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CLIMATE CHANGE: Native Peoples Sound Dire Warning

Stephen Leahy*

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Apr 22 2009 (IPS) - Humanity's hot carbon breath is not just melting the planet’s polar regions, it is disrupting natural systems and livelihoods around the world, indigenous people reported this week at a global meeting on climate change in Anchorage, Alaska.

Drought and hotter weather are making it very difficult to grow the staple crop of maize in most regions of Mexico. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Drought and hotter weather are making it very difficult to grow the staple crop of maize in most regions of Mexico. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"We indigenous people are the prow of the ship of humanity in the oncoming waves of climate change," said Vanessa Marsh of the small Pacific island of Niue.

Indigenous people are here to alert humanity and lead the way in healing Earth, Marsh, a youth delegate, told more than 400 representatives of world's indigenous peoples here.

Coastal erosion, mud slides, longer droughts and more severe hurricanes are just some of the impacts of climate change affecting the Caribbean region, Chief Charles Williams of the Kalinago people on the island of Dominica told the U.N.-affiliated Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change.

"Most indigenous people live on the margins…their 'purses' are not as strong as others when it comes to coping with climate change," Williams said.

"Climate change will make things significantly worse for people with difficult lives already due to discrimination, poor nutrition and health conditions," Anthony Oliver-Smith of the University of Florida and United Nations University's Institute for the Environment and Human Security.

"Most Indigenous Peoples today live oppressed existences as minority groups within states. Climate change for them layers another potentially crushing pressure on top of many others," Oliver-Smith said in statement.

At least 5,000 distinct groups of indigenous peoples have been identified in more than 70 countries, with a combined global population estimated at 300-350 million, representing about 6 percent of humanity.

Severe rainfall, extreme temperatures and rising sea levels are threatening the very existence of Pacific Island peoples, reported Fiu Mataese Elisara from the Pacific island of Samoa.

"Other islanders have already been displaced. This (climate change) is a life and death matter for us," Elisara, executive director of O le Siosiomaga Society, an environmental NGO, told IPS.

Many indigenous peoples have inhabited their lands for thousands of years. That long tenure and intimate connection with the natural environment has given them a unique sensitivity and understanding. And representatives of indigenous peoples around the world related the changes they are experiencing at the summit.

In Papua New Guinea, indigenous people report being forced to relocate due to a combination of population growth and the inundation of coastal land due to sea level rise. On the island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, the Dayak people have documented climate variations based on observations of bird species, rising water levels, and the loss of traditional medicinal plants.

Temperature changes in the Andean region have had a drastic impact on agriculture, health and biodiversity, evidenced by an increase in respiratory illnesses, a decrease in alpaca farming and a shortened growing season.

African indigenous peoples are reporting "serious impacts on their livelihoods" following a regional meeting to discuss climate change last month, said Joesph Ole Simel of Kenya. "Climate change is not just an environmental issue, it is a human rights issue," said Simel, who heads the Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organisation in Kenya.

Drought and the rise of new diseases affecting livestock are principle impacts which are leading to conflicts between tribal communities and land degradation as more animals have to share reduced pastoral lands. That in turn is forcing more and more people to abandon their traditional livelihoods and move into cities.

Drought and hotter weather are making it very difficult to grow maize in most regions in Mexico. Entire regions like Sonora will not be able to grow maize by 2020. "We don't want any more heat," said a representative from Oaxaca, Mexico through a translator.

The vast indigenous regions in Russia that compromise 75 percent of the country’s landmass are experiencing a wide range of climate impacts including melting permafrost, flooding rivers, and forests receding north, reducing the pasture for reindeers and bringing new insects and diseases.

More frequent and stronger tropical storms and hurricanes are a major threat to the entire Caribbean region, says Cletus Springer, of Saint Lucia and director of the Department of Sustainable Development for the Organisation of American States.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan devastated Grenada, a small country in the region. "That storm set the country back 10 years," Springer told the summit.

"We should never let those countries that created the problem (climate change) sidestep their responsibilities. Don't let them feel comfortable with their neglect, not for one moment," he urged delegates.

Stephen Leahy's trip to Alaska was financed by the United Nations University and Project Word, a U.S.-based media NGO.

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