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Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change: from Recognition to Rule of Law


In Arctic Village, Alaska, the Gwich’in people—otherwise known as the “Caribou People”—are watching their namesake struggle to survive. For generations, the people here have filled their diet with sustainably harvested wild foods, including liberal helpings of the Arctic ruminants. More than 100,000 caribou migrate through the village’s territory every year, feeding on lichen and food left behind by the region’s plentiful muskrats.

But as winters become warmer and wetter and summers dryer, caribou are finding this habitat less and less hospitable. Dried-out lichen, melting permafrost and a dwindling muskrat population are threatening the caribou and the people who depend on them.

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Indigenous peoples are crucial to the global understanding of climate change impacts. In Alaska, the Gwich’in people live intimately with caribou and can sense climatic shifts in ways that many climate scientists cannot. Photo: Nicolas Villaume

The Gwich’in are hardly unique among Indigenous communities in living with firsthand experience of climate change. Native peoples tend to live in the Earth’s most sensitive regions: the circumpolar Arctic, small islands, high mountains, tropical forests and desert margins. The Peoples of these territories often possess an unmatched ecological acuity of their homelands.

“It’s taking science a long time to catch up to the local and traditional knowledge of our communities. We’ve been noticing climate effects for forty, fifty, or more years,” says Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat Eskimo and executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission. “Because we live off the land and are closely tied to the environment, we can see the subtlest of changes. [Our] people have been talking about changes in weather patterns, air currents and sea ice conditions since at least the 1960s.”

Recent years, however, have seen an acceleration of climate-related disruptions. “We’re seeing huge impacts now,” reports Cochran. “When your homes are falling into the sea it’s hard not to notice.”

Blending Indigenous and Western Climate Science

With cultural values attuned to ecological frequencies, traditional communities often possess critical technical know-how for thriving in a dynamic landscape.

“Our people have been here for a very long time and that’s because for centuries our people have always been very adaptive and very resilient,” says Cochran. “Our strength comes from our ability to change with conditions.”

"we have to find a balance between nature and culture" photo: Nicolaus Villaume

“We have to meet halfway,” says Gwich’in leader Sarah James, “and we need to find balance.” photo: Nicolas Villaume

Traditional ecological knowledge (TK) is helping the world understand what is happening on the early edge of climate change. The Christensen Fund, which tries to value all knowledge and to respectfully connect different kinds of knowledge, has long supported efforts to amplify TK in global debates. But Traditional Knowledge must be seen, many argue, as more than a source of local data simply to support the Western world’s utilitarian, scientific view of nature. TK is also wisdom and it demands an alternate way of considering the relationship between humans and the natural world, one as ancient as humanity itself.

“[Indigenous] knowledge is essential for adapting in a meaningful, sustained way,” says Sam Johnston, head of the Traditional Knowledge Initiative at United Nations University, a long-term Christensen grantee. “Because it’s about managing landscapes. And the knowledge that they’ve developed about those landscapes is more profound and can cope with fluctuations in a way that [Western] understanding of landscapes hasn’t had the opportunity to address.”

From this point of view, the challenge presented by climate change has opened up a new possibility: The chance to craft an approach to the natural world that draws strength from both Indigenous and Western scientific perspectives.

“There is a solution,” Gwich’in leader Sarah James says in a photo story created by Conversations with the Earth, a Christensen Global Program grantee that documents how climate changes are affecting Indigenous peoples around the globe. “It’s not the end of the world yet. . . But if it’s going to work, it has to be both Western and Traditional. We have to meet halfway—and we need to find balance.”

Being the Boss of Fire

In the savannahs of Australia’s Western Arnhem Land, one effort to find such a balance to mitigate climate change combines modern scientific analysis and technologies with Indigenous techniques of fire-based landscape management.

Dean Yibarbuk, a fire ecologist and member of the aboriginal Gurrigoni community, tosses small fireballs out of a helicopter to set ablaze portions of the landscape below. The controlled early season fires lightly burn away the extra foliage and tinder that feed Australia’s uncontrolled wildfires that belch megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. A mosaic of the small burns, by contrast, leaves a healthy forest intact and improves soil organic matter, sequestering more carbon.

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For thousands of years Indigenous Australians expertly managed the tropical savannas of north Australia. Their use of fire shaped the landscape and remains a critical part of social, economic and spiritual well-being for country and people. Now, they are partnering with scientists and NGOs for fire abatement projects that have global impact.  Photo: NAILSMA

Yibarbuk works as a ranger in a program organized by the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance Ltd (NAILSMA), which has proved that burning in patches at certain times of year can improve the health of biomass and lead to better climate outcomes, all while creating culture-based livelihoods. After a more than a decade of research and analysis, partly supported by The Christensen Fund, this mitigation approach is now ready to go to scale under Aboriginal leadership across Northern Australia and is gaining global interest.

