Giving (photo) voice to indigenous people

Posted on Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What do Inuit, the Shipibo and Shawi peoples of the Peruvian forest and the Batwa Pygmies of Uganda have in common? They all depend on the land for their survival — and are therefore all especially susceptible to climate change. Led by McGill geography professors Lea Berrang-Ford and James Ford, a multidisciplinary team of scholars from Canada, Peru and Uganda is working with these at-risk populations to examine what climate change means for their health. The Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC) project is also piloting training initiatives and “bottom-up” interventions to help the communities adapt to current changes. One of their projects is PhotoVoice: Indigenous people were trained to use digital cameras as a way to tell stories about their changing worlds. They created images of stagnant water, of crops that aren’t as bountiful as in previous years, of the food staples in their new diets. “We’re doing climate change research, but we’re setting the term ‘climate change’ to the side and saying, ‘In order to understand this global process, we need to understand how people interact with their local environments today,’” says Berrang-Ford. “This project uses current experiences as a proxy for the future. We are looking at the current and potential adaptive capacities in these communities. A traditional top-down approach might ask, ‘If the temperature changes by two degrees, what would be the impact on Inuit people?’ But we’re asking, ‘What environmental conditions matter most to people’s health?’ It may not be temperature change per se. Perhaps it is a delay in the freeze-up of ice by a week, more frequent flooding in the Amazon, or later rains that delay harvest in the Uganda communities. We can take this information back to the climate models to find out what climate change projections say about how these variables might change in the future.”

IHACC is a five-year, $2.5-million initiative funded by the International Development Research Council (IDRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

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