Climate Change Impacts Faced by Indigenous Communities Around the World
Climate change has varying effects on different regions and people across the world. For example, most developed countries such as China and the US are the biggest emitters, yet they are the least affected by the effects of climate change. However, the people within these developed countries are also affected differently, aligned with their level of vulnerability.
The vulnerability relates to resilient capabilities, which usually is defined by a person’s accessibility to clean food and water, healthcare, better quality infrastructure, and the geographic area they reside in.
Our geographic location plays a big role in deciding the level of our vulnerability and climate change is impacting every region at a different pace, both directly and indirectly; coastal areas and islands are at risk of seawater intrusion from the combined effects of land subsidence and sea-level rise; areas near forests are at risk of wildfires during severe summer days; food and clean water security are also in danger due to an increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, etc.
In short, natural resources from natural ecosystems such as forests, are vital to human livelihood everywhere, but especially to the ones living surrounding them as they are at the front line in facing both the direct and indirect impacts of climate change.
Indigenous People and Climate Change
Indigenous people (first people, first nations, aboriginal people, native people) are culturally distinct ethnic groups whose original place has been colonized and settled by a later ethnic group.
They are referred to as indigenous because they maintain traditions and other early cultural aspects that are associated with that given region.
Indigenous peoples are in a unique position on the topic of climate change, because they have a strong relationship to the environment, not just because of their history and culture, but also because they rely on natural resources for food, shelter, and ceremonial life in greater numbers than the typical American.
Their vulnerability includes the political, ecological, and spiritual aspects, which also affect the socioeconomic, land use, and infrastructure conditions.
Indigenous people contribute the least to global emissions. In fact, they actually help enhance the resilience of ecosystems as they actively interact with these ecosystems when inhabiting the lands and territories.
But unfortunately, climate change does not look at whoever contributes more or less and affects everyone the same. Around 80% of tribe members are even aware of climate change and the environmental changes they are causing on a daily basis.
Most of the impacts indigenous people are faced with are related to water security. Issues such as water scarcity, lack of access to clean water, erosion, and land subsidence are amplified by floods and droughts which cause damage to their health and infrastructure such as homes, wells, and water systems.
Water-borne diseases are also getting more serious in some areas, which is not only harmful to human health but is also impacting the natural ecosystem cycles such as the wildlife and plants which are also vital to the native people and tribes.
For example, a massive loss of reindeers is happening in Finland, Norway, and Sweden due to warmer winters that are preventing reindeers from accessing lichen. As reindeers are vital to the Saami community cultures, the economy and subsistence of the community can be impacted in the long term.
Due to rising temperatures causing glacier melts, the natives in the Himalayas are experiencing more water in the short term, however, they are expected to have less water in the long term as glaciers and snow cover shrink.
In the Arctic, these changes in ice and weather conditions are posing serious challenges to human health and food security. They highly depend on the hunting of polar bears, seals, walrus, etc for food and the economy, whereas the migration of these species is getting unpredictable.
Droughts and wildfires are a serious threat to the indigenous people in the Amazon. The combined effects of deforestation and more carbon released into the atmosphere that is exacerbating further changes. The droughts in 2005 have caused the western Amazon rainforest region to be replaced by savannas, thus affecting the livelihood there.
While indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to environmental change, they also have distinct advantages in terms of mitigating and adapting to it.
Indigenous peoples, with a long history and profound relationship to the Earth's resources, have a unique grasp of and ability to observe the long-term effects of climate change.
This knowledge and skills in terms of traditional ecological information are extremely valuable since they may provide a good model for future adaptations to change.
Indigenous people can react and adapt to climate impacts more creatively from these traditional bits of knowledge in finding solutions.
For example, villagers in Bangladesh created floating vegetable gardens in adaptation to flooding. The indigenous people in Central, South America, and the Caribbean are shifting their agricultural activities to new locations such as from savannah to forest areas during droughts because they are less susceptible to adverse climate conditions.
However, in many cases, adaptations require financial resources and the help of modern technology that most indigenous communities have yet acquired.
And while short-term adaptation actions are underway, resource and capacity restrictions are preventing long-term adaptation solutions from being implemented.
In fact, some vulnerable indigenous communities depend on the government to support their survival, such as the people in Africa’s Kalahari Desert who are forced to live around drilled ores for water.
Rising temperatures, dune expansion, and increased wind speeds are causing loss of vegetation which is impacting the traditional cattle and goat farming practices.
It should also be considered that some mitigation measures may have unfavorable direct and indirect consequences for indigenous communities.
For example, deforestation is forcing indigenous families to migrate to cities for economic reasons, where they can sometimes end up in slums.
Indigenous people who choose to migrate away from their traditional areas or are forced to do so experience double persecution as migrants and indigenous peoples.
Due to unexpected displacement caused by a climatic disaster, restricted legal migration options, and limited opportunities to make educated decisions, indigenous peoples may be more exposed to irregular migration such as trafficking and smuggling.
Therefore, to guarantee that such initiatives do not negatively affect vulnerable groups, broad and effective engagement of indigenous populations is critical in the development of state-developed mitigation measures.
To conclude, indigenous people are vital in enhancing the resilience of an ecosystem. They are faced with many negative impacts of climate change even though they contribute the least to global emissions.
The government should always consider the livelihood of indigenous communities in decision-making, including mitigation measures that may indirectly affect them, as indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable due to the lack of access to resources and modern technology.
Maintaining their traditional cultural and socioeconomic beliefs should also be seen as a priority as they might give creative insight into combating climate change.
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References: (click the arrow to expand)
https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/climate-change.html https://news.arizona.edu/story/how-climate-change-impacts-indigenous-communities https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-14/impact-of-climate-change-on-indigenous-communities/7289604 https://www.kcet.org/shows/tending-nature/the-disproportionate-impact-of-climate-change-on-indigenous-communities https://www.canada.ca/en/crown-indigenous-relations-northern-affairs.html
Olivia Eugenia is an Environmental Science graduate from the University of Western Australia. She is also an activist and a content writer at IYOPS.
Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.