Indigenous knowledge to fight forest fires

This text is part of the special Research section: climate issues

In 2023 in Canada, forest fires will devastate an area more than 10 times greater than the average hectares burned per decade in the country. Particularly vulnerable to the consequences of fires, indigenous peoples hold valuable ancestral knowledge. Guillaume Proulx, doctoral student in cultural geography at the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT), seeks to use the knowledge of the Crees of Eeyou Istchee Baie-James in order to develop mitigation measures.

This summer, fires of unprecedented scale and intensity led to the evacuation of many communities in Canada and Quebec. “The Crees perceive very rapid changes in the ecosystem,” explains Guillaume Proulx. There is real concern that old forests are disappearing and ecosystems are becoming more homogenous, i.e. species diversity is decreasing. » A very legitimate solastalgia, while paths taken for generations remain impossible to find after being swept away by the flames.

“The Cree territory has been much more vulnerable for 50 years, as a result of the industrial development of James Bay,” continues the researcher. Mining and hydroelectric construction have led to numerous social transformations, a significant settlement and a change in the built environment. Thus, infrastructures are more exposed to fire and communities have suffered a loss of intergenerational knowledge and contact with the territory.

For example, the Billy Diamond Road, which represents the only road link to many Cree communities of Chisasibi, Wemindji, Eastmain and Waskaganish, in northwestern Quebec, is quickly becoming inaccessible. “The road is closed when the smoke is too strong,” explains Guillaume Proulx. It was less of a problem before, but now everyone lives in the same place. »

The forest, an ally

In this context, the Forest Fire Risk Assessment and Mitigation project in Eeyou Istchee Baie-James comes at the right time. “I first try to see what place fires occupy in the Cree cultural landscape, that is to say what relationship they have with these phenomena,” explains Guillaume Proulx. Finally, I interact with land users and tallymen to learn about the practices used to protect infrastructure. »

In his semi-directed interviews with the Crees, Guillaume Proulx noticed that many still see fires as beneficial, rejuvenating the forest and producing more blueberries. The Crees have developed practices adapted to the fires that have broken out naturally on their territory for thousands of years. Depending on the seasons, they chose their camp based on the risks, particularly forest fires. Traditional burning was practiced, before it was strongly discouraged, this technique being considered dangerous according to our Western conception of safety.

“They have retained the practice of building in sandy places where the trees are less dry, or in areas clear of forest stands,” illustrates Guillaume Proulx. Some users also have the habit of collecting the branches of the black spruce, very present in the North, which litter the paths, firstly to be able to travel there, but also to make the environment less flammable.

During participatory mapping workshops, users themselves identify places valued for community activities, the transmission of its knowledge, its well-being. This information is then compared with more traditional data provided by Hydro-Québec, to analyze the degree of infrastructure exposure. Ultimately, the researcher wishes to put in place adaptation plans for each community, with scenarios adapted to the costs and benefits of the methods used.

When local and global converge

Guillaume Proulx noticed that his speakers spontaneously went beyond the scope of interviews related to risk management to talk about territorial sovereignty. “Without me asking any questions about it, many told me about the flooding of their territory caused by hydroelectric installations, and their little room for maneuver, delegated to external organizations like SOPFEU,” he reveals. We really see that the global impacts of climate change are inseparable from local issues linked to colonialism and capitalism. »

Winner of one of the very first Climate Action grants, Guillaume Proulx hoped to finish his project next year, but forest fires prevent him from doing so. “I had to cancel my trips three times,” he says. If the researcher is happy to have received a grant, he nevertheless recalls the importance of better financing long-term fundamental research, in a more sustainable and less ad hoc or sectoral manner.

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