Indigenous Activist Among Those Killed In Iran’s Takedown of Civilian Airliner

For centuries the Qashqai people of Iran have been stewards of the pastures and forests of their mountain homelands. Last week, researcher and PhD student Ghanimat Azhdari, a global steward of Qashqai culture as well as mountains, perished when Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines jetliner, killing all 176 people on board. The accident occurred during the most recent period of military provocation between Iran and the United States.

The Qashqai are an Indigenous group of nomadic pastoralists in southwestern and central Iran that tend to herds of goats and sheep. Born the daughter of a local Qashqai leader, Ghanimat Azhdari was a PhD student at Canada’s Guelph University, where she worked on using satellite imagery to map Indigenous cultural sites. She hoped this would foster bottom-up conservation efforts centered on Indigenous knowledge and support. She was 36 years old.

Ghanimat Azhdari, in a dress sewn by her mother, at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Egypt in November, 2018. She was killed on January 8, 2020 when Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 was shot down over Iran. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

“She was always smiling, often buoyant, and with quite a contagious enthusiasm,” Marc Foggin, a Canadian conservation biologist, told GlacierHub. Foggin works with local communities in Kyrgyzstan and was a friend and colleague of Azhdari’s.

“Sometimes she might have felt the weight of the magnitude of some of the challenges faced,” he said, “yet her optimism always seemed to prevail. She regularly brought hope and joy to the room.”

The Qashqai people that Azhdari was a part of are of Turkic origin and––with numbers around 900,000––represent one of the largest surviving groups of nomadic people left in the world. The number of them that remain wholly nomadic, however, is readily shrinking. Many have become totally or partially sedentary as available pastureland becomes developed or degraded, and as their youth move to cities in search of a more modern way of life. Those that do still live traditionally—mostly in southwestern Iran—tend their flocks of goats and sheep at low altitudes by the Persian Gulf during winter, and high altitudes amongst the sparse glaciers of the Zagros Mountains during summer, nearly 300 miles away.

The health of the land, and the ability to travel upon it unimpeded, is thus central to the Qashqai’s very existence. This is what fueled Azhdari’s work to conserve landscapes and preserve Indigenous cultures all over the world. To her, the two were synonymous.

One of her biggest efforts was satellite mapping Indigenous areas around Iran. Much of this work she did through an organization known as the ICCA Consortium, which promotes bottom-up conservation and stewardship of Indigenous lands. The term “ICCA” is an abbreviation for “territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities” or “territories of life.”  

She was a central figure of the organization and her work was well known in the region. “Ghanimat was actively engaged in all aspects of documenting and protecting ‘territories of life,’” said Foggin. “Her name preceded her.”  

Ghanimat Azhdari was a member of the Qashqai nomadic people of southwestern and central Iran. She spent her life researching and promoting Indigenous-driven conservation efforts. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

Azhdari appeared on behalf of the ICCA Consortium at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Egypt in 2018. Speaking to hundreds of delegates wearing a traditional dress sewn by her mother, she implored them to listen to, and engage, Indigenous people in conservation efforts. No one else has a bigger stake in biologically diverse lands than they do, she argued—eighty percent of global biodiversity is found on Indigenous territories.   

In Canada, where Azhdari began working on her PhD last September, she was collaborating with the Miawpukek First Nation to map Indigenous cultural sites in the boreal forests of Newfoundland.

In Kyrgyzstan, where Foggin is based, she participated in a workshop on the anticipated social and environmental impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative through mountain regions of Central Asia. The controversial trillion dollar project is, according to the Chinese government, a plan to build transportation infrastructure in countries around the world—particularly Southeast and Central Asia—in order to “enhance regional connectivity.” Some see it as a move to streamline the flow of goods in and out of China.

“Ghanimat was a loving person,” Foggin told GlacierHub. “She cared so much for people—for her people, the Qashqai tribe, and also for many others in similar circumstances,” he said.

An outpouring of grief across the internet and social media followed the news of her passing. The ICCA Consortium posted a tribute on its website lamenting the “utter disbelief” and heartbreak at the sudden loss of “one of its most cherished flowers.”

Born a member of the Qashqai tribe in southwestern Iran, Ghanimat Azhdari (far right) was well known and respected for her work representing Indigenous peoples and lands throughout Central Asia and the world. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

“A thriving young Indigenous scholar’s life and work has been extinguished,” Dr. Karim-Aly Saleh Kassam, professor of environmental and Indigenous studies at Cornell University, told GlacierHub in an email. “The loss will be felt by all of us—even those who did not get to know her—because we will no longer have access to the insights of this PhD student from Guelph University,” he said.

