”I am convinced that climate change, and what we do about it, will define us, our era, and ultimately the global legacy we leave for future generations. Today, the time for doubt has passed.”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 24 September 2007
Indigenous peoples and the role they may play in combating climate change are rarely considered in public discourses on climate change. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, is well placed to support indigenous peoples in putting a “human face” on this issue. Hence, it is not surprising that the special theme for the 7th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which will take place from 21 April to 2 May 2008 in New York, is “Climate change, bio-cultural diversity and livelihoods: the stewardship role of indigenous peoples and new challenges”.
The effects of climate change on indigenous peoples
Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, due to their dependence upon, and close relationship, with the environment and its resources. Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by indigenous communities including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment. Examples include:
- Indigenous peoples in Africa’s Kalahari Desert are forced to live around government drilled bores for water and depend on government support for their survival due to rising temperatures, dune expansion and increased wind speeds which have resulted in a loss of vegetation, and negatively impacted traditional cattle and goat farming practices.
- In the high altitude regions of the Himalayas, glacial melts affecting hundreds of millions of rural dwellers who depend on the seasonal flow of water is resulting in more water in the short term, but less in the long run as glaciers and snow cover shrink.
- In the Amazon, the effects of climate change include deforestation and forest fragmentation and consequently, more carbon is released into the atmosphere exacerbating and creating further changes. Droughts in 2005 resulted in fires in the western Amazon region and this is likely to occur again as rainforest is replaced by savannas thus, having a huge affect of the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples in the region.
- Indigenous peoples in the Arctic region depend on hunting for polar bears, walrus, seals and caribou, herding reindeer, fishing and gathering not only for food to support the local economy, but also as the basis for their cultural and social identity. Some of the concerns facing indigenous peoples in the region include the change in species and availability of traditional food sources, perceived reduction in weather predictions and the safety of traveling in changing ice and weather conditions, posing serious challenges to human health and food security.
- In Finland, Norway and Sweden, rain and mild weather during the winter season often prevents reindeer from accessing lichen, which is a vital food source. This has caused massive loss of reindeers, which are vital to the culture, subsistence and economy of Saami communities. Reindeer herders are being forced to feed their herds with fodder, which is expensive and not economically viable in the long term.
Responding to climate change
Climate change poses threats and dangers to the survival of indigenous communities worldwide, even though indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse emissions. In fact, indigenous peoples are vital to, and active in, the many ecosystems that inhabit their lands and territories and may therefore help enhance the resilience of these ecosystems. In addition, indigenous peoples interpret and react to the impacts of climate change in creative ways, drawing on traditional knowledge and other technologies to find solutions which may help society at large to cope with impending changes. Examples include:
- In Bangladesh, villagers are creating floating vegetable gardens to protect their livelihoods from flooding, while in Vietnam, communities are helping to plant dense mangroves along the coast to diffuse tropical-storm waves.
- Indigenous peoples in the Central, South American and Caribbean regions are shifting their agricultural activities and their settlements to new locations which are less susceptible to adverse climate conditions. For example, indigenous peoples in Guyana are moving from their savannah homes to forest areas during droughts and have started planting cassava, their main staple crop, on moist floodplains which are normally too wet for other crops.
- In North America, some indigenous groups are striving to cope with climate change by focusing on the economic opportunities that it may create. For example, the increased demand for renewable energy using wind and solar power could make tribal lands an important resource for such energy, replacing fossil fuel-derived energy and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The Great Plains could provide a tremendous wind resource and its development could help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as alleviate the management problem of the Missouri River hydropower, helping to maintain water levels for power generation, navigation, and recreation. In addition, there may be opportunities for carbon sequestration.
Drawbacks and difficulties of responding to climate change
The potential threat of climate change to indigenous peoples’ very existence combined with various legal and institutional barriers, which affect their ability to cope with and adapt to climate change, makes climate change an issue of human rights and inequality to indigenous peoples.
It is also important to note that enhancing and supporting the adaptive capacity of indigenous peoples will only be successful if it is integrated with other strategies such as disaster preparation, land-use planning, environmental conservation and national plans for sustainable development.
In many instances, adaptation to new conditions requires additional financial resources and the transfer of technological capacity that most indigenous communities do not possess. While short-term adaptation activities are underway, resource and capacity constraints are limiting the implementation of long-term adaptative strategies.
Some mitigation measures may have undesirable direct and indirect consequences for indigenous communities. For instance, biofuel initiatives are a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions may lead to an increase in monoculture crops and plantations and an associated decline in biodiversity and food security. The full and effective participation of indigenous communities is crucial to the elaboration of State-developed mitigation measures to ensure that such schemes do not negatively affect vulnerable communities.
Indigenous peoples who choose or are forced to migrate away from their traditional lands often face double discrimination as both migrants and as indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples may be more vulnerable to irregular migration such as trafficking and smuggling due to sudden displacement by a climactic event, limited legal migration options and limited opportunities to make informed choices. Deforestation, particularly in developing countries, is pushing indigenous families to migrate to cities for economic reasons, often ending up in urban slums.