Climate Displacement: Historic Preservation's Looming Challenge

The impacts of the Earth’s changing climate are at best an abstraction for many people.  But as these changes continue at rates now exceeding many scientific forecasts, some are already suffering its effects – including being forced to leave their homes in search of new places to live.  Some of these effects, such as sea level rise, can put land completely underwater, making it uninhabitable. Others, like drought, make it impossible for people to support themselves. We now have a word for these persons – climate refugees, and their numbers are increasing. What’s more, their saga presages a perhaps even bigger issue, the eventual need for the planned relocation of numerous at-risk communities in the US and around the world.
By many accounts, the international community has been slow to respond to the prospects of large numbers of climate refugees.  Where it has, the emphasis has been on individual resettlement, migration management and humanitarian concerns.  But as entire populations lose their lands, what becomes of their historic and sacred sites?  When not just individuals but communities are displaced, how can their cultures be conserved? Their traditional knowledge retained?  These questions are the domain of historic preservationists and yet mainstream cultural heritage organizations have largely been absent from the climate refugee conversation.
Overall, the looming importance of the climate mobility issue can no longer be ignored. The Paris Agreement produced at COP21 in 2015 recognized this and assigned one of the branches of the UN climate change, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, “to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”  To do this, the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism has put out a call for information related to migration, displacement and human mobility. Whether the enormous heritage implications of these issues will actually be addressed, however, has not been certain. Fortunately, a group of historic preservation professionals from the US and abroad has mobilized to try to ensure that the answer is yes.
In 2015 a coalition of mostly US-based cultural heritage groups, including US/ICOMOS and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, issued the Pocantico Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage.  Importantly, these groups went on record that cultural heritage is a human right, one being put at risk by climate change.  Within the Pocantico Framework, a number of heritage professionals have formed a series of informal working groups to help represent cultural heritage voices and expertise in international climate policy discussions, processes and decisions. One of these groups aims to focus precisely on issues related to human mobility, as well as to climate change and heritage issues centered on Nature-Culture interlinkages, Oceans, the Cryosphere, and traditional knowledge.
The group has issued an open request to heritage practitioners with relevant expertise to make submissions as part of the Warsaw Mechanism process.  Relevant submissions can include information on:

(1) the role of cultural heritage as a tool for integration and social cohesion amidst relocation; (2) the need to preserve where possible and/or document and memorialize the tangible heritage left behind by displaced communities; and (3) the need to conserve the Intangible Heritage, Traditional Knowledge, and movable heritage of displaced persons’ and communities’.

The idea is to get as much information “on the record” as possible both for the work of the Warsaw Mechanism and the historic preservation community’s own database of past, current, and future projects pertaining to cultural heritage and climate mobility.  The ultimate purpose of this effort is to help policy makers understand the relevance of cultural heritage to the displacement and emplacement of peoples and communities arising from climate change and climate change mitigation measures.
These stirrings of the historic preservation community come at critical juncture as recent developments have dramatized the simple reality that the U.S. already has communities being displaced by climate impacts.

