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Defining Equitable Relocation Planning Efforts

As the adverse impacts of the climate crisis continues to intensify and occur with greater frequency, taking action to adapt has become a dominating issue—globally, nationally, and locally. For the fortunate, adaptation efforts are still a hypothetical exercise, yet for many others, struggling with adaptation efforts and choices are now an aspect of daily life. These communities are grappling with issues such as: climate driven displacement, how to fund adaptation or migration efforts, and retaining culture and community in a different geographic location. Two communities currently confronting the challenges of climate change are the band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe currently residing on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana and the Yup'ik people currently residing in Newtok, Alaska.

“The IDJC case is special, because of all the effort that was put was put in to developing a model community for Isle de Jean Charles to which our tribal citizens could relocate. Many coastal communities are facing times of great change,” said Albert Naquin, Traditional Chief of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe and head of the of the Isle de Jean Charles Tribal Government. “Back when I was a child, we used to ride out the hurricane on the island and not worry about flooding. And now it's basically an open field. So when a hurricane comes, it's like here we are, come and get us."

On September 23-24, 2019, the Resilient Communities Lab (RCL) hosted a two-day workshop aimed at promoting scholarly and practice-oriented contributions rooted in knowledge sharing around experiences with climate adaptation and relocation. Participants at the two-day workshop included members of the Isle de Jean Charles, LA band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe; the Yup'ik people from Newtok, AK; practitioners from the Lowlander Center; Evans + Lighter Landscape Architecture; Unitarian Universalist Service Committee; the Alaska Institute for Justice; Louisiana Sea Grant to MIT; as well as MIT faculty and students.

The RCL is led by Associate Professor Janelle Knox-Hayes and focuses on understanding the systems dynamics shaping the environmental, social and economic impacts of coastal communities, mapping social values of communities in transition, and planning and designing resilient solutions. The lab is establishing relationships with Native American and Alaska Native communities with an aim to co-produce knowledge about the challenges of climate adaptation and relocation, and to help the communities build resilience. The RCL is housed within the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP).

“The resilience of coastal indigenous communities should be measured in the continuance of our identities. Through our histories, our communities have been sustainable, adaptive, and mobile. We maintain social cohesion through: our stewardship of local ecosystems, expressing our cosmologies in distinct languages, and our development of epistemologies informed by traditional ecological knowledge,” said Jean-Luc Pierite, President of the Board of the North American Indian Center of Boston and speaker at the workshop. “We are grateful to RCL for initiating this important conversation with the institute.”

Over the course of the workshop, participants engaged in dialogue and knowledge sharing to better assess and define the challenges to equitable relocation planning efforts. Participants critically examined the opportunities for collaboration across academia, community organizations, and indigenous peoples. Speakers described partnerships for data collection and analysis, design and planning, and working closely with communities to better inform policy. The workshop concluded with discussion of opportunities to further collaborate with tribes working through the complex process of relocating their community due to climate change impacts.

“The relocation of communities will be one of the greatest human rights challenges related to the climate crisis and will also significantly challenge the governance capacity of local, state and national governmental and non-governmental organizations tasked with responding to the needs of these communities,” said Robin Bronen, Executive Director of the Alaska Institute for Justice.

The workshop organizing team was led by associate professor Janelle Knox-Hayes and included Elise Harrington (PhD Candidate), Osamu Kumasaka (MCP student), Sarabrent McCoy (MCP Candidate), Nick Allen (PhD student), and Agustín Cepeda (MCP Candidate).

“Indigenous communities in post-colonial states are often pushed to the margins—politically and geographically. As a consequence, these communities are confronting the leading edge of climate change and the attending political, societal, and geophysical challenges,” said Janelle Knox-Hayes. “Their efforts to confront questions of resilience and sustainability are a harbinger of the looming future for every society. With partners like Isle de Jean Charles, the Lowlander Center, and the Alaska Institute for Justice, the Resilient Communities Lab at MIT is proactively embracing and working to address challenges of climate adaptation.”