Climate change is coming home, and some have no choice but to get out of the way.

Last year in Alaska, with its coast thawing and eroding away, the town of Shishmaref voted to relocate. The village of Newtok, Alaska is seeking federal disaster relief to fund its move. In the Louisiana bayou, the native Isle de Jean Charles tribe has lost 98 percent of their land to the sea. It, too, is looking to move.

“Community displacements due to climate change are about so much more than moving possessions and finding new homes,” Maxine Burkett, a law professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, said in a press release. “They uproot entire communities and tear at the fabric of life while threatening cohesiveness and culture, as well as doing harm to individuals, families and businesses. However, migrations and relocations don’t have to be chaotic if communities have the funding and other resources needed to take advantage of tools for acquiring new land and reestablishing their communities in safer, more secure areas.”

Moving entire communities is no simple task, so successful relocations will need to draw on a range of legal and policy tools. That’s the message from a report co-authored by Burkett and published by the Center for Progressive Reform, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit group with a nationwide network of member scholars.

The report, Reaching Higher Ground: Avenues to Secure and Manage New Land for Communities Displaced by Climate Change, reviews strategies communities can use to acquire and govern new land while preserving the heritage of the places they’re forced to leave behind.

Securing Land

One big challenge is securing new land for relocation. If communities can find ways to raise revenue, for example by taxing local businesses, they can buy land outright. Or communities might seek out government grants and loans.

Some funding is available through federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Last year, the Isle de Jean Charles tribe won a US$48 million federal grant, the first of its kind, to help with relocating inland.

Communities can also head to Congress. In 2010, for example, Congress allocated over 400 acres (160 hectares) of upland area to the Hoh Indian Tribe, a small coastal community in Washington state threatened by eroding land and rising seas.

“Native communities are the first and worst hit when it comes to this relocation issue,” says Burkett. Tribes can investigate whether they have historical claim to areas suitable for relocation. Such investigations may provide grounds for litigation aimed at repossessing these lands. Communities may also consider entering tribal lands into a federal trust.

Governing Land

After securing land, communities must rebuild. In the wake of resettlement, how can communities manage infrastructure and land for the benefit of all?

One path the report outlines is to incorporate as a city or town, which gives communities power over zoning and taxes, as well as enhanced eligibility for government grants. Another option is to form nonprofit community organizations like homeowners associations and community land trusts. Through such groups, people can manage common property and even buy new land.

Whatever kind of legal entity guides resettlement, groups can use legal tools to ensure an orderly transition. The report notes, for instance, that “[c]ommunities can influence land use, development, and ownership by placing legal conditions in property deeds” such as prohibitions on pollution or a ban on forest clear-cutting.

Communities might also use property deeds to maintain future integrity. They might, for instance, write deeds giving landowners lifetime ownership of a given parcel with control returning to the community after the owner dies. A deed could also give the community the right of first refusal for purchasing land back before it is sold to another entity.

Preserving Land and Culture

The report underscores the importance of equity and self-determination for relocating communities.

“We see climate impacts happening, and specifically relocation, happening first to communities that themselves have had a very fraught relationship with relocation over time and historically,” Burkett says. “There are multiple layers of justice, equity and fairness that we have to think about.”

Beyond concerns about what will happen to an area’s natural resources, the report notes, people’s identities are intertwined with the places in which they live and which are part of their history.

“Purchasing land and moving inland is fine,” says Chantel Cormardelle, executive secretary of the Isle de Jean Charles tribe. “But finding a mechanism to properly preserve the land that you’re leaving in a culturally appropriate way is first and foremost.”

The report notes that rights to resources such as minerals and timber can be separated from rights to own the land’s surface, opening a door for communities to sell land without losing access to economically important raw materials.

To help communities retain selected land rights the report recommends easements, which can guarantee ongoing access to land or the preservation of natural features and historic structures. For tribes, historical treaties may include provisions allowing members to use traditional lands for subsistence, provisions that can provide a legal basis for continued access to lands left behind.

Communities can also work to have such rights legislated. Near the Bering Sea, for example, residents of the native village of Newtok, faced with relocation, were able to secure legislation retaining their right to fish, hunt and gather on traditional lands.

Proactive Planning

Climate relocation is complex. While options abound, many are limited in scope and potential, requiring intensive coordination and creative problem solving. And, with disaster constantly looming on the horizon, pressure is on to prepare sooner rather than later.

“Every passing hurricane season, our community is at risk for a storm to come and just wipe it out,” says Cormardelle. “You just sit on pins and needles until after the hurricane season finishes, and then you can breather a little bit easier until the next one. It is a constant worry, but at the same time, we’re trying to be as proactive as we can to put things in place.” View Ensia homepage