Indigenous People: The ‘Human Face’ of Climate Change

Rituraj Phukan

Indigenous peoples around the world are often found at the frontlines of climate change and they are among the first to face the direct impacts of warming and rapid changes in the living environment. Indigenous communities are often found to be sharing a close relationship with nature and dependent on natural resources.  Climate change has exacerbated the difficulties already faced by vulnerable indigenous communities, including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment.

Emerging evidence suggests that the livelihoods and cultural identities of the more than 370 million indigenous peoples of North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific are already under threat. The utilization of traditional knowledge for conservation of the natural ecosystems has emerged as one of vital components for resilience development. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples establishes the right of indigenous peoples to the conservation and protection of the environment of their lands and resources.

The Arctic is the fastest warming region in the world, with some places experiencing over 5 degree C rise in temperatures in the past two decades. In the high arctic region, indigenous communities have survived the extreme cold for tens of thousands of years, depending on hunting walrus, seals,reindeer and polar bear. Their economic, social and cultural existence and identity is associated with hunting, as well as herding reindeer and fishing.

The Sámi, Europe’s only recognized indigenous population, inhabit the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, extending across 388,000 square kilometers.The Sámi people have been herding reindeer in the frozen landscapes since the last Ice Age.Reindeer herding is vital to the culture, subsistence and economy of all the inhabitants of these regions, not just the indigenous communities. It will take all of the Saami traditions, local knowledge and methods of land and resource management and local knowledge to adapt to these rapid climatic changes.

The Inuit who live in northern Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Chukotka in Russia are hunters and the changing climate and landscape has forced them to alter hunting and harvesting time. They are worried about the loss of sea ice and extinction threat to animals like the polar bears, walrus, seals, and marine birds that rely on sea ice as habitat.The Inuit culture and relationship are uniquely related to the Arctic ecosystem, and what happens to the species directly affects their future.

Other indigenous people of the arctic, namely, the Aleut in the Aleutian Islands, Gwich’in in North America, Nenets, Chukchi and many others in northern Russia face similar existential challenges. It is expected that the opening up of the High Arctic sea routes and the race to exploit minerals and hydrocarbons of the hitherto inaccessible north will further compromise the survival of the indigenous communities of the region.

Nowhere are the indigenous people more threatened than in the Amazon with the invasion of indigenous land by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil.Across the amazon, extractive industries implemented without the consent of indigenous people are threatening the livelihoods. Deforestation is a major cause of climate change and it is having a profound impact on the indigenous communities of the Amazon basis.

Indigenous communities in Africa, Australia and on the small island nations are facing multiple existential threats. Encroachment, water scarcity, food availability and disease are aggravated by climate change impacts. Rising sea levels may force the abandonment of some Pacific island nations and displace hundreds of thousands. Climate change impacts will likely lead to the worst ever humanitarian crisis, with indigenous communities being the worst affected.

Closer home, in the Himalayan region, the lives of indigenous communities are threatened by glacial meltdown. In the short term accelerated melting of glaciers increases the volume of water flow, with floods and erosions downstream. In the long term, water scarcity has been predicted by several studies, as glaciers and snow cover shrink. The short term and long-term impacts will affect millions of montaneand riparian communities across the Himalayan region.

India is home to about 700 tribal groups which constitute the second largest tribal population in the world after Africa. Many of these communities are forest or fringe forest dwellers, impoverished and dependent on natural resources for sustenance. Loss of forest cover, invasive vegetationand loss of indigenous food sources have emerged as direct threats to the food security of millions.  The impact of climate change on native biodiversity used as food and medicine by indigenous communities is not known.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Climate Change, Sustainability and People put together by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development earlier this year stated that even in the best-case scenario, the Himalayan mountains will lose more than one-third of their ice by the end of the century. The projections are worst for the Eastern Himalayan region, with near total loss of glaciers in the same time period. With rising temperatures and precipitation changes, the implications for indigenous communities will be profound and threats from glacial lakes, flash floods, landslides, erosion and extreme weather events are likely to increase.

Climate change poses a danger to the survival of indigenous communities worldwide, even though indigenous peoples contribute little to greenhouse emissions.  However, indigenous peoples are vital to the creating a dynamic adaptation and mitigation pathway.Involvement of local communities in conserving and restoring thenatural ecosystems is important to enhance resilience.  It is widely recognized that traditional knowledge and solutions must be harnessed for appropriate localized responses to help cope with these challenges. There are many examples of the fact that indigenous people 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.  Planning for the future should include enhancement and support for the adaptive capacity of indigenous peoples integrated with disaster preparation, land-use planning, environmental conservation and sustainable development strategies.

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The author is an environmental writer and climate change advocate with firsthand experience of impacts at the polar regions and across India. He is a member of the IUCN WCPA Climate Change, IUCN WCPA Connectivity Conservation, IUCN WCPA Indigenous People and Protected Areas Specialist Group, IUCN WCPA South Asia Region, IUCN Wilderness Specialist Group and IUCN WCPA-SSC Invasive Alien Species Task Force. He is a Mentor with The Climate Reality Project, COO of Walk For Water and Secretary General of Green Guard Nature Organization. He was a team member on the International Antarctic Expedition 2013 and Climate Force Arctic Expedition 2109. He can be contacted at rrajphukan@gmail.com

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