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Climate Change

Climate change threatens indigenous peoples’ lives, culture and tourism

Hazel Heyer, eTN Staff Writer  Apr 27, 2009

Indigenous peoples, hard hit by the ravages of global warming gathered last week in Anchorage, Alaska for talks on the impact of climate change on their communities. “Indigenous peoples are on the frontlines of this global problem, at a time when their cultures and livelihoods in traditional lands are already threatened,” said Patricia Cochran, chairman of the Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change in Alaska.

Outraged at the intensifying rate of destruction the climate crisis is having on the earth and all peoples, they called for support and funding to create adaptation and mitigation plans for themselves, based on their own traditional knowledge and practices.

Locals from all regions of the world depend upon their natural environment. Their rich and detailed traditional knowledge reflects and embodies a cultural and spiritual relationship with the land, ocean and wildlife. However, human activity is changing the world’s climate and altering the natural environment to which indigenous peoples are so closely attached to and on which they so heavily rely.

Indigenous people are at the forefront of climate change. They observe climate and environmental changes first-hand and use traditional knowledge and survival skills to adapt to these changes as they occur. Moreover, they must do so at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already undergoing significant changes due, in part, to the accelerated development of natural resources from their traditional territories stimulated by trade liberalization and globalization.

The effects on tourism can be widely devastating too. As global warming continues to carve the hemisphere, populations tend to move. They migrate, and eventually villages risk elimination of waves of people. Long before local cultures disappear, the potential to lure tourists to the heritage attractions evaporate.

In addressing the root problem - the burning of fossil fuels – the natives demanded an immediate moratorium on new fossil fuel development and called for a swift and just transition away from fossil fuels.

"While the arctic is melting, Africa is suffering from drought and many Pacific Islands are in danger of disappearing. Indigenous people are locked out of national and international negotiations," said Jihan Gearon, native energy and climate campaigner of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "We're sending a strong message to the next UN Framework Convention on Climate Change this December in Copenhagen, Denmark that business as usual must end, because business as usual is killing us. Participants at the summit stood united on sending a message to the world leaders in Copenhagen calling for a binding emission reduction target for developed countries of at least 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 95 percent by 2050."

Faith Gemmil, director of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands is a Pit River/ Wintu and Neets'aii Gwich'in Athabascan from the Arctic Village of Alaska. She said her indigenous group is challenging the fossil fuel and mining industries by demanding their rights to a safety and healthy environment. “We would like to address the impacts brought on by unsustainable development practices. There are disproportionate impacts of the fossil fuel industry upon the indigenous people of Alaska, perpetuating climate change impacts; and vice versa, climate change impacts perpetuate further encroachment on the land we depend on for subsistence,” she said.

According to her, native folks have suffered tremendously due to the production and use of energy resources such ash coal mining, uranium mining, oil and gas extraction, coal bed methane, nuclear power and hydropower development - yet are among those who benefit least from these energy developments. Indigenous peoples face inequity over the control of, and access to, sustainable energy and energy services.

“The impacts of climate change in Alaska include erosion of coastal areas, which cause relocation of sunken cities, becoming a big impact to communities. The ice is melting quicker, opening up the waterways into the oceans – which the industry takes advantage of. Now they are saying that since the passageways are now open, they say they want to launch more offshore drilling sites and are able to transport through shipping,” she said adding the developers, through the Bush administration, were trying to open millions of acres of offshore waters in Alaska. However, she said her group won the case. "Alaska natives network and we are fighting back. We recently won a major battle last week as the District Court of Columbia threw out a plan to access 83 million acres of the Outer Continental Shelf that was driven by Shell Oil. Shell has a long history of human rights violations, for which many have suffered and died, like Ken Saro-Wiwa of the Ogoni People in the Niger Delta of Africa."

