Indigenous People and Global Climate Change What’s at Stake and What’s Been Done

by Daniel T’seleie

Indigenous People around the world are among those most impacted by climate change. Changes in climate and to natural environments are threatening the food security of Indigenous People and are contributing to the loss of their cultures.

Many Indigenous People around the world (there are Indigenous People on all six inhabited continents) still harvest food from the land through traditional means like hunting, fishing, and herding. As climate change affects natural ecosystems, causes migrations and extinctions of species, and changes weather patterns, Indigenous People lose the ability to provide food for themselves and their families.

Cultural loss due to climate change is just as severe an impact as reduced food security (although the two go hand-in-hand; harvesting food is an important part of many Indigenous Peoples’ cultures). Indigenous People do not practice their culture on pavement, or by reading books. Indigenous cultures have evolved in tandem with natural environments over thousands of years. As these natural environments are rapidly altered, lost, or irreparably damaged due to climate change, it makes it harder for Indigenous People to practice their cultures.

Think of it this way. If all of a sudden the month of December was taken off the calender there would be no possible way for you to celebrate Christmas. How would this make you feel? Probably pretty bad, and hungry if celebrating Christmas was one of the only ways you could get food!

Indigenous People from all over the world have been actively involved in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process since 2000 through the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change. This body is open to Indigenous Peoples’ organizations from around the world that wish to participate. They can also nominate a participant to the various sessions held by the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum.

Climate change is, and will continue to be, devastating the lives and cultures of Indigenous People around the world, and there is an urgent need to stop this crisis. However, the proposed solutions to climate change can be just as destructive to the welfare of Indigenous People as the impacts of a changing climate.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation for a moment. Current climatic changes are caused mostly by the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas, which causes carbon dioxide to build up in the atmosphere. Trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and clear-cut forests release carbon as dead plant matter decomposes. So some people have suggested that part of the solution to climate change is to make sure we don’t cut down all the world’s forests so they can keep taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Makes sense, right?

Wrong. This makes no sense. It’s like saying you can keep smoking cigarettes as long as you don’t cut out part of your lungs. You should just stop smoking cigarettes (and please don’t cut out your lungs). The solution to climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels. We shouldn’t make excuses to delay efforts to transition to clean forms of energy.

But this type of scheme is being considered in the UN climate talks under the acronym REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation). This would allow polluters around the world to keep on polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as long as they pay countries (mostly in the southern hemisphere) not to cut down their forests. This will not stop climate change.

This REDD scheme won’t work, and it’s also incredibly offensive to many Indigenous People. The natural environment is not a commodity to be bought and sold. Rich companies do not have the right to “purchase” a forest somewhere in the world just so they can keep on polluting. This type of false solution (there are others as well) has been dubbed a form of “carbon colonialism.” These proposed solutions to climate change infringe on the human rights of Indigenous People by taking away their land, destroying it, or selling it off to the highest bidder. The impacts are similar to traditional forms of colonialism that forced Indigenous People off their land, or destroyed their lands completely.

What’s more, it should be common sense that cutting down all our forests is a bad idea.

The Indigenous Environmental Network has been active in the UNFCCC process for years, and much of their work has focused on raising awareness of and lobbying against false solutions.

After the failure of the UN’s COP15 climate talks in Copenhagen last year, a world peoples’ conference was organized in Cochabamba, Bolivia earlier this year (with significant participation by Indigenous People). The Summit created a grassroots peoples’ agreement on climate change and solutions that is more in line with the world views of Indigenous People than the UN climate talks have ever been.

Armed with the Cochabamba peoples’ agreement, Indigenous People from all over Latin America and the world will be heading to Cancun next month to protect their cultures, their land, and their lives. Keep an eye on the CYDaily for updates on this grassroots mobilization. We’ll be just as involved outside the conference centre as we will inside.


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