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Linking Ecosystem Services with Livelihoods and Community Well-Being


The livelihoods of Alaskan rural indigenous communities depend strongly on regional and local ecosystem services, the benefits that people receive from ecosystems. The interaction between ecosystem services and livelihoods in Alaska is especially important in rural areas, the home of 15% of the state’s population and 60% of its indigenous residents. Rural villages are situated in relatively undisturbed ecosystems, with almost no road access, conditions of persistent poverty, and a high dependence on harvested fish, wildlife, and plant resources. These harvests contribute to indigenous peoples’ strong traditions as hunters, gatherers, and fishers.

Rural residents of Alaska’s northern latitudes are now experiencing firsthand the effects of both climate change and landscape changes from oil, gas, and mineral development associated with a changing global economy and rising fuel costs. These changes have implications for many aspects of rural livelihoods, such as subsistence wildlife harvesting and food security; government transfer payments and other cash inputs; fuel costs; indigenous cultural traditions and continuity; and perceptions of community well-being.

Past research in rural Alaska focused primarily on disciplinary studies in areas such as climate change science, wildlife biology, landscape ecology, food security, and social network analysis. What is currently needed are new frameworks that view rural Alaskan communities as integrated systems of people and nature that respond resiliently to external drivers of change in ways that provide for long-term sustainability.

To understand the resilience of Alaskan rural communities to global change, research of the Resilience and Adaptation Program has sought to identify processes that influence how global changes affect rural livelihoods, human adaptation, and well-being. These studies integrate social and natural science to develop and test new frameworks and methodologies for studying changes in rural Alaskan communities and the ecosystems with which they interact.

Climate-change impacts on Northern vs. Interior Alaskan Villages Thawing of permafrost: Interior Alaskan settlements are exposed to thawing permafrost because of permafrost temperatures are close to the thaw point, causing collapse of buildings and roads. North Slope communities also experience some problems, including thawing of ice cellars that have traditionally been used to store harvested whale meat and other wild foods. Storm Surges: Strom surges are problematic to many coastal communities of rural Alaska, with several villages facing imminent relocation and others needing to relocate key infrastructure facilities (e.g., airport). RAP research has identified efforts by communities to initiate their own relocation and institutional deficiencies for village relocation efforts and confusion over the responsibility of government agencies. Lightning Events – Interior Alaskan residents as well has those on the North Slope observe more frequent lightning. In Interior Alaska the increase in fires has implications to use of traditional trails, abundance and distribution of resources, local employment (because many village residents work on fire fighting crews), and the safety of infrastructure and human life. In 2008 lightning caused the Anaktuvuk River Fire, the largest tundra fire in recorded history. This caused concern in North Slope villages because of its possible impacts on caribou. Overall shifts in Seasonality: Earlier break up of rivers and later freeze up, and changes in timing of snowfall and snowmelt reduce the ability of local residents to travel the land in search of food safely and therefore have implications for food security and human safety.

Modeling future conditions with local knowledge and western science: Interviews with village hunters and elders document local knowledge on the effects of climatic change on key wildlife species harvested for food in four Alaskan communities. This local-knowledge perspective complements information from western science in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. These two knowledge sources are integrated in a rule-based simulation model that draws on high-resolution (1 km) scenarios of climate change to generate spatially explicit projections of changes in abundance and availability of key wildlife species. In general, local knowledge provides greater insight to conditions influencing animal locations on the landscape and hunter access to animals, whereas western science provides a more informed basis for predicting the effects of climate on animal abundance. Future research will test the use of models as discussion tools with community residents for adaptation planning.

Social networks as a source of community resilience. Social networks are one way to describe the patterns of sharing among households in a community. Our analysis of social networks describes characteristics of sharing and cooperation in one Interior and one North Slope community. An initial analysis of sharing networks in the north-slope community revealed four types of households. Households with the most money and representation from more generations harvested the most wild foods and shared this with the largest number of other households. Whaling activities were particularly important in the sharing of foods among households, with whaling captains serving as central sources of sharing. Much to our surprise, the level of sharing in an Interior Alaskan community, which has fewer subsistence resources available to harvest, showed similar levels of sharing among households.

