Livelihoods In Peril: Indigenous Peoples and their Rights


Inuit hunters in northern Greenland are treading carefully on increasingly thinning ice, while at the same time the key marine species they depend on -- seals, walrus, narwhals and polar bears -- are moving away from the areas in which they are traditionally hunted, as they in turn respond to changes in local ecosystems.

In the high ranges of the Himalaya, Sherpa, Tamang, Kiranti, Dolpali and other indigenous groups are witnessing the melting of glaciers; the same is true in other mountain regions of the world such as the Peruvian Andes, where the indigenous Quechua report that they are worried when they look at the receding glaciers on their mountain peaks. In the Kalahari Desert, the San have learnt to deal with the periodic but all-too-frequent occurrence and experience of hunger and poverty arising from a combination of economic, political, environmental and climatic events. The San, like other indigenous peoples, have had to devise ingenious strategies to cope with environmental change and its consequences, yet they are reporting that the character of such change is now different than many remember. All over the world, indigenous peoples are confronted with unprecedented climate change affecting their homelands, cultures and livelihoods.

Indigenous peoples depend on natural resources for their livelihoods and they often inhabit diverse but fragile ecosystems. At the same time, many indigenous peoples remain among the world's most marginalized, impoverished and vulnerable peoples. They may be amongst those who have contributed the least to the greenhouse gas emissions that characterize anthropogenic climate change, yet they bear the brunt of the climate crisis and they often have minimal access to the resources and political and institutional support needed to cope with the changes. They have to navigate their way across the dramatically shifting environments of their homelands and to comprehend and find effective strategies that will allow them to respond to the changes happening -- from the diminishing sea ice and reduced snowfall now characterizing the Arctic regions, to receding glaciers in high altitude regions, to increased coastal erosion and rising sea levels, to reduced rainfall in temperate ecosystems and increased fires in tropical rainforests.

Regional and global scientific assessments, such as the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment, have stated unequivocally that the Earth's climate is changing in ways that could have irreversible impacts that will affect ecosystems, societies and cultures on scales that demand urgent global response and sustained action. But this scientific research merely confirms the experiences and the observations of indigenous peoples in many parts of the world, especially those living in the Arctic, high mountain areas, semi-arid lands and low-lying South Pacific islands -- places which are all sensitive indicators of the profound impacts human activities are having on the world's climate. The Arctic's climate, in particular, has shown an unprecedented and alarming rate of change over the last fifty years and scientific research currently indicates a rapid reduction of multi-year ice cover in the Arctic Ocean as well as glacial retreat from Greenland's inland ice and other Arctic ice masses. High-resolution satellite laser measurements continue to show that Arctic glaciers and ice streams are rapidly thinning and speeding up in their flow. Residents of South Pacific islands do not need to be told about the links between this and the rising tides threatening to engulf their homes.

It may be more accurate to say that, globally, we are in the midst of a climate crisis. The need -- and the opportunity presented -- for a historic agreement on climate change in Copenhagen in December 2009 cannot be overstated enough. Yet climate change has a regional texture -- its impacts are not universal. Some environments and peoples are more exposed to climate change, depending on their geographic, environmental and socio-economic circumstances and, as a consequence, are significantly more vulnerable to the impacts and long-term consequences of climate change than others. But as indigenous peoples experience the realities of climate change, it is not something which affects them in isolation from other kinds of changes and problems of pressing contemporary concern. Climate change magnifies problems that already exist in many indigenous communities -- problems of poverty, marginalization, land loss and degradation, social exclusion, and non-inclusion in national and international policy-making processes. Climate change is an issue of human rights and inequality -- it needs to be understood in the context of multiple stressors that already affect indigenous peoples and local communities.

The consequences of ecosystem changes have far-reaching implications for the indigenous peoples' use, protection and management of wildlife, fisheries, forests, mangroves, savannahs, wetlands, mountains and small-island ecosystems, and they have dramatic affects on the traditional and customary uses of culturally and economically significant species and resources. To indigenous peoples, climate change is, however, not simply a matter of physical changes to the environments in which they live. Many consider climate change a threat to their livelihood and they fear that their economy and resource use will be threatened, followed by an erosion of social and cultural life, and a loss of traditional knowledge. As the global discourse on climate change focuses on understanding how we can scientifically and technologically adapt to, as well as mitigate, climate change, indigenous peoples are faced with the prospect of climate change further challenging their abilities to adapt, respond to and cope with environmental and social changes. The key to effective and successful climate negotiations -- and for agreement on climate change solutions -- is to ensure that indigenous peoples can participate fully in them. But it remains that the crucial contributions indigenous peoples and their traditional knowledge can make to global discussions and negotiations are often overlooked.
In the national, regional and international processes, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where climate change mitigation policies are discussed, negotiated and designed, indigenous peoples have found it very difficult to get their voices heard and their concerns taken into consideration. This stands in stark contrast to their experiences with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), where the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) is an advisory body to the Convention. The UNFCCC, on the other hand, does not provide a similar institutional and discursive space for indigenous peoples. To date, the concerns and views of indigenous peoples -- especially gendered and generational perspectives -- have not been seriously addressed in climate negotiation processes in all climate decision-making and actions. The UNFCCC, for instance, does not make explicit mention of how indigenous peoples are being affected by climate change. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes that indigenous peoples are rights-holders -- a global deal on climate change has to also refer to those rights and to recognize them. Furthermore, the protection of rights is a prerequisite for strengthening the resilience of indigenous peoples and local communities in order to respond to climate change, as is the recognition of the importance of traditional knowledge for ecosystem management. While the more immediate objective for indigenous peoples is for the UNFCCC to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples within its body, beyond the discussions at Copenhagen -- and whatever the outcome -- the challenge will be for indigenous and local strategies and priorities to be reflected and incorporated in national adaptation plans, decision-making processes and strategies of action.