They may be both the least responsible for and most vulnerable to climate change and its consequences: indigenous peoples are facing immediate risks as global warming hits home around the world. Being nearby to nature and local natural resources in their daily lives and traditions, indigenous populations are exposed to the effects of climate change.
In an open letter published last month in Le Monde to coincide with the 100th day of Jair Bolsonaro's presidency in Brazil, 15 indigenous leaders wrote that Brazilian indigenous tribes are living the first signs of "an apocalypse" as man-made climate change and the drastic exploitation of natural resources risks destroying their environment.
With these populations highly dependent on nature and traditional farming, climate change is already changing their traditions and way of life, and even threatening their very existence. Yet in some cases, governments have understood that indigenous populations can play a key role in slowing down climate change, precisely because of their cultural and ancestral knowledge. Here are five stories around the world:
The Sami people spans the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, with a population between 80,000 and 100,000 individuals. They have their own language, culture, flag, parliament, and politics. Their economy and way of life mostly rely on reindeer husbandry, which has recently been disturbed by climate change.
Carl-Johan Utsi, a Sami reindeer herder, told Yle that because of the unusually warm weather and a wave of wildfires over the summer of 2018, pastures and forests were destroyed, along with the main source of food for reindeers. After that, Samis feared that their herds might starve during the winter, and they were right. This winter, record-cold temperatures froze the ground, making it even harder to feed reindeers. Aggressive forestry, tourism, and the mining industry exploit the same lands and regions as the Samis, so when these different sectors compete for land, the Samis often draw the shortest straw.
The Swedish Sami Association called for the government to act to counter the effects of global warming, and provide Sami reindeer herders with economic support. Niila Inga, chairman of the association, told The Local: "It's a question of survival for the reindeer and for the whole Sami culture."
As the mining and agricultural industries take over more and more territory, indigenous people are forced out of their ancestral homes.
Indigenous peoples are facing immediate risks as global warming hits home around the world. Photo: Bob Blob
Last year, a UN report dubbed Brazil the world's most dangerous country for indigenous populations. And it's not going to get better anytime soon. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's newly elected president, has never hidden his hostility towards indigenous tribes — nor towards climate change advocates.
One of Bolsonaro's first attacks on indigenous rights was when he transferred the National Indian Foundation (Funai), which protects indigenous territories, to the ministry of agriculture, which regularly defends the agricultural industry. This is bound to strip indigenous land and its inhabitants of any kind of protection against highly polluting industries. As the mining and agricultural industries take over more and more territory, indigenous people are forced out of their ancestral homes. This is a particularly important problem in the Amazon, which is already suffering from rapid deforestation.
Speaking to the El Pais daily, Fiona Watson, director of research at Survival International, said these tribes are also the targets of illegal, and often very violent gold miners and loggers. This "silent genocide" is far from being the priority for the current government, as Bolsonaro has said many times that these tribes are obstacles for economic progress.
Māoris in New Zealand are affected by another side-effect of climate change: rising sea levels. A 2017 report by the government concluded that Māoris were the most vulnerable to climate change, mainly because they live in poverty-stricken, low-lying coastal areas that are particularly exposed to storms, floods, and rising sea levels. Mike Smith, a Kiwi environmental activist, told Stuff that the Māori are already struggling to survive because their economy, like many other indigenous populations, is based on climate-sensitive activities such as fishing, agriculture, and farming.
Māori culture is also at risk. In January 2018, a Māori burial ground in the Bay of Plenty collapsed. The human remains ended up in the sea. Some dated back to the 1300s. It is not an isolated incident, as many other Māori cemeteries, which are also called urupā, have met the same fate, which can be very traumatic for the Māori community.
As crops take up more space, herders struggle to graze their animals and have to do it illegally.
There is a silver lining to all of this. "Mātauranga," which is the body of knowledge that the Māori have accumulated over the centuries about New Zealand's ecosystem, could be a key to responding to climate change. Since Māori communities often inhabit the same region for hundreds of years, they are more apt to notice how climate change affects local plants and animals. New Zealand scientists have started working closely with the Māori in order to develop local solutions after several studies suggested that the best path to protecting nature is to expand and preserve the land rights of indigenous populations.
The Maasai, a nomadic tribe that lives in the Kojiado district in Kenya, had to quickly adapt to climate change in the region. They have a tradition of raising large cattle herds, but repetitive droughts and extreme weather make it almost impossible to survive without doing something else on the side. Many converted to growing crops just to be able to send their children to school. However, these activities actually make the situation worse for Maasai pastoralists.
The Star reports that proliferating human activity near the Serengeti National Park has severely damaged the local wildlife, in part because of agriculture. As crops take up more space, herders struggle to graze their animals and have to do it illegally, even if it means going into protected areas. This creates fierce competition and conflicts, as some herders have even resorted to stealing animals.
Despite cattle herding being an integral part of their culture, some Maasai decided to switch to dairy production, which requires fewer cattle and is far more lucrative. Others chose to swap to goats, as they are less affected by droughts and less attractive to thieves.
The First Nation communities of Canada are facing the effects of climate change as well. In British Columbia, Jarett Quock, from the Tahtlan Nation, is a guardian, meaning he is in charge of monitoring the effects of climate change in his area and protect sensitive wildlife. He told The Globe and Mail: "We sustain ourselves off the land, so if there are issues such as declining populations of caribou, moose and what have you, we're certainly the first to know and also be affected by issues of climate change."
Indigenous peoples' culture could be the key to reversing climate change — Photo: Richard Lakin/Xinhua/ZUMA
Last March, the national First Nation guardian gathering raised the alarm about the rapid degradation of their environment. Last summer marked the worst wildfire season ever recorded, caused by a mountain pine beetle outbreak that left forests strewn with dead wood, coupled with a particularly hot and dry summer. These fires also destroyed 21 homes.
These indigenous stewardship programs, which now include more than 40 communities around the country, are funded by the Canadian government. In 2017, they were granted $25 million for a period of five years. For these communities, is it not only a way to gain more autonomy over their land and culture, but it also provides them with much-needed jobs. Helping the planet by helping humans, and vice-versa.
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