Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change Front Lines

OXFORD, UK, April 19, 2007 (ENS) - The Inuit of the Arctic can no longer hunt safely as the ice is breaking up around them. Pacific Islanders are losing coral atolls beneath rising seas. Caribbean islanders are battered by violent storms. Tribes in Borneo watch as their rainforests catch fire. Tibetans wonder why their sacred glaciers are melting and why the alpine medicinal plants are disappearing.

The threat of climate change to the world’s indigenous peoples was under the spotlight April 12 and 13 at an international symposium at Oxford University.

Participants agreed that communication among indigenous peoples and with scientists and policymakers is critical in adapting to the climate changes already underway and averting the worst consequences of global warming.

Visiting Fellow at Oxford University Dr. Jan Salick, host of the Oxford Indigenous People’s Symposium, said, "Both ethnoecological researchers and indigenous people themselves need to network and initiate comparable climate change research and action."

"Indigenous peoples must be integrated into discussions of climate change and policy formation," he said.

Inuit

Two Inuit men test thickness of the ice in the Canadian Arctic. (Photo courtesy Environment Canada)
Scientists presented new research on the impacts of climate change on the indigenous Peoples of the Pacific, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, North America, South America, Africa and Europe where they depend directly on natural resources threatened by global warming.

The recent climate change summary report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, only mentioned "detrimental impacts ... to traditional indigenous ways of life’ in the Polar regions."

Yet according to the symposium organizers from Oxford's Environmental Change Institute, "Indigenous Peoples are in the immediate frontline of vulnerability to climate change.

"Although they have a global geographic spread and broad cultural diversity, there is a risk that the international climate change forum has lost sight of the immense collective danger they face," the organizers said.

Pablo Eyzaguirre from Bioversity International, an international agricultural research center, said, "Indigenous and traditional communities should be supported in their unique adaptation to marginal areas and ecosystem boundaries. We need to respect ecosystem buffers that also provide livelihoods, sacred spaces, and pathways for traditional peoples."

The symposium's opening session consisted of a general overview of climate change impacts and implications on the global scale. Director of the Environmental Change Institute, Professor Diana Liverman reviewed recent publications, such as the Stern and IPCC reports, global, British and EU policy developments, and initiatives developed by non-state actors such as corporations, cities and nongovernmental organizations.

Bedouins

Bedouins travel across Senegal's burning sands. (Photo courtesy SalySenegal)
Presentaters stressed the multifaceted nature of climate changes, not only in the wide variety of impacts, but also in the interplay with other processes such as inter-annual variation, habitat fragmentation, loss of biodiversity, disempowerment, insecurity, and lack of understanding.

Recurrent topics were the role that indigenous and local peoples play in maintaining and strengthening the resilience of healthy ecosystems, as well as the spiritual, emotional and moral implications of climate changes to local peoples.

Many indigenous peoples are showing how resourceful they are in applying their traditional knowledge to create strategies for lessening the impacts of natural disasters.

Some use strips of mangrove forest to absorb the force of tidal surges and tsunamis, others apply genetic diversity in crops to avoid total crop failure, and some communities migrate among habitats as disaster strikes, participants heard.

The symposium ended with a continuing planning session on conjoined research and action for and by indigenous and local peoples to afford them more prominence in the international climate change discussion and action.