“Working with scientists, we can bring what they know together with the knowledge of our older people who remember how it was before,” says Yibarbuk. “Being the boss of fire was always the way. Not fire being the boss of us.”

Johnston of the Traditional Knowledge Initiative, who has been collaborating on the Aboriginal fire abatement projects, reports that the fire management in Northern Australia is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 100,000 tons of carbon every year.

Forests by the People, for the People

Indigenous communities’ vast environmental knowledge is increasingly being shared internationally to address forest management issues, as well.  In 2011, for example, a group of Indigenous women produced an extensive report on the state of some the world’s remaining forests. ‘Indigenous Women, Climate Change and Forests’, underwritten by a Christensen grant, was produced by Tebtebba and features the scholarship of Indigenous writers and researchers hailing from 11 countries (Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Kenya, Nicaragua, Peru, Philippines, Brazil, Cameroon and Mexico). The publication weaves extensive oral histories, climate mitigation and adaptation measures, field observation and research in an artful and informed mixture of Traditional and Western knowledge systems.

Other Indigenous-led efforts are helping local communities to secure rights over their ancestral lands and to benefit from their traditional forest management practices, maintain their ways of life, and preserve their forest homes.

In Ethiopia, women cultivate enset - an important staple crop that contributes to soil fertility, moisture and forest diversity

In Ethiopia, women cultivate enset – an important staple crop that is intercropped with native tree species in a resilient example of Indigenous agro-forestry. Throughout the world Indigenous women are stewards of forest resources and play a key role in the maintenance of biodiversity. Photo: Nicolas Villaume

The Dayak people, who have rights to their customary rainforest home in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, on the island of Borneo, are leveraging their traditional method of forest management to maintain a resilient ecosystem within a modernizing state. The Oma’lung tribe, a subset of the Dayak, abide by an age-old custom of maintaining “Tana Olen,” or the forbidden forest, where damaging or cutting trees is strictly prohibited. They vigorously manage the other tracts of forest under their control for agro-forestry and other sustainable resource uses and are preparing for eco-tourism as an alternative income stream, creating further motivation for villagers to protect the forest.

Many other forest communities around the world are engaged in similar practices.

“It’s not only a mitigation strategy, to lock up the carbon in the forest, but also by preserving the tropical rainforest you’re adapting to a variety of climatic impacts,” says Johnston. “Communities that have good forest coverage survive much better than those that don’t. That reflects a view of many indigenous people; the distinction between mitigation and adaptation is a false one for them. Really it’s two sides of the same coin.”

If not collaboratively developed and managed climate change mitigation measures involving forests can, however, work out badly for Indigenous Peoples, disempowering the very stewards of the forests.

Carbon trading programs such as the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility managed by the World Bank and the UN’s REDD+ program have raised controversy in the past for inadequately involving Indigenous communities and allocating the financial benefits mainly to governments, who then disburse them as they see fit. While progress toward including local communities and securing their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) in such schemes has been made, some grantees of The Christensen Fund, such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, whose ideas of wealth and value often conflict with the core philosophies Western-style development, have a problem with REDD’s stated mission to “create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests.”

While many other Indigenous-led organizations share this concern for the consequences of ‘commodifying nature’, The Christensen Fund takes a plural approach, supporting a variety of community-led initiatives with an emphasis on strengthening the rights of different forest communities, who may come to different conclusions about market mechanisms. Christensen’s objective has been to enable a healthy and informed debate that promotes Indigenous sovereignty over their lands.

With so much attention on the world’s remaining forests, Indigenous communities are increasingly standing up for their rights as enshrined in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP – PDF) and insisting on FPIC with regard to any and all extractive and development activities proposed on their ancestral lands. With help from many Christensen grantees including the Forest Peoples Program, they are connecting globally, combining their deep ecological knowledge with the latest technologies to establish Community-based Monitoring and Information Systems, enabling them to manage local resources sustainably and also to document threats and abuses by outsiders on their lands.

In Madang Province, Papua New Guinea, the people of Ohu Village have chosen to protect primary forest on their traditional lands for spiritual, cultural and economic reasons

In Madang Province, Papua New Guinea, the people of Ohu Village have chosen to protect primary forest on their traditional lands for spiritual, cultural and economic reasons. This Indigenous protected forest area is home to a stunning range of biodiversity and attracts researchers from around the globe to work at Binatang Research Center, a Christensen grantee.

This kind of mobilization of Indigenous Peoples and their allies to jointly protect both their rights and the richness of their territories at the local level is reverberating outward and upward. With support from members of International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, including The Christensen Fund, Native peoples have greatly increased their representation in U.N. and other multilateral fora in recent years. Now, Indigenous delegates are regularly traveling to and shaking up global climate proceedings, taking full advantage of their newfound seat at the table.

Indigenous voices on the international stage

While much of their engagement in climate debates has been self-initiated and has taken place in parallel to official international processes, Indigenous and local communities are successfully inserting their knowledge systems into the very multilateral proceedings deliberating on their fates.