Address Goals

Meeting NSF strategic goals Discovery and conceptual advancement Subsistence Resource “Availability”:
Although the concept of ecosystem services is an important contribution to sustainability science, it is typically described in terms abundance of resources. However, for subsistence harvesters of rural Alaskan communities, changes in ecosystem services are better expressed as a complex of interacting social and environmental conditions. Our previous and current research has developed framework for assessing changes in resource “availability” as defined by three variables – a) abundance, b) distribution and movements; and c) harvesters’ access to resources. The three-part availability definition differs from conventional wildlife management efforts, which are typically focused exclusively on abundance. With the likelihood of future climate change affecting ecosystem services, there is a need to broaden agency assessments to consider this full suite of factors. The use of the availability framework in our research has been successfully applied in four rural communities, two on the North Slope of Alaska and two in Interior Alaska, focusing on keystone subsistence resources.

Accounting for and reframing Subsistence Sharing:
The harvesting of resources is only one element of subsistence-based rural communities’ economies. Another element is the social processes by which residents cooperate in harvesting and processing wild foods and share labor and resources (including time, money, and equipment). Sharing is a common feature of all hunter-gatherer societies, functioning to buffer against times of resource scarcity and provides a means for division of labor. In contemporary Alaska, the act of sharing is also a cultural marker and source of cultural identify. In the case of Bowhead whaling, formalized Nalukataqs (sharing rituals done after the harvesting of a whale in which there is full community participation) reinforce sharing as a cultural practice. We have undertaken research in three Alaska villages to understand the structure of social networks of sharing, the magnitude of resource flows through sharing, and the vulnerabilities of these systems to forces of change. One of the conceptual contributions of our research is differentiating in types of sharing and the distinction between sharing and “shares.” Whereas sharing is the gifting of resources and services with no expectations of balanced reciprocity, shares represent an obligation to contribute to the recipient, as is the case of the whaling captains and crew with the Nalukataq. Past research on subsistence sharing networks in rural Alaska has not captured this nuanced but important difference. The research from this project provides a new way of framing sharing and a method for its quantification.

Methodology and Learning:
One of the challenges of doing research on impacts of global change on rural communities in northern Alaska is partnering with residents to achieve good local support and mutual learning. These objectives are particularly important in rural Alaska where there is a history of mistrust of researchers by local residents in some regions, a need by science to document traditional ecological knowledge, and the goal of contributing to adaptation planning at the local and regional levels. The Ecosystem Services and Sharing Projects have each strived to achieve successful partnerships with study communities by using methods that go beyond the standard Institutional Review Board approval processes. Methods that have proven particularly successful are listed below and stand as advancements in the practice of successful community research.

Since so many of the Resilience and Adaptation Program (RAP/IGERT) students are working with communities as a part of their dissertation projects, these methods have been incorporated into the curriculum.

  • Negotiation and agreement of a MOU with each community outlining the terms of research before studies are initiated.

  • Formation and regular interactions of a Local Community Steering Committee for the project that advises the project team leaders on appropriate field methods.

  • Hiring and training of local research associates who actively participate in data collection.

  • Financial compensation to key respondents at a level that acknowledges their contributions but does not create perverse incentives.

  • Rapid production of “draft reports” that are disseminated to all respondents and community leaders. Residents are invited to meet with researchers to review findings and add to the information. The success of these methods is illustrated by the Sharing project. By November 2010, that project’s fieldwork (an extensive interview administered to all community household heads) was completed in two of the three communities, with a response rate of over 90% of the households. The data from this research probably constitute the most complete socioeconomic household dataset for any Alaskan village and will serve as the basis for many future analyses. The Ecosystem Services Project also achieved a high level of interest by residents, evidenced by participation in follow up meetings and feedback on draft reports.