Climate Change, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, North America

Climate Changes Bring Harsh Reality for Native Americans

Elizabeth Whitman

NEW YORK, Aug 4 2011 (IPS) - In Shishmaref, an Inupiaq village on an Alaskan barrier island north of the Bering Strait, a way of life is gradually disappearing due to higher temperatures, rising sea levels, declining numbers of sea animals to hunt, and shrinking shorelines wrought by climate change.

The effects of climate change may be felt across the globe, but in the United States, compared to the general population, indigenous peoples feel the impact disproportionately, a report published Wednesday by the National Wildlife Federation concluded.

Because they are dependent on it for their social, cultural, and economic welfare, “indigenous people… have a unique relationship to the natural system in which they live,” Kim Gottschalk, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, told reporters Wednesday.

As a result, “they are the first to be affected” by changes in the climate and physical world, he added.

The average 45 percent unemployment rate among Tribes means that the added costs and damage, both social and economic, resulting from climate change only exacerbate the struggles for communities facing high rates of poverty. Some 565 federally recognised Tribes exist in the United States, which has an American Indian and Alaska Native population of 3.2 million.

In several tribal areas of the U.S., such as Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, and sections of Washington state home to Hoh, Quinault, and Quileute Tribes, and other sections of the Pacific Northwest inhabited by Tulalip Tribes, changing water flow or glacial melting patterns leading to flooding or shifts in river flows are damaging fisheries and agricultural infrastructure, not to mention homes and buildings.

Funding increases urged

Because the future promises the intensification of extreme weather – bigger snowstorms, for instance, or more serious droughts – rather than its mitigation, the report suggested greater funding to Tribes as the most effective means of dealing with the consequences of climate change.

“Increasing the resiliency of public and private infrastructure… can provide a cushion when extreme weather and climate events occur,” the report recommended.

But climate change adaptation planning requires significant financial resources, as do programmes to educate Tribal youth who will ultimately deal with the impacts of climate change.

Furthermore, in certain programmes, funding for Tribes is managed by the state, so if a state rejects federal funds, Tribes in that state can only obtain funding if they prove to the federal government that the state is not meeting Tribes’ needs – an additional hindrance.

“There has been a history of a lack of funding in order to give Tribes the… financial capacity to participate as they need to as sovereign partners in addressing this global problem,” Gottschalk said.

Not only would additional funding for programmes to manage the effects of climate change benefit Tribes, but some also say that Tribes use those funds more efficiently.

Gary Morishima, a founding member of Our Natural Resources (ONR) – a coalition of over 30 Tribes and Tribal organisations developing a strategy to conserve natural resources – pointed out in an interview with IPS that credible research has shown that “the funding that’s spent to support the efforts of indigenous communities is far more effective” than pouring dollars into government-run, bureaucratic mechanisms.

The report also suggested increasing the energy efficiency of Tribal houses to reduce energy costs for Indian Tribes, who incur some of the highest energy costs in the country.

Native Americans as partners

Native Americans have lived in harmony with nature for generations, with “a tremendous accumulation of knowledge that has been transmitted and shared” through those generations, Morishima said.

“Interconnection between people and land and resources… is really the tribal way,” he added.

That knowledge is precisely the reason groups such as ONR argue for involving Tribes and their perspectives when discussing how to deal with climate change. What Tribes can contribute are time-proven practices that are “sustainable, bountiful and cost effective,” Aguto told reporters.

“When you combine this knowledge… with modern natural resources management practices, you will find a highly effective partnership,” he explained.

A World Bank study declared that in Latin America, lands under the control of indigenous people are less prone to forest fires than other protected areas. This example is outstanding proof, Aguto told IPS, that giving funding to indigenous peoples is an extremely effective way of preventing forest fires.

Those promoting the inclusion of Tribal perspectives in climate change discussions argue that this type of knowledge of indigenous peoples should be applied in other areas of environmental protection.

Still, obtaining funding for indigenous peoples so that their accumulated empirical knowledge can become part of the discussion is a “crucial component” in climate change discussions right now, he added.

Tribes’ way of life follows the concept of reciprocity – one takes resources from the earth but gives back respect and care, Morishima said. Current debates on climate change lack that perspective, he remarked. For these reasons, the viewpoints and beliefs of indigenous peoples need to be considered when discussing climate change.

Cooperation between Tribes, NGOs and the government is essential to combat climate change not only to pool information but also because Tribes are sovereign nations, Gottschalk emphasised during the briefing.

“It is absolutely crucial that they be treated as sovereign partners at nations,” particularly when addressing the effects of climate change, he added.

On Aug. 9, the United Nations will celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. First celebrated in 1995, International Day will focus this year on indigenous designs to highlight the need for preserving indigenous cultures.

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