 2018). According to Councilman Stege, atolls are unique in that they have “habitability thresholds” that are extremely finite (Stege 2018). “Our first line of defense is our last line,” he says. A partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is assisting Councilman Stege and his constituents in the remote atoll community of Maloelap to conduct climate variability assessments needed to understand what their best options are for adaptation. Some of the strategies that they have been testing and putting into practice are based on accrued experience and the traditional ecological knowledge they hold. Councilman Stege weaves in support with developing elevation models and wave-driven flooding scenarios on those models, searching for approaches on how to bring together his communities’ traditional ecological knowledge with the Western-oriented approaches. The UUSC is allowing them to determine their own climate research agenda in which they are “looking for ways for the traditional and the modern to come together and inform [their] future adaptation needs…trying to test out the idea of identity” and ultimately producing identity-enhancing flood risk models.