Indigenous representation at international fora and institutions has greatly increased in recent years. Here, Josefina-Lema presents at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Indigenous representation at international fora and institutions has greatly increased in recent years. Here, Josefina Lema, a member of the Kichwa community of Mojandita, Ecuador, presents at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Photo: Nicolas Villaume

The Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change, a Christensen-backed initiative in 2009, brought hundreds of diverse representatives together in Alaska to create a declaration and course of action on climate that has enduringly framed the Indigenous position on the issue and enabled proper recognition in the UN of the centrality of Indigenous Peoples in any solution-making for climate change globally. This effort was given more visibility with a high profile international effort to amplify indigenous voices on the consequences of climate change under the rubric of Conversations With the Earth, which included an exhibit that circled the planet including major shows in Copenhagen and the first exhibit on Indigenous science at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

These and similar efforts, including the work of indefatigable community activists, have secured significant progress for Indigenous inclusion in the official processes. The Conferences of the Parties (COP) meetings conducted annually to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which have historically lacked vigorous Indigenous participation, now routinely use the language of “Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities” and incorporate many of their core concerns. Due to years of coordinated efforts by local stewards and their allies, Indigenous science and resource management regimes are now recognized by the UNFCCC and are the only un-refereed science allowed in the proceedings.

The Christensen Fund has backed other initiatives that have taken shape around the globe independent of any state- or U.N.-sponsored activity. The Indigenous Peoples Biocultural Climate Change Assessment (IPCCA), for example, born from the need to develop alternative, Indigenous research approaches that consider local perspectives and biocultural realities, has helped to put Indigenous communities forward as steadfast and equal players on the global stage.

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ANDES – the Asociación para la Naturaleza y el Desarollo Sostenible – is one of the leading entities in the Indigenous Peoples Biocultural Climate Change Assessment. ANDES is a key player in adapting Peru’s Indigenous potato farming systems to changes in altitudinal climate gradients and glacial retreat, establishing the world renowned Potato Park. Photo: IIED

“They have strong ties to the land, so they have a lot to contribute to the debate,” says Casey Box, associate director of another key grantee, Land is Life, which works to strengthen Indigenous representation on the international stage and to increase their capacities to respond to climate mitigation policies.

The (De-)Institutionalization of Colonialism

Twenty years after the first UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio, the Earth Summit part II convened in 2012, with the backdrop of climate chaos that exceeded scientists’ most dire predictions. In what appeared initially to be progress, states called for the transition to a “green economy”, which emerged on closer inspection to be a green sheen on a corporate agenda. Christensen supported Indigenous leaders to gather, discuss and respond to this debate. In their Kari-Oca 2 Declaration, Indigenous Peoples stated their opposition to the green economy ‘solution’ being proffered at Rio +20 in no uncertain terms:

“We demand that the United Nations, governments and corporations abandon false solutions to climate change, like large hydroelectric dams, genetically modified organisms including GMO trees, plantations, agrofuels, “clean” coal, nuclear power, natural gas, hydraulic fracturing, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, bioenergy, biomass, biochar, geo-engineering, carbon markets, Clean Development Mechanism and REDD+ that endanger the future and life as we know it. Instead of helping to reduce global warming, they poison and destroy the environment and let the climate crisis spiral exponentially, which may render the planet almost uninhabitable. We cannot allow false solutions to destroy the Earth’s balance, assassinate the seasons, unleash severe weather havoc, privatize life and threaten the very survival of humanity. The Green Economy is a crime against humanity and the Earth.

“In order to achieve sustainable development, states must recognize the traditional systems of resource management of the Indigenous Peoples that have existed for millennia, sustaining us even in the face of colonialism. Assuring Indigenous Peoples’ active participation in decision making processes affecting them, and their right of Free Prior and Informed Consent is fundamental.”

Members of the Asia Indigenous Youth Network attend the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, 2013

Piya Agree (Bontoc-Igorot people of the Philippines) of the Asia Pacific Indigenous Youth Network, after delivering an intervention at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, 2013. Piya also works with Land is Life and the National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples Organizations in The Philippines

For funders and supporters of Indigenous peoples and their allies working in the climate change area, Christensen believes that the opportunities increasingly lie in creating an enabling environment for the holistic implementation of the rights enshrined in UNDRIP. The point now is to secure action on the ground through supporting and sharing local strategies that work, to build broader alliances to advance implementation and oversight mechanisms to increase compliance with Indigenous rights. With the first UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to be held in September in New York City, the clock is ticking.

As Tebtebba Exectutive Director Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, an Igorot from the Cordillera region in the Philippines, said at the recent session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: “It’s up to us to use [UNDRIP] to be able to define who we are as people and assert that we as peoples are going to matter very much in changing the world into a world that we would like to bequeath to our younger generations, seven generations ahead.”

This video tells the story of an Indigenous response to rising seas in Melanesia

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