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Arctic Labrador plant life echoes long human presence

The beach pea, Lathyrus japonicus, is an edible plant that tends to grow near stone tent rings at historic campsites around Makkovik, Labrador, suggesting a long term association with humans in the area.

Erica Oberndorfer

How much of Canada's Arctic biodiversity is the work of nature and how much is the result of human activity?

The question forms the backdrop to an intriguing study of a coastal community in Labrador and the plant life that has sprung up around it.

Erica Oberndorfer is an ethnobotanist with the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Her research focuses on the relationship between plants and people in Makkovik, an Inuit village with a population of about 350 that is located about 200 kilometres further north.

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While the prevailing vision of the Arctic tends to be that of a vast and primordial wilderness, Dr. Oberndorfer says a more accurate picture is that of an intricate web of connections that have formed between the land and those that have inhabited it for many centuries.

"The Arctic is a peopled place," Dr. Oberndorfer told colleagues at a meeting on Arctic biodiversity in Ottawa on Friday. And though the growing season is far shorter and the population density much lower than most places in the Americas, the plants of the North still carry the legacy of human activity over generations.

To understand this better, she has been regularly meeting and walking with "plant mentors" in Makkovik, often elders in the community with deep knowledge of where certain species in the area are found and how they are used. The associations are more than utilitarian. They are filled with rich information about how individual families have existed on the landscape in the area and interacted with the wildlife ever since "them days," a Labrador expression for times past.

Such stories provide a fountain of details about local ecology and about the subtle ways that the region's indigenous inhabitants have come to shape the ecosystems they dwell on.

As one example, Dr. Oberndorfer cites the tradition of harvesting seabird eggs for food around seasonal fishing homes. Over time, the once-discarded egg shells from this practice have enriched pockets of soil with calcium and other minerals, which in turn has affected the makeup of the plants that grow there. Fish and seal bones, also deposited by people, have played a similar role.

These relationships are now in a state of change as lifestyle shifts mean that people more likely to be living in permanent homes in the community and spending less time on the land. But other effects are more enduring, including transplanting species for practical or aesthetic reasons – practices that are echoed by cultures around the world.

"It seems we have this universal connection to plants and that is really a bridge between people of different regions," Dr. Oberndorfer said.

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Dr. Oberndorfer is working on a book that details the human-plant relationships in the Makkovik area and draws extensively on local knowledge. The project could serve as a template for the kind of documentation that will help track the future impact of climate change and related effects, such as invasive species.

Such changes were at the focal point of the conference organized by the Canadian the Museum of Nature to highlight the need for a better understanding of Arctic biodiversity, an event that played off the theme of Canada's 150th birthday this year.

"We know that the Arctic in 150 years is going to look very different than it looks right now," said Mark Graham, vice-president of research and collections at the museum. "We wanted to look ahead and ask if Canada is prepared to assess, monitor and understand those changes."

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