While the territories of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples cover only 24% of land worldwide, they safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Indigenous people have had a holistic and symbiotic relationship with our planet for the longest time, thereby playing a significant role in climate protection. They also often have a spiritual connection to nature, which ensures that they take the protection of the world’s ecosystems seriously.
Protecting Mother Earth
The indigenous communities across the world act as agents of environmental conservation. Of at least a quarter of the Earth’s land area that is owned, managed, used, or occupied by them, 35% are formally protected areas of the world. Previous research has confirmed that tenure-secure indigenous lands often have lower deforestation rates than other areas. They also have strategies for adapting to climate change’s negative impacts, helping them to address different environmental issues.
For instance, the indigenous people interpret and react to the impacts of climate change in creative ways, drawing on traditional knowledge and other technologies to find solutions which may help society at large to cope with impending changes. As former UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon said, “Indigenous People have centuries of old wisdom to live harmoniously with nature. We have to learn that wisdom from them. I urge you to ensure that Indigenous Peoples, their rights, and contributions will remain central as we address these challenges.”
As recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) stress the urgent need for transformative change to reverse the impending ecological crisis, the role of indigenous communities has become more important than ever. They have the power to resist development and the deleterious consequences of modernity to forests they protect as they maintained control of their territories and preserved their customs, traditions, and way of life.
According to Nature.com, a weekly international journal publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology, indigenous peoples’ representatives have been collectively engaged in lobbying for inclusion in intergovernmental climate change negotiations as well as to have decision-making power at the United Nations for years. Since the 1990s, they have been aware of their life-long responsibility to protect the forests and continue to resist the occupation and deforestation of lands they have lived in for centuries.
However, the indigenous people are continuously side-lined. One of the reasons is that they are viewed as people affected by climate change instead of potential actors in the quest to combat climate change. A 2015 report by the Indigenous Peoples’ Centre for Documentation, Research and Information (DOCIP) reiterated the link between climate change and the rights of indigenous peoples. It stated that “indigenous peoples have been making this link for several decades, taking center stage in its promotion.”
Vulnerability to the Impacts of Climate Change
While indigenous people have been at the forefront in battling climate change, they are also the most vulnerable. They have been the most affected by devastating storms, flooding, or fires. Consequences of changing environmental conditions such as loss of natural resources, restricted access to traditional gathering areas for food and medicine, and forced displacement or relocation have threatened their survival for many years. Despite these challenges, they still manage to adopt traditional lifeways and advocate for change.
According to Climate Change News, an independent news site dedicated to bringing important climate stories to as large an audience as possible, many indigenous communities are forced to relocate as their traditional lands become uninhabitable due to climate change. Indigenous people of the Pacific Islands, for instance, are facing the prospect of having to migrate as rising sea levels swamp their homes. This could put them in danger and at risk of human trafficking and smuggling, as well as discrimination due to their identity.
The number of indigenous people is rapidly dwindling. Their lives and identities heavily depend on their close relationship with the land. As the land changes due to climate change, their way of life is also destroyed. Eriel Deranger, executive director of Indigenous Climate Action (ICA), said that climate change not only destabilized the local biospheres but also led to communities needing to move due to colonial structures.
“The Samburu and Maasai peoples are the first communities to face and feel the effects of climate change, due to our closeness with the environment and distinct ways of livelihood that depend on access to land, natural resources and sustainable development. We face marginalization, forced adaptation and losing our identities,” Jane Naini Meriwas from the Maasai community in Kenya said.
A recent study by researchers from the University of Helsinki examined the impacts of pollution on indigenous communities worldwide. According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the team reviewed more than 680 different publications to highlight broad patterns of all the documented impacts of environmental pollution among indigenous groups from all inhabited continents. Lead author Dr. Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences said that all evidence showed that they are largely and heavily affected by polluting activities both through their exposure and vulnerability.
The findings of the study revealed that most pollution-related health impacts documented among indigenous peoples came from consuming polluted water and food. This includes wild foods obtained through hunting, fishing, and gathering. "While the number of studies examining the impacts of environmental pollution upon indigenous peoples is growing, most of this research is isolated and fragmented across disciplines and geographic regions,” Fernández-Llamazares said.
The good news is that indigenous communities are developing innovative strategies to limit or stop the ongoing pollution. They are contributing ways to decrease pollution levels in a way that wouldn’t be detrimental to human health and ecosystem functioning. Some of these strategies include blockades, social mobilizations, cultural resistance camps, global policy advocacy, and more.
"I was particularly inspired by the numerous examples where Indigenous communities and scientists have built successful partnerships to martial global support for the defense of environmental justice. It is my hope that this review will contribute to bring visibility to the arduous efforts of the many Indigenous communities that are fighting to combat pollution all over the world,” Fernández-Llamazares added.