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CLIMATE CHANGE: Burden Lies with Rich Polluters, Native People Say

Stephen Leahy

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Apr 27 2009 (IPS) - Already suffering significant impacts from climate change, indigenous peoples at the close of an international summit here rejected the concept of carbon trading and offsets. Many also called for a moratorium on all new oil and gas exploration in their traditional territories and the eventual phase-out of fossil fuels.

Projects to reduce deforestation, like this jungle burned for agriculture in southern Mexico, must include recognition of land rights, indigenous people say.  Credit: Jami Dwyer

Projects to reduce deforestation, like this jungle burned for agriculture in southern Mexico, must include recognition of land rights, indigenous people say. Credit: Jami Dwyer

“It has been heartbreaking to hear everyone’s stories about the dire threats climate change poses to their survival,” said Andrea Carmen of the Yaqui Indian Nation in the U.S. at the end of the U.N.-affiliated Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change here last Friday.

More than 400 indigenous people and observers from 80 nations participated in the first ever global discussion on climate change focusing on native communities.

“Indigenous peoples are all profoundly affected by climate change, losing our traditional foods, homes and livelihoods,” Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, a U.S.-based rights organisation, told IPS.

Thirty years ago, the Inuit peoples of the Arctic warned the world of the dangers of climate change, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, president of the United Nations General Assembly, told delegates.

“Indigenous peoples have the lightest ecological footprint and have kept carbon out of the atmosphere by fighting against oil and gas extraction and protecting forests on their lands,” said Father d’Escoto.

Indigenous peoples can help the rest of the world cope with climate change, but the world has to be willing to listen and involve them at local, national and international levels and ensure that their rights are respected, he said. In particular, indigenous peoples need to be involved in the major international negotiations, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) later this year in Copenhagen.

“The world is starting to listen, make sure your voices are heard,” he said.

However, many indigenous peoples explicitly reject mainstream climate mitigation proposals like carbon offset programmes and carbon trading, calling them “false solutions” that have nothing to do with solving climate change crisis. Such programmes continue to allow ever greater amounts of carbon to be emitted, said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, an NGO based in the U.S.

“It’s privatisation of the air,” Goldtooth told IPS. Under such programmes, the atmosphere becomes another property that can be bought and sold, he said. “We cannot reconcile this with our strong cosmovision (understanding of the world) and spirituality.”

Goldtooth and many others are also wary of a proposed carbon emission reduction programme called reduced deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). Deforestation and degradation account for up to 25 percent of all anthropogenic carbon emissions annually.

REDD proposes that industrialised countries compensate tropical countries for halting deforestation and thus reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. In theory, local people would be compensated for protecting their forests.

However, such a programme would be a disaster for indigenous peoples without national recognition of their land rights, said Jorge Franco, co-director of Los Pueblos Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, an indigenous organisation in Latin America.

Indigenous Amazonian people are displaced and sometimes killed by paramilitaries taking over indigenous lands for oil palm plantations, Franco said through an interpreter. Oil and gas projects keep happening in their territories without their consent. “Land titling must come before anything like REDD,” he stressed.

There is also a major need for capacity building to teach local communities what such programmes are all about and what the real benefits and problems may be. “Local communities must have the final word in all proposals,” Franco said.

But the first and most important action on climate is for all industrialised countries to cut their emissions, he added: “Here (in the north) is where the carbon pollution is happening that is affecting our forests.”

That point is emphasised a final declaration signed by the indigenous representatives and Father d’Escoto and which will be presented at the U.N. General Assembly and later at the UNFCCC in Copenhagen this December. The Anchorage Declaration says: “Mother Earth is no longer in a period of climate change, but in climate crisis.”

More controversially, it says indigenous people support a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling on indigenous lands and a phase-out of fossil fuels while respecting the rights of indigenous people to develop their resources.

Many participants, and particularly the youth delegates and those from the Pacific region, wanted a full moratorium on new oil and gas drilling and a phase-out of fossil fuels. However, delegates from the oil- and gas-rich Arctic region demurred.

“There was major support for a full moratorium,” said youth delegate Clayton Thomas-Müller of the Mathais Colomb Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada.

“In my opinion the extractive industries (oil, gas, mining), the World Bank and promoters of REDD have incredible power and resources to cause division amongst our grassroots organisations,” Thomas-Müller told IPS.

However, he also felt that support was building amongst indigenous peoples to challenge nation states regarding “false solutions and market-based carbon mitigation schemes” and those trying to profit from the climate crisis.

The member states of the United Nations need to know that the planet is our mother, David Choquehuanca Céspedes, foreign minister of Bolivia, told delegates towards the end of the summit.

“We all live on the skirts of our Mother – that is how we say it in my region,” Céspedes said through a translator.

“We, all of us, were raised by Mother Earth. We’re all brothers and sisters, not just humans, plants and animals. Indigenous people understand that the most important thing of all is life in all its forms,” he said. “Climate change threatens life.”

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