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The Disproportionate Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Communities

Indigenous people, fishermen, and climate activists protest during an oil and gas auction in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2017. | Juliana Colussi / Creative Commons

The case studies, images, and content for this article are drawn from the exhibition "Climate Stories," curated by the author and on view at the Global Museum at San Francisco State University through May 22, 2020.

Now more than ever, the topic of climate change has been receiving national attention and is at the forefront of many conversations. In addition to altering environments, it also has a social impact. Extreme weather events have been happening more than ever in recorded history, disrupting both ecosystems and livelihoods for people across the globe. However, marginalized communities, including Indigenous groups, are often the people most affected by devastating storms, flooding, or fires. Recent environmental changes brought on by climate change uniquely impact Indigenous people, especially because of their relationships with the land, ocean, and natural resources. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs articulately states, “Climate change poses threats and dangers to the survival of Indigenous communities worldwide, even though Indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions.”

Members of the First Peoples’ Convening on Climate Forced Displacement, which took place in October 2018. | Rob Stapleton, Creative Commons
Members of the First Peoples’ Convening on Climate Forced Displacement, which took place in October 2018. | Rob Stapleton, Creative Commons

“We all breathe this one air, we all drink the same water. We all live on this one planet. We need to protect the Earth. If we don’t, the big winds will come and destroy the forest. Then you will feel the fear that we feel.”
stated by Raoni Metuktire, Indigenous activist and chief of the Kayapó community in Brazil

In the words of Survival International, an organization championing tribal peoples around the world, “Indigenous people are on the front line of climate change.” When community worldviews are deeply tied to the environment, what happens when that environment starts to change rapidly? Or when ancestral homelands that communities have lived in for thousands of years start to disappear? A few of the direct consequences of changing environmental conditions include loss of natural resources, restricted access to traditional gathering areas for food and medicine, and forced displacement or relocation. Despite these challenges, many Indigenous communities are adapting traditional lifeways and advocating for change.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is an essential part of the climate conversation. In California, tribes across the state are actively involved in climate change-related planning and adaptation. The Karuk tribe in northern California recently completed a Climate Adaptation Plan that leans on Traditional Ecological Knowledge to protect their culture, according to Bill Tripp, deputy director of the Karuk Natural Resources Department. The tribe is currently implementing indigenous burning practices to reduce the buildup of forest fuels and help prevent high-severity wildfires. Many other tribal communities, including the North Fork Mono and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, are also engaged in prescribed burning. The Coast Miwok are currently working with the National Park Service at Point Reyes to help protect cultural sites that are disappearing due to erosion and flooding. The organization Climate Science Alliance is supporting the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians to create a climate adaption plan. These projects and partnerships are just a few of the many climate change initiatives currently led by California tribal communities.

These climate-related impacts extend beyond California. Climate change affects Indigenous communities across the globe who live in or are connected to a broad diversity of natural environments. The Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea are the first place in the world to require population relocations specifically due to climate change. However, Papua New Guinea was also the first country to submit a formal climate action plan under the Paris Agreement, just one of many examples of community action and response. In Australia, which is currently facing drought, increased wildfires, rising sea levels, and coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advocating for policy change within the Australian government for climate change planning, which includes actions like reducing carbon emissions and building emergency sea walls.

Aerial view of the Carteret Islands. | Courtesy of NASA
Aerial view of the Carteret Islands. | Courtesy of NASA

Many Pacific Islander communities are also building new infrastructure and creating relocation plans. Native Hawaiian people — whose lifeways have long been linked with the ocean — are some of the global leaders in climate change policy, planning, and adaptation. In 2018, the Hawai’i legislature passed two bills pledging to make the state carbon neutral by 2045.

Fishing continues to be an important part of life in Hawai’i, as a source of food and trade. For thousands of years, Native Hawaiians built fish ponds in coastal estuaries to produce millions of pounds of fish as a staple food source. Rising temperatures are now drying up these ancestral ponds. Community members today are moving nets, installing aeration systems, and using flexible harvest strategies in these ponds to adapt to warming ocean temperatures.

Many Native Alaskan tribes, which include Yupik, Inuit, Iñupiat, and Aleut communities, have lived in ancestral villages along the coast for thousands of years, relying on fishing and subsistence hunting of marine mammals such as seals and walrus for survival. Due to rapid sea ice melt, approximately 87% of Native Alaskan villages are experiencing erosion, and many are being forced to move. Hunters have also turned to new methods, including flying drones over ancestral hunting grounds, to track sea ice and walrus populations.

Traditional Native Alaskan seal hunting, circa 1911. | Public Domain
Traditional Native Alaskan seal hunting, circa 1911. | Public Domain

When changing environmental conditions result in habitat loss, this can offset the balance between humans and important wildlife species. In Papua New Guinea, the crocodile and the cassowary bird — two culturally significant species — are losing habitat due to rising river levels. One of the creation stories from the Iatmul community in Papua New Guinea describes a world engulfed by water. An ancestral crocodile came and scooped part of the submerged land onto its back, lifting it to the surface. Ironically, thousands of years later, this prophetic creation story seems all too real. The cassowary, a critically endangered bird species, is seen as kin, and the use of their bones and feathers in material culture signifies relationships with ancestors.

A canoe prow carved into the shape of a crocodile from the Iatmul Community in Papua New Guinea, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. | Courtesy of the Global Museum.
A canoe prow carved into the shape of a crocodile from the Iatmul Community in Papua New Guinea, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. | Courtesy of the Global Museum.

Plants can also serve as indicators of climate change. Even subtle differences in weather patterns can lead to a decrease in biodiversity. Indigenous communities are having to adapt agricultural practices, which often serve as the main food source for a region, and are losing the ability to gather medicinal plants that they rely on for healing. As temperatures continue to increase, some species that live in delicate microclimates, such as cloud forests and rainforest biomes, may no longer be able to survive.

For example, Indigenous communities in the Amazon Basin, which is home to over 80,000 plant species, have long relied on plants for medicinal purposes, many of which are also used in modern pharmaceuticals. Deforestation and land exploitation have made it more difficult to gather these species. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin regions of Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador are actively fighting to protect their ancestral territories from oil development and deforestation, frequently resulting in deadly consequences. Community members today often use cultural items such as headdresses and face paint for protests and political action in addition to traditional use.

Headdress worn by Chief Raoni Metuktire, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. | Courtesy of the Global Museum.
Headdress worn by Chief Raoni Metuktire, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. | Courtesy of the Global Museum.

As these case studies show, environmental changes can have major impacts on Indigenous people. Climate change impacts communities not only from an environmental standpoint but also at a cultural level. There are multiple Indigenous environmental groups, grassroots organizations, and guardians who are working together to combat these issues. As powerfully stated by Raoni Metuktire, Indigenous activist and chief of the Kayapó community in Brazil: “We all breathe this one air, we all drink the same water. We all live on this one planet. We need to protect the Earth. If we don’t, the big winds will come and destroy the forest. Then you will feel the fear that we feel.”

Top image: Indigenous people, fishermen, and climate activists protest during an oil and gas auction in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2017. | Juliana Colussi / Creative Commons

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