Foggin recalled the last time he saw Azhdari in person, at the ICCA regional assembly in Yerevan, Armenia this past summer, right before she went off to Canada for her PhD. Their team of about twenty people were there from countries spanning Jordan and Lebanon, through Armenia, Georgia and Iran.

Azhdari was “very much a central figure,” he said, “holding us together; bringing her good cheer and extraordinary knowledge and experience; as well as her positive and always pleasant demeanor.” 

“We miss her so much,” he said. “We will always miss her.”

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How Arctic and Subarctic Peoples Perceive Climate Change

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A map of the study area (Source: Ecology and Society).

Indigenous Arctic and Subarctic communities face social and environmental challenges that could impact their traditional knowledge systems and livelihoods, decreasing their adaptive capacity to climate change. In a paper featured in Ecology and Society, Nicole Herman-Mercer et al. discuss recent research that took place during an interdisciplinary project called Strategic Needs of Water on the Yukon (SNOWY). The project focused on how indigenous communities in the Lower Yukon River Basin and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta regions of Alaska interpret climate change.

Global warming has had a significant impact on these regions, with mean annual temperatures increasing 1.7°C over the past 60 years, according to the study. Rising temperatures are predicted to further change water chemistry, alter permafrost distribution, and increase glacier melt. These changes have had a massive impact on the residents living in the Yukon River Basin and their indigenous knowledge, as well as on the basin itself. For example, the basin’s largest glacier, the Llewellyn Glacier, has had a major contribution to increased runoff. 

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Llewellyn Glacier in the Yukon River Basin (Source: Kirk Miller/Creative Commons).

With environments changing at an ever-rapid pace around the world, more studies have begun to focus on indigenous knowledge and climate change vulnerability. Scientists believe it is important to understand indigenous culture because indigenous knowledge informs perceptions of environmental change and impacts how communities interpret and respond to risk.

The focus of previous studies in the Arctic and Subarctic had been on older generations in the community, whose observations help shape historical baseline records of weather and climate. These records are frequently missing or incomplete. However, as Herman-Mercer et al. explain, the role of younger generations in indigenous Yukon communities is often overlooked, despite younger people driving community adaptation efforts in response to climate change. Additionally, Kusilvak County, Alaska, where Herman-Mercer et al. focused their study, has a median age of 21.9 years, which makes it the youngest county in the United States.

A view of the Pilot Stations (Source: Paul F. Schuster).
A view of the Pilot Stations (Source: Paul F. Schuster/SNOWY).

During the project, Herman-Mercer et al. studied four villages with populations under 1,000 people. These villages are home to the native Alaska communities of the Yup’ik and Cup’ik peoples, named for the two main dialects of the Yup’ik language. These indigenous communities are traditionally subsistence-based, with the availability of game and fish, such as moose, salmon, and seals, determining the location of seasonal camps and villages.

Herman-Mercer et al. interviewed residents to better understand the communities’ observations of climate change and relationship with the environment. For example, the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people traditionally believe in a reciprocal relationship between humans and the environment, which influences how they view natural disasters and climate change. Rather than seeing these events as naturally occurring, the communities believe that environmental events are punishment for improper human behavior. As a result, the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people have cautionary tales of past famines and poor harvest seasons caused by immoral behavior. These tales also contain information on how to survive hardships using specific codes of conduct.

Herman-Mercer et al. relied on three methods to obtain interview participants for the study. First, the researchers had local partners and facilitators recruit members of the communities who were seen as experts. Then a community dinner was held in order to introduce the research team and SNOWY to the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people. Lastly, the researchers used a “snowball” approach in which the team encouraged participants to recommend other people for the study.

Nicole Herman-Mercer explained to GlacierHub that all but two of the interviews were conducted in English. For the two remaining interviews, a translator was used. In order to avoid influencing answers, the researchers refrained from using the phrase “climate change” when speaking with the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people. The research team then sorted the participants into four cohorts based on their ages: Cohort 1 was comprised of Millennials (early 1980s to present), Cohort 2 of Generation X (early 1960s to early 1980s), Cohort 3 of Baby Boomers (1946-1964), and Cohort 4 of participants over age 65 (the point at which a community member becomes an elder).

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Village of Chevak (Source: Kelly Elder/SNOWY).

