Northeast British Columbia and northern Alberta are landscapes buzzing with power. This region, which includes the infamous Alberta oil sands, is driven by energy extraction and production. Oil and gas pipelines, mines, transmission lines, and hydroelectric dams blanket the land. This same landscape is home to dozens of aboriginal nations and communities, whose ability to carry out what they term cultural or traditional practices has been severely impacted over the past century by large-scale energy development.
This booming energy economy is made possible by the exercise of state and institutional power to create regulations and approve projects that alter and define economies, environments and social relations throughout the region. Central to state-backed energy development is the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process, through which scientific studies are conducted to determine an energy project’s likely risks and benefits. These studies are used to inform state approval or rejection of these projects. In many cases, aboriginal communities near proposed project sites bear the brunt of the risks and negative impacts associated with energy projects. However, their rights and interests are often given only cursory consideration in the EIA process, despite federal and provincial policies requiring “meaningful consultation.”
For the past four years, I have worked as an anthropologist with a natural resources consulting group in British Columbia. My colleagues and I are hired by aboriginal communities to provide research support as they navigate EIA processes for energy projects on their territories. Frustrated by state and industry attempts to direct and limit their involvement in the EIA process, our clients are engaging in community-driven research to document the places, practices and meanings they associate with cultural and traditional use on their lands, and to assess the potential impacts of energy projects on cultural life and health. These community-led studies, often called traditional land use (TLU) studies, are conceived and carried out primarily by local people, and their findings frequently fly in the face of industry claims that a project will result in negligible impacts to cultural resource use.
TLU studies are much more than inventories and anecdotes; they are methodologically robust, highly politicized processes for defining relationships between people and land, and authenticating (and delegitimizing) knowledge. The flexible-yet-rigorous methods that anthropology brings to bear are well-suited to community-based TLU studies that require an immediate need to meticulously document local knowledge and practices, and assess potential impacts. The methods we use in TLU studies are similar to methods used in other anthropological studies. The work is iterative and typically involves structured, in-depth interviews, a quantitative questionnaire component, and mapping exercises with identified traditional land users or knowledge holders. The most rewarding aspect of my work is training local people in qualitative data collection methods. Advisors use base maps to indicate points, lines and polygons where they have participated in, or have knowledge of traditional land use. They describe the people, species, practices and timelines associated with each site, and the local meaning or value of each. Ideally, these sites are GPS-verified during a follow-up “ground truthing” phase where advisors visit field sites with community researchers. The result is a searchable database comprised of linked spatial and aspatial data (maps and interviews) that communities can query to make determinations about the potential impacts of development projects on their lands. These assessments are then communicated to industry and government in order to inform the EIA process.
Although critics (quite rightly) assert that aboriginal knowledge is not afforded equal consideration to conventional scientific studies in the EIA process, the terrain of aboriginal consultation and environmental assessment is slowly changing in Canada. Through my work, I have seen that there is real power in the application of anthropological methods to TLU studies and community decision-making. At a recent gathering of industry representatives and aboriginal land users in northern Alberta, community leaders presented data from a recently-completed TLU study carried out in reference to a proposed pipeline project. The presentation included a series of maps depicting the locations where community members had engaged in traditional use activities overlaid with a map of the pipeline route. The result was a powerful decision-making tool that the community was able to leverage to protect their rights and interests on the land.
Gretchen Fox, of CTQ Consultants, Ltd., holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She uses her experience with qualitative methods, data analysis and community planning to support aboriginal clients in their roles as decision-makers on their lands.
Wendy D Bartlo and Antonio Chavarria are contributing editors of Anthropology Works.