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The tiny Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw (IJC) tribe has called the coastal marshlands of southern Louisiana home ever since their ancestors settled there to avoid forced relocation under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  But the close-knit community has begun to disperse as their island slowly disappears and powerful storms ravage what remains. “As the people leave, our culture goes with it,” the tribe’s deputy chief, Boyo Billiot, said during a video news conference in March 2016 as reported by David Hasemyer of InsideClimate News.
Accelerating sea level rise, salt water intrusion and subsidence of the land has caused devastating erosion and flooding, exacerbated further by regional oil and gas development and the shipping industry. The island, about 50 miles south of New Orleans, once covered 15,000 acres, but has eroded to a tiny strip according to a report by Northern Arizona University.  Today, less than a quarter of the original inhabitants still live on the island.  While most resettled in nearby parishes, even the distance of a few miles has diminished cultural knowledge long nurtured by the relative isolation of island life, reported Autumn Spanne in a March 23, 2016 article for the Guardian newspaper.
As the waters swallowed Isle de Jean Charles decade by decade, the tribe reluctantly began to face the possibility of (another) relocation. In 2000, they began drafting a resiliency and adaptation plan to resettle the entire tribe on the mainland, in a location that would offer protection from hurricanes and flooding yet allow them to maintain their tribal cultural heritage, self-sufficiency, and self-determination as indigenous peoples.  Now a $48 million grant from HUD program designed to make communities more disaster-resistant will allow the Tribe to implement its plan. The funding is available because Louisiana was one of 13 winners in HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition. It will make the Tribe one of the first—and so far the largest—populations in the US to be resettled because of climate change.
The ILJ plan is controversial because some have interpreted it as forced relocation said Professor Patty Ferguson Bohnee, a member of Louisiana’s Pointe-au-Chien Tribe who now serves as a Clinical Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Indian Legal Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.  She credits Chief Albert Naquin for working closely with partners and neighbor tribes to garner support and raise awareness and notes that no resident will be required to give up property rights in order to accept resettlement benefits. The plan also includes all of the tribe’s community members in the discussions for the development of the new village, including resources for cultural heritage, she added.
For those assisting the tribe with its move, the relocation serves not only as a way to preserve a community but also as a model for other communities facing the “inevitable” loss of their homes to rising seas, wrote InsideClimateNews.  “We have numerous communities along the coast in danger of losing the land they live on,” Patrick Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development, said at the news conference. “What we can do here is get the community resettled to a place where they will be safe and maintain their culture and create a model for other communities.”
The HUD grant was a one-time award, part of a $1bn Natural Disaster Resiliency Competition. While the agency has other programs for federally-recognized tribes to undertake relocation, they are not intended to cover resettlement of an entire community, Marion McFadden, deputy assistant secretary of grants at HUD told the Guardian in the March 23, 2016 article. Government disaster programs generally support individual, not collective, relocation projects. But this approach doesn’t consider the cultural disruptions that occur when native peoples must relocate in a piecemeal manner, Julie Maldonado, an anthropologist and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a lead author of the 2014 National Climate Assessment chapter on indigenous peoples, told the Guardian.
From Alaska to the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf Coast, the Guardian reported that hundreds of tribal communities are now grappling with how to protect their safety, economic sustainability and cultural integrity as climate change combines with other social, economic and environmental factors to threaten their way of life.  Nor is this a problem only for Native American communities. A new study by researchers at Stetson University and the University of Georgia shows that rising sea levels will jeopardize the homes of more than 13 million Americans by the end of the century.  Florida will be hardest hit while Louisiana is second most vulnerable, according to the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Globally, a number of countries have already confronted climate displacement, especially in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs), places that often occupy high risk terrain, made worse by unchecked environmental degradation. In 2014, an unsuspecting farmworker from Kiribati, Ioane Teitiota, almost became the world’s first official climate change refugee. The subsistence fisherman relocated from his low-lying Pacific island nation to New Zealand in 2007, purportedly to escape the effects of climate change, which will soon make his home uninhabitable. Seeing no legal basis to grant Teitiota refugee status in New Zealand, the judiciary rejected his petition for residency, and the country’s high court sent him back to Kiribati in September, 2015.
The case of Ioane Teitiota illustrates the inadequacy of treating global climate displacement issues as an emergency refugee matter, rather that the planned, phased relocation of high risk communities.  Back in Louisiana, the Guardian reported that the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw reject the label of “climate refugees” that some have attached to them. “You’re talking about people who are employing a sense of agency, who still are empowered in their decision-making and are working to stay together. These terms get thrown out there and there’s this idea of the canary in the coal mine, but they’re not the canary in the coal mine – they’re showing us how to get out” Maldonado was quoted as saying.
Community discussions surrounding resettlement cannot be easy, Ferguson Bohnee said, but Chief Albert Naquin and the people of the Tribe should be commended for having such thought, foresight, and courage to focus on an adaptation plan that will further the self-determination of the Tribe while maintaining tribal customs and traditions.  The Tribe recognizes that without place and community, it will be denied its right to self-determination.  It is only right that there should be funding to allow the IJC to move as a community, she said, so its cultural heritage can flourish and adapt in this changing environment.
While communities like Isle de Jean Charles and others in Alaska and the Pacific may be today’s climate change front lines, an increasing number of communities seem destine to confront the same “choices” they are facing. The Pocantico Call to Action and the UN work on climate change and mobility foreshadowed the difficult work that lies ahead.  Increasingly, US historic preservation professionals will be called upon to help American communities displaced by climate change safeguard their cultures while adapting for the future. Working with our colleagues abroad, some of whom have already taken up this challenge, the time to start that work has clearly arrived.

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Rebecca Snyder
    August 18, 2016 3:38 pm

    Clearly, cultural survival and preservation must become an important factor in any plan for dealing with climate change. Even if the science v. political debate over causes continue, the effect has become undeniable!


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