Glaciers and Society: Ethnographic Approaches

Posted by on Feb 19, 2015

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People living in the proximity of Andean glaciers. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

People living in the proximity of Andean glaciers. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

By Mattias Borg Rasmussen and Karine Gagné

According to the 2007 Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the decrease of glaciers is a nearly worldwide phenomenon. But how do local communities experience and comprehend melting glaciers?

A range of anthropological studies have examined the relationship between glaciers and societies. While glaciers can be depicted as elements of the landscape and their retreat connected to water excess and scarcity, as demonstrated by Drew (2012) with the case of the Gangotri–Gaumukh Glacier in North India and Cruikshank (2005) with the case of the Mount Saint Elias ranges where Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon Territory meet, glaciers also form part of local worldviews and cultural systems. Therefore, glaciers also provide an entrance point for understanding how environmental change is dealt with by very different societies. Glacial retreat is not only a matter of aesthetics and resource management: changes in the qualities of the landscapes have deeply felt implications for the cultural lives of those living nearby whose material and spiritual lives are entangled with the rhythms of the glaciers. Such unsettled relationships are further disturbed as the melting ice draw in new actors and agendas for either mitigation, adaptation or economic development.

Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

In these encounters around the melting ice there is a friction or tension between Western representations and local people’s views of glaciers. Western science and standards have served as mechanisms to redefine glaciers, valuing them for their aesthetic dimensions, exploiting them for income-generating activities, protecting societies against increasing danger, or using them as scientific laboratories. Thus, the retreating glaciers draw together actors on different scales.   Conceptualizations of glaciers are rich and diversified across cultural settings. In their studies conducted in Nepal, Agrawala & Van Aalst (2008) and Kattelmann (2003) have shown how this must be taken into account when actions for adapting to a changing environment are designed.

Three farmers in a village called Nimoo, North India. Source: Karine Gagne

Three farmers in a village called Nimoo, North India. Source: Karine Gagne

The knowledge of communities that live in the proximity of the glaciers is fundamentally empirical as the meltwater feed directly into local livelihoods. As their crops are dependent on stream flow for irrigation, farmers in mountain communities are sensitive observers to changes in water availability as demonstrated by Meenawat & Sovacool (2011) in Bhutan and Banerji & Basu (2010) in North India. In addition to this, glaciers can be central to the ways different peoples narrate their place in the world. In other words, glaciers are part of local ontologies and cosmologies, transcending the representational character of landscape. For some communities, because they have a sacred character, these glaciers compel a set of prescribed behaviors, like Byg & Salick (2009) have shown in their research in Tibet and Frömming (2009) in her research on Mount Kilimanjaro. Transgressing local rules is seen as a key factor in triggering the movement of glaciers and, consequently, the movements of glaciers are often seen as the result of an encounter between different worlds and different values: as local worlds are disrupted by outside influences, glaciers move and may generate natural hazards.

Before visiting new places or crossing dangerous territory, one must pay offerings to the earth beings. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

Before visiting new places or crossing dangerous territory, one must pay offerings to the earth beings. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

These encounters mean that glaciers are infused with new meanings that may well interfere with how they are valued in local cosmologies. As Purdie (2013) has demonstrated in her study in New Zealand, tourism, for example, has transformed glaciers into sites of great economic importance. But the proximity to the glaciers so valued among tourists contrasts with local taboos that prevail among many societies that attribute a sacred character to glaciers. The same goes for the new lucrative economic activities that glacier retreat has opened up to in different parts of the world as demonstrated by Carey et al. (2012) in their study in the Andes. For both, greater national and international attention and value is given to glaciers which are associated with economic activities. This in turn has led to a lack of understanding of how local communities ascribe cultural value to the glacier. Along similar lines, there is a more concerted reaction from regional and national decision-makers for adaptation to receding glaciers that generates income than glaciers on which small-scale farmers depend.

An artificial glacier in village Nang. Photo: Karine Gagne

An artificial glacier in village Nang. Photo: Karine Gagne

A central point in the studies of the relationship between glaciers and societies is that glaciers are never just elements of the natural landscape detached from human societies. Glacial retreat therefore has profound influence not only in economic or aesthetic terms, but also in the ways in which people around the world engage with their environment. Beyond mere indexes of climate change, glacial retreat is about deeply felt changes in cultural and social worlds.

Read more: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wcc.315/abstract

 

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