The interviews demonstrated that all participants observed changes in the environment occurring over a number of years and across seasons. However, older and younger generations had different perceptions of environmental changes and alternate contexts in which to understand these changes, according to Herman-Mercer et al. For example, younger generations believed that the warmer temperatures are part of the norm, while older generations noted differences between current and past climate conditions. In fact, younger generations had to be specifically prompted on their thoughts on how climate has changed, while older generations were generally forthcoming about their views on how climate has changed throughout the decades. Younger generations tended to remark more on other changes related to climate, such as the diminished populations of game animals.

In addition, the reciprocal relationship pivotal to the Yup’ik and Cup’ik communities was interestingly not mentioned by the younger generations. Herman-Mercer told GlacierHub that she is not fully aware of the implications of this finding, but she understands that it will have significant meaning for the future. The relationship between the communities and the environment is still prevalent in the worldview of the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people, but it is manifesting differently within younger generations. For example, historical Yup’ik traditional rituals like giving water back to the Earth are not practiced as before, but the relationship is still part of the culture.

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Village of Kotlik (Source: Kelly Elder/SNOWY).

From a social perspective, the Yukon River Basin communities have undergone very large changes in a few short decades. In that time, many residents have gone from living in houses made from sod to modern homes with running water and electricity. Younger generations in particular have access to technology like smart phones. 

Herman-Mercer told GlacierHub that even older generations are now hunting with the aid of GPS and benefiting from its use. As the study explains, this increased connectivity has occurred more dramatically in these indigenous communities than elsewhere in the United States. With the rising effects of climate change and evolving societal norms, it is unclear how the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people will continue to communicate between generations. However, the combination of the younger generations’ steps towards adaptation and the elders’ perspectives of cultural history and knowledge will be key in helping these communities adapt to climate change.  

In the future, Herman-Mercer believes that technology can be used to spread indigenous knowledge and help communities cope with climate change. She has already witnessed residents taking to digital platforms to share their knowledge and awareness. Historically, the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people have had to adapt to the changing conditions of a harsh Arctic environment. By sharing indigenous knowledge using modern tools, older generations can further teach the younger generations how to cope with climate change.

Roundup: Drone Research, Tianshan Glaciers, and Indigenous Alaskans

Roundup: Drones, Glacier Mass and Vulnerability

 

Drone Research Points to Global Warming

From Pacific Standard: “Aaron Putnam is an hour behind them, hiking with a team of students, research assistants, and local guides. He’s a glacial geologist from the University of Maine, and he and his team are here to collect the surface layer of granite boulders implanted in those moraines that formed at the margins of the glacier…The team hopes that data derived from the rock can tell them when the ice melted. ‘This was the singular most powerful, most important climate event in human history. It allowed us to flourish,’ Putnam says. ‘But we don’t know why that happened.’ Putnam is trying to determine what caused the Ice Age’s demise; the answer could help us identify the triggers that cause abrupt climate change.”

Learn more about how the study of glaciers points to our climate’s future here:

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The research team photographs the landscape near the study’s sampling site (Source: Kevin Stark/Pacific Standard).

 

Central Asia Feels Effects of Global Warming

From Molecular Diversity Preservation International: “Global climate change has had a profound and lasting effect on the environment. The shrinkage of glacier ice caused by global warming has attracted a large amount of research interest, from the global scale to specific glaciers. Apart from polar ice, most research is focused on glaciers on the third pole—the Asian high mountains. Called the Asian water tower, the Asian high mountains feed several major rivers by widespread glacier melt. Changing glacier mass there will have a far-reaching influence on the water supply of billions of people. Therefore, a good understanding of the glacier mass balance is important for planning and environmental adaptation.”

Learn more about glacier mass balance and associated environmental adaption here:

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An aerial photo depicting a sector of the Tianshan mountains (Source: Chen Zhao/Flickr).

 

Perspectives from Indigenous Subarctic Alaskans

From Ecology and Society: “Indigenous Arctic and Subarctic communities currently are facing a myriad of social and environmental changes. In response to these changes, studies concerning indigenous knowledge (IK) and climate change vulnerability, resiliency, and adaptation have increased dramatically in recent years. Risks to lives and livelihoods are often the focus of adaptation research; however, the cultural dimensions of climate change are equally important because cultural dimensions inform perceptions of risk. Furthermore, many Arctic and Subarctic IK climate change studies document observations of change and knowledge of the elders and older generations in a community, but few include the perspectives of the younger population.”

Learn more about the younger generation’s perception of climate change and its impacts here:

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An Indigenous Iñupiat Alaskan family (Source: Edward S. Curtis/Wikimedia Commons).