“It does not end there however; Shell came out recently with a statement disclosing a plan to develop the sea, the primary subsistence use waters of the coastal communities. People have lived there for thousands of years, interdependently upon the water on their shorelines. They thrived on whaling, marine mammal subsistence, salmon culture – providing an economy for people in the region,” she said contradicting who fuel miners who insist that the salmon is dwindling, and is no longer an economy the people can rely on. So welcome offshore development.

Territories where indigenous peoples live are resource rich and serve as the base from which governments and corporations extract wealth yet are areas where the most severe form of poverty exists.

Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, is Dakota and Dine (Navajo) from Minnesota. He said: "We want real solutions to climate chaos and not the false solutions like forest carbon offsets and other market based mechanisms that will benefit only those who are making money on those outrageous schemes.”

Already on their way to their ‘limited’ prosperity are the Osage in Oklahoma and Crow tribes pursuing coal-bed methane projects, while the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota are entering the oil refinery business. The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in Colorado are pursuing oil development with an eye towards coal-bed methane development. The Fort Mohave tribe along the lower Colorado River in Arizona and California are leasing their land to California based energy company, Calpine Corporation, to build a natural gas electrical generating plant. Easements allowing the building of electrical transmission lines throughout Indian country are being negotiated, often without adequate input from grassroots tribal members.

Goldtooth said, "One the solutions to mitigate climate change is an initiative by the World Bank to protect forests in developing countries through a carbon market regime called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation or REDD. But don't be fooled, REDD does nothing to address the underlying drivers of deforestation."

Clean energy and green jobs will provide a positive benefit to Indian reservations more so than non-renewable coal, oil or nuclear power combined. Dirty power created from nuclear substances and dead fossil fuels on tribal lands merely expose native people to the dangers of short-sighted energy development. The land and its inhabitants end up paying an expensive price for dirty energy cultivation, said the IEN.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, the Canadian director for the Indigenous Environmental Network - Tar Sands Organizer, equates climate change to genocide. “At a time when we have to lower our emissions, the US and the Canadian governments are only expanding and harvesting the reductions. They’re not complying with the Kyoto Protocol. Effectively, they commit cultural genocide on our people. As our lands get degraded from expanding development and climate change, many of our people are leaving for economic reasons in the city. They don’t want to live in their territories anymore because their place becomes polluted and a great danger to their children,” he said.

Muller said many can no longer 'eat off' the land or harvest sacred medicines – a form of cultural genocide. “This will have seeping implications with visitors who want to come, share and spend time with local people and learn our traditions and our relationship to the sacredness of Mother Earth,” he said adding, “because this is coming to an end.” Canadians carry a message to Pres. Obama to issue a presidential order to halt all processes for approval of the expansion of oil sands pipeline infrastructure entering the United States as well as, support Alberta First Nation Chiefs demand to Canada for a moratorium on all expansion of Canadian tar sands development.

Tribal reservations maintain a high potential for wind and solar energies. The IEN asks the administration to address the cultural, health and economic burdens dirty energy creates by taking action to terminate all government incentives and financial backing for investment in non-renewable energy. In place of dirty investment, the administration must provide the financial subsidies necessary to encourage clean energy investment within Indian lands, said the IEN.

Egberto Tabo, General Secretary of COICA, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon Basin denounced "the genocide caused by the World Bank in the Amazon." Tabo rejected the inclusion of forests in the carbon market and the Bank's funding of REDD. The World Bank's representative, Navin Rai admitted that "the Bank has made mistakes in the past. We know that there were problems with projects like the trans-Amazon highway." But REDD, Tabo argued would not be more of the same. However, indigenous leaders at the global summit were unconvinced by his assurances and the Work Bank presentation ended with a Western Shoshone women's passionate appeal to the Bank to stop funding projects that endanger the survival of indigenous peoples.

Before worse comes to worst, tourists would have long left these culture havens sacred to the natives. Obama confronts another challenge.

Climate change threatens indigenous peoples’ lives, culture and tourism
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