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ENVIRONMENT: Indigenous Peoples Demand Greater Role in Climate Debate

Stephen Leahy* - Tierramérica

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Apr 20 2009 (IPS) - While indigenous peoples from around the world are meeting in this Alaskan city to seek a greater role in global climate negotiations, the rapidly warming Arctic is forcing some Inuit villages to be relocated.

“We have centuries of experience in adapting to the climate and our traditional lifestyles have very low carbon footprints,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous leader from the Philippines and chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, told Tierramérica.

Carbon-based gases are the principal cause of the greenhouse effect, which leads to climate change. The excessive release of these gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, comes from human activities: the combustion of fossil fuels in industry and transportation, and emissions from livestock production and deforestation.

Some 400 indigenous people, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and observers from 80 nations, are gathered in Anchorage, Alaska for the Apr. 20-24 U.N.-affiliated Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change.

They will discuss and synthesise ways that traditional knowledge can be used to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

“Indigenous peoples have contributed the least to the global problem of climate change, but will almost certainly bear the greatest brunt of its impact,” said Patricia Cochran, chair of both the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the April Summit.

In her opinion, indigenous peoples are leaders and experts when it comes to the climate debate. Any dialogue or negotiations will be far richer and productive with their participation, she said.

But indigenous peoples are also on the front lines when it comes to climate change impacts, Cochran told Tierramérica.

The village of Newtok, about 800 kilometres east of Anchorage, is the first of several villages in need of relocation due to climate change. Because of higher average temperatures, intensifying river flow and melting permafrost are destroying homes and infrastructure, forcing 320 residents to relocate to a higher site 15 km west, at an expected cost in the tens of millions of dollars.

Five other Alaskan Inuit settlements are in urgent need of relocation, including Shishmaref (population 560) and Kivalina (377), where autumn storm waves are no longer contained by shore-fast ice, leading to severe coastal erosion. Dozens of similar settlements are considered threatened.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the regions most affected – such as the Arctic, Caribbean and Amazon – are where most of the indigenous people live, says Sam Johnston of the Tokyo-based United Nations University, a co-sponsor of the Summit.

Around the world, 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 to 350 million, representing about six percent of humanity.

Because of their long cultural and spiritual connection to the land, oceans and wildlife, indigenous peoples have a lot to offer, Johnston said in an interview.

“The world owes it to both the indigenous peoples and itself to pay greater heed to the opinions of these communities and to the wisdom of ages-old traditional knowledge,” he said.

The major goal of the Summit is to help strengthen the indigenous communities’ participation in and articulate messages and recommendations to the December conference of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in Copenhagen.

There, the world’s governments will negotiate a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (which expires in 2012) to reduce carbon emissions and to create an adaptation fund to help poor countries.

The indigenous Summit will conclude in Anchorage on Friday with a declaration and action plan, and a call for world governments to fully include indigenous peoples in any post-Kyoto climate change regime adopted in Copenhagen.

Indigenous peoples currently have no formal role at the climate talks, although native representatives were part of Bolivia’s delegation to a series of preparatory meetings earlier this month in Bonn, Germany.

Ideally, indigenous peoples would have a formal advisory role, as they currently do under the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity, said Tauli-Corpuz.

“Unfortunately, no government has been willing to push for this under the UNFCCC,” she said.

The “Anchorage Declaration” will be signed by President Evo Morales, who is of Aymara origin; Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, president of the U.N. General Assembly; and Danish Parliamentarian Juliane Henningsen, representing Greenland, says Cochrane.

Issues like reducing deforestation and boosting massive re-forestation efforts can have major impacts on indigenous peoples, and it is vital that indigenous rights are acknowledged and respected in any final climate agreement, said Tauli-Corpuz.

But, warned the UNU’s Johnston, bilateral discussions, especially between China and the United States, are heating up ahead of the Copenhagen meet, and may push indigenous peoples’ involvement to the sidelines.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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