Indigenous People & Climate Change

3951342261_f3cd75b9d1_bThere are over 476 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the world, accounting for 6.2 per cent of the global population. The 9th of August is celebrated as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, marking the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in 1982. Among other things, the day also recognizes the achievements and contributions that indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection.

Indigenous peoples are the holders of unique cultures, traditions and knowledge systems and have a special relationship with their lands and hold diverse concepts of development based on their own worldviews and priorities. At the same time, Indigenous peoples face numerous challenges, such as little or poor access to sanitation, lack of clean water, inadequate medical services, widespread stigma and discrimination, as well as land grabbing and encroachment on their lands.

Climate change has exacerbated the difficulties already faced by vulnerable indigenous populations in many regions. These communities are often found to be sharing a close relationship with nature and dependent on natural resources but face widespread discrimination, including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, etc. Indigenous peoples around the world are often found at the frontlines of climate change and they are among the first to face the direct impacts of warming and rapid changes in the living environment.

99138934_2995235377221141_2716577333094907904_oIndia is home to about 700 tribal groups which constitute the second largest tribal population in the world after Africa. Many of these communities are forest or fringe forest dwellers, impoverished and dependent on natural resources for sustenance. Loss of forest cover, invasive vegetation and loss of indigenous food sources have emerged as direct threats to the food security of millions. The impact of climate change on native biodiversity used as food and medicine by indigenous communities is an unknown but expected consequence.

Recent policy decisions by the government of India will exacerbate these challenges. The decision to open and extend coal mining, allowing private sector into ancient forested areas, and the draft Environment Impact Assessment notification (EIA 2020) will have a profound impact on the wellbeing of indigenous communities. These decisions are being seen as contrary to the commitments made by the country for pursuance of the Sustainable Development Goals and as signatories to several global agreements.

Screenshot (5)The first ever climate change assessment for India published last month has also presented a grim analysis of observed changes and future projections of warming impacts. Across the Himalayan region, the lives of indigenous communities are threatened by glacial meltdown. In the short term accelerated melting of glaciers increases the volume of water flow, with floods and erosions downstream. In the long term, water scarcity has been predicted by several studies, as glaciers and snow cover shrink. The short term and long-term impacts will affect millions of montane and riparian communities across the Himalayan region.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Climate Change, Sustainability and People published last year stated that even in the best-case scenario, the Himalayan mountains will lose more than one-third of their ice by the end of the century. The projections by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development are worst for the Eastern Himalayan region, with near total loss of glaciers in the same time period. With rising temperatures and precipitation changes, the implications for indigenous communities will be profound and threats from glacial lakes, flash floods, landslides, erosion and extreme weather events are likely to increase.

The impacts of Eastern Himalayan warming is already manifest in the northeast of India, which is home to numerous indigenous communities. Blessed with natural largesse, the region is vulnerable to natural disasters. In December 2018, Assam and Mizoram were named as the most vulnerable to climate change among 12 Himalayan states at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) at Katowice, Poland.

Nowhere are the indigenous people more threatened than in the Amazon with the invasion of indigenous land by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil. Across the amazon, extractive industries implemented without the consent of indigenous people are threatening the livelihoods. Deforestation is a major cause of climate change and it is having a profound impact on the indigenous communities of the Amazon basis.

116877157_3559178834095123_3460451372540916890_nIndigenous communities in Africa, Australia and on the small island nations are facing multiple existential threats. Encroachment, water scarcity, food availability and disease are aggravated by climate change impacts. Rising sea levels may force the abandonment of some Pacific island nations and displace hundreds of thousands. Climate change impacts will likely lead to the worst ever humanitarian crisis, with indigenous communities being the worst affected.

The evidence suggests that the livelihoods and cultural identities of the more than 370 million indigenous peoples of North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific are already under threat. The utilization of traditional knowledge for conservation of the natural ecosystems has emerged as one of vital components for resilience development. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples establishes the right of indigenous peoples to the conservation and protection of the environment of their lands and resources.

The implications of climate change on indigenous populations is most pronounced in the Arctic region, which is warming at least three times faster than the rest of the world. In the high arctic region, indigenous communities have survived the extreme cold for tens of thousands of years, depending on hunting walrus, seals, reindeer and polar bear. Their economic, social and cultural existence and identity is associated with hunting, as well as herding reindeer and fishing.

The Sámi, Europe’s only recognized indigenous population, inhabit the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, extending across 388,000 square kilometers. The Sámi people have been herding reindeer in the frozen landscapes since the last Ice Age. Reindeer herding is vital to the culture, subsistence and economy of all the inhabitants of these regions, not just the indigenous communities. It will take all of the Saami traditions, local knowledge and methods of land and resource management and local knowledge to adapt to these rapid climatic changes.

The Inuit who live in northern Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Chukotka in Russia are hunters and the changing climate and landscape has forced them to alter hunting and harvesting time. They are worried about the loss of sea ice and extinction threat to animals like the polar bears, walrus, seals, and marine birds that rely on sea ice as habitat. The Inuit culture and relationship are uniquely related to the Arctic ecosystem, and what happens to the species directly affects their future.

Other indigenous people of the arctic, namely, the Aleut in the Aleutian Islands, Gwich’in in North America, Nenets, Chukchi and many others in northern Russia face similar existential challenges. It is expected that the opening up of the High Arctic sea routes and the race to exploit minerals and hydrocarbons of the hitherto inaccessible north will further compromise the survival of the indigenous communities of the region.

photo of group of men wearing assorted scarves holding sticks
Photo by Follow Alice on

Climate change poses a danger to the survival of indigenous communities worldwide, even though indigenous peoples contribute little to greenhouse emissions.  However, indigenous peoples are vital to the creating a dynamic adaptation and mitigation pathway. Involvement of local communities in conserving and restoring the natural ecosystems is important to enhance resilience. It is widely recognized that traditional knowledge and solutions must be harnessed for appropriate localized responses to help cope with these challenges.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was first pronounced by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1994 to raise awareness and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population.  There are many examples of the fact that indigenous people interpret and react to the impacts of climate change in creative ways, drawing on traditional knowledge and other technologies to find solutions which may help society at large to cope with impending changes.  Planning for the future should include enhancement and support for the adaptive capacity of indigenous peoples integrated with disaster preparation, land-use planning, environmental conservation and sustainable development strategies.


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