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Indigenous peoples have been largely excluded from discussions about climate change, but in many ways they hold the key to the problem.

Bhola Island in Bangladesh is rapidly shrinking as the water rises around it. Photo by Gary BraaschBhola Island in Bangladesh is rapidly shrinking as the water rises around it. Photo by Gary Braasch I

n living off the land and gaining knowledge through their relationship with the land, indigenous peoples have been observing the effects of global warming firsthand for decades and have been developing coping strategies. They have observed changes in temperature, changes in the amount and quality of rain and snow, and changes in seasons and natural cycles. Among the impacts of global warming on their lands and lives are these:

  • More diseases associated with increasing temperatures and vector-borne and water-borne diseases such as cholera, malaria, and dengue fever;
  • Worsening drought conditions and desertification, leading to increased numbers of forest fires that affect land use, subsistence agriculture, and hunting and gathering livelihoods, and that bring about a serious loss of biodiversity;
  • Excessive rainfall and prolonged droughts, resulting in more occurrences of dust storms that damage grasslands, seedlings, and crops, including livestock of pastoralists and nomadic indigenous peoples;
  • Coastal and riverbank erosion and rising rivers, caused by higher temperatures, thawing permafrost, and melting mountain snow, glaciers, and sea ice;
  • Reduced populations of animal species due to warmer temperatures; new marine species due to warmer seawater; and changes in animal travel and migration routes;
  • An increase in new types of insects and lengthened life spans of endemic insects (e.g., spruce beetles), that destroy trees and other vegetation;
  • Coastal erosion exacerbated by a rise in sea level; stronger hurricanes and typhoons, leading to loss of land and dislocation of indigenous peoples; loss of mangrove forests;
  • Food insecurity due to the difficulty of maintaining viable fish populations; coral bleaching due to higher sea temperatures;
  • Increasing human rights violations, displacement and conflicts due to expropriation of ancestral lands and forests for biofuel plantations;
  • Increasing costs of food due to competition with biofuels, exacerbating food insecurity;
  • Extreme cold spells, resulting in health problems, such as hypothermia, bronchitis, and pneumonia, especially among old people and young children;
  • Loss of traditional territories due to mitigation measures like carbon sinks and renewable energy projects (hydropower dams, geothermal plants), taken without indigenous peoples’ free, prior, and informed consent.

These problems are all the more egregious because indigenous peoples contribute significantly to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Their successful struggles against deforestation, against mineral, oil, and gas extraction in their ancestral territories, and against further expansion of monocrop plantations, as well as their sustainable production systems and their effective stewardship over the world’s biodiversity, have kept significant amounts of carbon under the ground and in the trees. There are at least 370 million indigenous people throughout the world practicing mostly sustainable, carbon-neutral, or even carbon-negative, lifestyles. In contrast, the United States, with a population of 300 million, accounts for about 25 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions.

About 45 percent of the earth’s land mass is devoted to agriculture, and agricultural practices account for 13.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of these emissions stem from poor agrobusiness practices. Indigenous practices, such as rotational farming, pastoralism, hunting and gathering, trapping, and the production of basic goods and services, often use environmentally friendly, renewable and/or recyclable resources. For example, the Igorot of the Philippines; the Karen of Myanmar and Thailand; and the Achiks of India continue to practice traditional, rotational agriculture. This practice increases the overall health of forest and jungle ecosystems, which are critical to the mitigation of global warming.

Deforestation and forest degradation account for approximately 17.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 25 percent of global CO2 emissions. This makes deforestation the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after energy and industry-related emissions. As of 2005, global forest cover was about 15 million square miles (about 4 times the size of the United States). Between 2000 and 2005, an estimated 7.3 percent of world forest cover was lost. The proposal to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, if done the right way, might be an opportunity to stop deforestation and reward indigenous peoples and other forest dwellers for conserving their forests. Indigenous agroforestry practices are generally sustainable, environmentally friendly, and carbon-neutral. When the World Bank launched its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility in Bali, it received a lot of criticism from indigenous peoples, who had been excluded from the conceptualization process in spite of the fact that they are the main stakeholders where tropical and subtropical forests are concerned. To remedy this weakness, the World Bank plans to hold consultations with indigenous peoples from Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Since climate change is a global problem, the negotiation and implementation of international treaties are critical to addressing it. Indigenous peoples are asking to what extent international treaties are being implemented, whether those treaties are effective or sufficient, and why indigenous peoples have not been invited to be key players in the development of those treaties. Many indigenous peoples link the failure of mitigation efforts to the fact that the United Nations, other international bodies, and governments did not, until recently, even pay lip service to involving indigenous peoples in processes leading to their international agreements. Indigenous peoples were not consulted in the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or the negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol.

Indigenous peoples believe that in order for global climate change mitigation efforts to be successful, they must be centrally involved as meaningful partners in these efforts, whether in the area of international agreements, scientific research, or technology development. And they point to examples of partnerships that are producing good results already.     

In the northern tropics of Colombia, for example, the indigenous peoples of San Andrés de Sotavento are partners in a project with the Environmental Corporation of the Sinu and San Jorge Rivers, the Colombian National Agricultural Research Organization, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. This clean-development project aims to regenerate 6,500 acres of degraded tropical savanna by reforesting and establishing silvopastoral systems, which combine forestry and animal grazing in a way that reinforces both. This will yield increased income for landowners and a healthier ecosystem.

In northern Australia, Aboriginal landowners, indigenous representative organizations, and Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas are partners in the Western Arnhem Fire Management Agreement. This partnership aims to implement strategic fire management practices across 11,000 square miles of Western Arnhem, thereby reducing fire-generated greenhouse gases and offsetting some of the emissions from the liquefied natural gas plant at Wickham Point in Darwin Harbor. (The problem is significant: wildfires in northern Australia release an estimated 240 million tons of CO2 each year, representing 38.5 percent of the Northern Territory’s total greenhouse gas emissions.)

The project uses strategic dry-season burning to break up the landscape with firebreaks that make it more difficult for wildfires to spread later in the year. This project is not gaining income from carbon trading. Instead, indigenous fire managers are being paid for fire management that produces greenhouse gas offsets. The involved parties believe, however, that this project would qualify for carbon trading in the future, should the market arise.

Indigenous peoples all over the world are greatly concerned about climate change, not only because they are affected by both the problem of climate change and international attempts to mitigate it, but more importantly, because of the contributions that they offer for mitigation and adaptation strategies. There are many strategies that can be used effectively to slow climate change and help adaptation to it, such as sustainable land and resource use, sustainable forest management, sustainable agriculture, the protection and enhancement of sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases, and small-scale, community-managed renewable energy systems. If these strategies are implemented so as to take into account not only the ecological dimensions of climate change, but also the dimensions of human rights, equity, and environmental justice, they will also protect and conserve the territories of indigenous peoples.

This article is adapted from a longer report titled “Impact of Climate Change Mitigation Measures on Indigenous Peoples and on Their Territories and Lands” presented at the seventh UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April 2008. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the former chair of the forum. Aqqaluk Lynge is the vice-chair of the forum and the Arctic regional representative.

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