Need for the Indigenous in Climate Justice Conversations

Rituraj Phukan

First published in the ‘Journal on the Environment and Society’ on Medium on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People (9th August 2021)
Indigenous communities around the world are at the frontline of a changing climate. Their livelihoods are endangered, their settlements are threatened, and their economies are on the brink of a total collapse. I wish all of this weren’t true. But unfortunately, it is!
According to research, indigenous people, or native settlers, make less than five percent of the global population — roughly 370 million in numerical terms. Distributed in all major continents except Antarctica, these people inhabit some of the harshest environments on the planet. From jungles of the Amazon, to desolate mountains of Tibet, native communities mostly inhabit ecosystems extremely susceptible to major changes in the environment. Most indigenous people today, therefore, are already impacted by climate change. Consider the case of the Arctic, for instance.
Dependent on hunting walruses, seals, reindeer, and polar bears for meat and hide, communities in the upper tundra have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. Europe’s Sámi, one of such indigenous populations for example, have inhabited the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia since the last Ice Age. By herding reindeer, these people have supported their communities and provided for their families. The Inuit, another arctic dwelling community, has mostly survived the harsh winters of northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska by hunting walruses, caribous, and seals. Both these people today, however, are threatened by global warming.
Average temperatures, in certain parts of the Arctic, have risen by 5 degrees C threatening migration patterns and breeding of wildlife. Excessive melting of ice due to climate change has shrunk native ranges of polar bears, walruses, and caribou. Both these factors have now started collapsing arctic wildlife populations that indigenous communities mostly depend on for their survival. As a result, most first settlers in the arctic today find themselves worried about the survival of their families, economy, and culture, all of which are intricately related to the survival of the arctic wildlife.
The case of the Amazon is eerily similar. Nowhere are the indigenous people more threatened than these forested parts of Brazil where invasion of indigenous land by miners, loggers and farmers is rampant. Across the Amazon, exploitative industries run without the consent of indigenous people, agricultural lobbies recklessly clear native forests for beef production, and wildfires induced by climate change burn down huge tracts of forest land. All these factors collectively steal forests of native tribes, make them homeless, and endanger their food security. When natives speak up against such atrocities, they’re shot dead! And when they stay quiet, they die of starvation and homelessness.
The unfortunate series of events is the same on every other piece of land on the planet. In small island nations, indigenous communities have oceans stealing their farms and flooding their homes due to sea level rise induced by climate change. In parts of Africa and Australia, rising temperatures and increased instances of erratic weather leave families with zero crop on their farms, zero food on their plate, and zero water in their waterpots.
At home here in India, everything from climate induced glacial meltdown and floods, to loss of forest cover and invasive vegetation threatens almost all of the 705 nationally recognized indigenous communities. Accelerated melting of glaciers in the Himalayas floods villages of native settlers annually in the northeast and the northern plains. Deforestation for mining and dams steal their forest homes each year in central India. And with climate change picking up, it is predicted that droughts will majorly impact India’s “scheduled tribes,” largely due to receding Himalayan ice pack, extinct Himalayan glaciers, and drop in annual rainfall in certain areas. In fact, these projections get even worse for the Eastern Himalayas where, according to the 2019 Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Report, almost all the glaciers will go extinct by the end of this century. And who will be the worst impacted? Indigenous people!
The truth becomes even more bitter when one realizes that indigenous communities are amongst the lowest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. In fact, in places like Bhutan, native people and their communities are net carbon sinkers. In other words, they sequester other people’s carbon mess! And yet it is really such people who are losing and will lose the most in the climate battle.
Benefits from lifestyles of native people, additionally, aren’t limited to the sequestration of carbon. Most indigenous cultures have lived besides forests, grasslands, mountain, and coastal habitats since the beginning of humankind. They have, over the years, learned about the place of humankind within the intricate webs of different complex ecosystems, and have consequently served the environment well by sustainably conserving it. Several Native American communities, for example, revered the American bison, hunted it in limited quotas, and often migrated along it in the prairies of the Midwest. The grasslands therefore, “back then,” thrived. In comparison, the white settlers “annihilated” the bison, “conquered” the Midwest, and “turned” the prairies into agricultural land. The consequence? America’s infamous “dust bowls!”
Every major piece of a natural ecosystem on Earth, in fact, thrives today solely because of the presence of native communities. If indigenous people from such landscapes are removed, these ecosystems will definitely vanish away.
It is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples today. It commemorates the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations held in Geneva in 1982. It was in December 1994 that the United Nations General Assembly finalized the observance of this day in order to raise awareness of the needs of the indigenous communities. Back then, these communities were recognized victims of social injustices. It is 2021 now. And unfortunately, indigenous people have to fight for climate justice.
United Nations For Indigenous Peoples. (2021, June 23). United Nations For Indigenous Peoples. United Nations For Indigenous Peoples | Indigenous Peoples.
Climate Change ‘Biggest Threat Modern Humans Have Ever Faced’, World-Renowned Naturalist Tells Security Council, Calls for Greater Global Cooperation | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases. (2021). United Nations.
Climate Home. (2014, August 1). Five ways climate change harms indigenous people. Climate Home News.
The Disproportionate Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Communities. (2021, June 9). KCET.
United Nations For Indigenous Peoples. (2016, February 10). Climate Change | United Nations For Indigenous Peoples. United Nations For Indigenous Peoples | Indigenous Peoples.
Buchholz, K. (2020, May 27). Where the World’s Indigenous People Live. Statista Infographics.
The Hindu Kush Himalaya assessment: Mountains, climate change, sustainability and people | HimalDoc. (2019). ICIMOD.
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