Student’s Corner

How is Climate Change Affecting Indigenous Peoples?

Across seven continents and some seventy countries are 370 million indigenous peoples who speak over 4000 of the world’s estimated 7000 languages. Aboriginal peoples reside on about 20% of earth’s land, acting as guardians and sustainers of bio-cultural diversity, and retaining and managing ecosystems that are rapidly disappearing in other parts of the world.

Ranging from the Arctic to the South Pacific, various indigenous communities form close ties between their identities, cultures, economies, and land. However, they have been subject to imperialism and genocide, as well as other forms of intense discrimination and marginalization. In addition, they are particularly vulnerable to climate change, being among the first to feel its direct impacts, which are often caused or exacerbated by acts of colonialism.

According to Getanno Bann, a Torres Strait Islander, the sense of spirituality and identity of an indigenous community is connected to its land. Now, he says, imagine the island sinking underwater and there being nothing you can do about it. Where is your identity? What have you become now?

Cultural Impacts

Indigenous communities associate a number of rich mythologies and folktales, festivals, and animal ceremonies with their environment. However, as this environment faces deterioration, so do their unique cultures. Generations-old wisdom on vegetation, hunting and herding is suddenly useless as the climate shifts. Hunters and elders could typically predict factors like the weather and the safest travel routes, but as ice becomes less safe and weather patterns change, crops are fail and herds suffer. The Sami people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, for example, herd reindeer as a way of life. For them, high rainfall and temperatures alike have resulted in reindeers dying of starvation, and thinning ice has forced people to look for new herding tracks. All this has come as a blow to the status and respect of the elders, for they can no longer be relied upon for predictions and advice. The vice-chair of the executive board of the Sami Council, Mathis-Eira explains that the Sami culture – the language, music and marriage – is heavily reliant upon reindeer herding, and its deterioration will result in the loss of culture.

Another commonly overlooked social factor resultant of climate change is its impact on indigenous women, who are perhaps the most disadvantaged. In comparison to their male counterparts, they are much more vulnerable to violence, discrimination and other human rights violations. Traveling long distances due to water scarcity, for example, not only increases their workload but may make them victim to sexual violence and health issues due to varying temperatures. Climate-induced migration may lead to a loss of identity, limited access to social services and dependence on precarious work. In addition, according to UN-Habitat, women are excluded from mitigation efforts and planning, as well as education, healthcare and relief programs after climate-related disasters, further magnifying their vulnerability.

Economic Impacts

Indigenous communities also happen to be the poorest of the poor due to imperial exploitation and displacement. According to the International Labor Organization, they make up about 15% of the world’s poor, despite being only 5% of the total population, and 80% of these Native communities live in Asia and the Pacific – both regions that are most vulnerable to climate change.

These figures highlight the challenge in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals that pledged to leave nobody behind. When there is less water available in lowlands, an indigenous subsistence farmer who cannot afford to use aquifers or irrigation has to face crop failure, and starvation as a result. When said crops fail, the community can no longer use the surplus in exchange for goods like soap and cloth. Therefore, they are seen turning to alternative means of livelihoods, such as assisting drug-traffickers or allowing gold prospectors and loggers into the forest. Many Natives are also forced to become dependent on emergency aid from the government or numerous non-governmental organizations. For example, various indigenous communities in the Kalahari Desert now live around government-drilled bores and rely on state support for survival, due to rising temperatures, dune expansion, increased wind speeds and the loss of vegetation.

Another direct impact of climate change on indigenous peoples is migration: an inadequate solution that they are forced turn to. Instead of helping them escape poverty, it worsens their difficulties in the form of the dispossession of land and resources. Many turn to the city in search of a better life, but are instead pushed into urban slums. Moreover, indigenous people have higher rates of urban unemployment and greater compliance gaps. Therefore, such movement leads to a loss of traditional indigenous social, economic and cultural activities.

In addition, indigenous women have various traditional and non-traditional livelihoods as well as the duty of unpaid care work. As they turn to employment and participation in activities such as agricultural wage work and domestic work, they may become vulnerable to economic exclusion, exploitation and marginalization, despite making tremendous contributions and carrying the responsibility of the community’s income generation. The indigenous Baka women of South Cameroon, for instance, have noticed that the land now produces a decreased output, resulting in negative impacts on their livelihoods and food security. They may also have to adapt to semi-sedentary economic patterns; thus, climate change has significant implications for indigenous women in the world of work, for they are forced to bear the brunt of their communities’ cultural and economic challenges.

Climate Action and Impacts

As the world realizes the dangers of climate change and scrambles for fossil fuel alternatives, indigenous peoples face another layer of threats: climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. For instance, large-scale renewable energy and conservation projects may lead to a decline in biodiversity, as well as land alienation and the loss of livelihoods, lands and identity.

For example, Aparicio Rios, an indigenous activist from Colombia’s Nasa people, points out that the plantation of biofuel by the government – advertised as the perfect solution – has not only displaced indigenous communities but has left them at economic loss. It takes five years for palm oil to bring any profits, and the indigenous farmer cannot afford to wait that long.  Similar patterns are seen throughout the world, where oil palm plantations are being carved out of indigenous territory under the ruse of preventing global warming.

Another ‘green’ source of renewable energy is hydroelectric power. It may be considered the ideal option by dominant cultures, but hundreds of dams are built across indigenous territories every day, flooding villages, destroying crops and disrupting fish. The Penan community in Sarawak, Malaysia face this predicament; the government does not recognize their land rights and continues to use their ancestral lands for logging, oil palm plantations, dam construction and other developments. And, as nuclear power is touted as a clean, attractive alternative, indigenous lands are threatened by the mining and exposure to radiation. For example, almost 400 miners from the Navajo Nation died from radiation exposure in the mid-1900s.

But while indigenous communities are the frontline of climate change and its alleviation efforts, they also possess important resilience that cannot be ignored. They are known for their unique interpretations and use traditional knowledge to find creative solutions in order to adapt to or decrease the intensity of impending changes. For example, villagers in Bangladesh have started creating floating vegetable gardens, Native communities in Vietnam are planting mangroves on the coastline, and communities in the Mekong Delta are sowing sun rice in flooded land.

Indigenous knowledge is also valuable to other communities, as evident in the emerging focus on climate-smart agriculture, which incorporates both traditional and modern techniques. These practices are also leading the way for sustainable agriculture and forestry, ecosystem protection from carbon storage, reduction of deforestation emissions and so on.

Thus, indigenous communities must be seen as powerful agents of change and be invited to participate in all discussions for sustainable climate mitigation, adaptation and transition policies. At the same time, it is vital that the factors that are negatively impacting indigenous peoples be recognized and addressed in a conjoined manner.

Although climate change is a global issue, it is a looming threat for these indigenous communities because they stand to lose their livelihoods, homes, philosophies, and entire ways of life. However, it is also the rest of the world that is at stake if the plight of indigenous peoples is ignored. Not only are they custodians of 80% of the world’s biodiversity, as well as a massive bank of traditional knowledge, but they are also wont to finding creative solutions to climate change which may be valuable to society at large.

Photo by Daniel Maforte via Pexels

Written by Syeda Mahnoor Raza (’24)