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Indigenous communities and climate change

In this article, we’ll explore the ways in which climate change is impacting indigenous communities, as well as why they are often best placed to act as stewards of the vulnerable ecosystems on which they depend.
Green News
2023-09-01T00:00:00.000Z
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Indigenous communities have deeply interconnected relationships with the local environment that they live in and its natural resources, which is why they are often the first to feel the devastating effects of climate change. This close connection with their surroundings also means that indigenous peoples possess the knowledge and practices needed to safeguard these vulnerable environments. Yet, the international community has often overlooked the crucial role that they play. 

👉 In this article we’ll explore the ways in which climate change is impacting indigenous communities, as well as why they are often best placed to act as stewards of the vulnerable ecosystems on which they depend.

Indigenous communities and their connection to the environment

The lives of Indigenous peoples and communities are often closely intertwined with their surrounding environments. They rely on these ecosystems for shelter, food, and sustenance. At times the connection can be so deep, and so long-standing, that it takes on a physical, social, cultural, and even spiritual meaning. 

Non-Indigenous people often view land as a commodity to be bought and sold, however, for Indigenous peoples it is often much more than this, and many communities view their connection with the land akin to a personal relationship. They love and care for the land, and in return, the land provides them with the means to live and thrive. 

It’s estimated that there are around 476 million people who identify as Indigenous, which is less than 5% of the world’s 8.8 billion strong population. Yet, according to the United Nations, Indigenous communities “safeguard an estimated 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity”. This is why they are disproportionately affected by climate change - it’s also why they are essential to the protection and preservation of the world’s most valuable natural environments.

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How is climate change impacting indigenous communities?

Unfortunately, climate change often exacerbates the many injustices that Indigenous peoples face. For years Indigenous communities have been vulnerable to land destruction and loss, human rights violations, social and political exclusion, and discrimination. And as the impacts of climate change intensify, the very survival of some Indigenous communities is now under threat. 

The United Nations provides examples of some of the impacts that climate change is having on Indigenous communities around the world:

  •  Kalahari Desert, Africa - Indigenous peoples residing in the Kalahari Desert are increasingly forced to rely on government support due to rising temperatures resulting in water scarcity, dune expansion, and increasingly hostile weather which impacts their ability to raise livestock. 
  • Amazon Rainforest, South America - The livelihoods of Indigenous tribes living in the Amazon rainforest are under threat from deforestation due to the expansion of agricultural land, mining operations, and illegal logging. Climate change is also increasing incidences of wildfires, which is also threatening their habitat. 
  • Himalayas, Asia - Glacial melting caused by increasing global temperatures is threatening the availability of water in the region, impacting hundreds of millions of people living in rural communities. 
  • Scandinavia, Europe - Saami communities residing in areas stretching across Norway, Sweden, and Finland rely on reindeer for their livelihoods. However, milder weather and increasing rainfall is preventing herds from accessing their normal food sources, resulting in significant declines in herd numbers. 
  • Arctic region, North America - Indigenous communities in the Arctic region not only depend on native species of wildlife for food, but these animals also form a part of their cultural identity. However, changing weather patterns and decreasing ice are causing a decline in species numbers. Not only this, reduced ice is also making travel in the region more dangerous for Indigenous peoples. 

These examples are just a few of the many ways in which Indigenous peoples are being disproportionately impacted by climate change. An injustice that is all the more pronounced due to the fact that Indigenous peoples contribute very little to global carbon emissions - in fact, in many cases, Indigenous communities actually help to reduce global emissions through their protection and stewardship of local ecosystems.

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How Indigenous communities benefit the environment

There is an increasing body of evidence and research that shows the many positive impacts that Indigenous communities have on their surrounding environment, and how climate action should look to include these communities in order to increase effectiveness. These findings have been supported by international bodies such as the World Resources Institute (WRI), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the United Nations (UN). 

Let’s take a closer look at some of the main findings:

Protection of forests

Research shows that areas of forest that are managed by Indigenous communities have significantly lower rates of deforestation. One study found that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest was two to three times lower in areas that were under the control of Indigenous tribes. 

Another study determined that 36% of the world’s “intact forests” (i.e. areas of forest that have not been encroached upon or affected by human activity) are within the lands of Indigenous peoples. These forests are crucial for carbon sequestration - a natural process that helps to capture and store excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby reducing the impact of climate change. Forests such as the Amazon rainforest also play an important role in maintaining regional weather systems and regulating water supplies. 

This is because Indigenous peoples possess decades-old knowledge of how to look after their natural habitats. They are able to use the natural resources of their environment in a way that sustains their communities without depleting or destroying resources. Indigenous land is one of the most effective forms of environmental conservation - in fact, it’s been shown that land under the control of Indigenous communities is even better preserved than areas of nature that have been afforded special protection by governments (such as wildlife reserves and national parks). 

👉 To learn more about the crucial role that the Amazon rainforest plays in maintaining environmental stability check out our article on the topic.

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Legal protection and forest management

Not only does research show that forests under the control of Indigenous communities benefit from reduced rates of deforestation, but studies also show that this rate declines even further when these Indigenous peoples are afforded legal land rights. 

It’s thought that where governments grant land titles to Indigenous communities they are more incentivised to protect and preserve the land and that others are more likely to respect their stewardship too (making illegal encroachment less likely). One study looked at rates of deforestation in areas of the Brazilian Amazon under the control of Indigenous groups with land rights and without. The data showed that deforestation was significantly less in areas where communities had legal rights over the land. 

The Amazon rainforest has been victim to illegal activities that irreversibly damage the ecosystem - activities such as illegal mining and logging result in the destruction of trees and vegetation. Where Indigenous communities possess legal titles over this land, they are in a much better position to combat this.

Additionally, these land rights provide leverage, allowing communities to negotiate with investors and developers of new projects in the region, ensuring that they receive their fair share of benefits.

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Carbon sequestration  

Forest and vegetation play a significant role in terms of carbon capture and storage. Research shows that Indigenous forests store about twice as much carbon as they release, absorbing around 7.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. 

💡 Did you know? The ability of forests to absorb carbon dioxide has been shown to be significantly higher in areas of forest under the control of Indigenous communities. This is because the forest and vegetation in these areas tend to be in better condition meaning that it has a higher carbon density. 

Given that around 50% of the world’s land is occupied by indigenous peoples, they have significant input when it comes to global carbon sequestration, and therefore a critical impact on mitigating climate change. This is why Indigenous peoples should be involved in climate change talks, and why it’s imperative that their communities and ways of life are afforded protection and support.

A study of tropical and subtropical countries shows that indigenous peoples control or manage 17% of carbon stored in the world’s forests. If these forests were to be destroyed this would release carbon emissions totalling around three times the world’s average global energy emissions. It’s no exaggeration to say that this would be a climate disaster.
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Economic benefits outweigh the costs

The cost of establishing legal land rights for indigenous communities is significantly outweighed by the benefits. Studies estimate that the overall economic benefits derived from indigenous lands over a period of two decades are between $700 and $1,561 billion for Brazil, Bolivia, and Colombia alone, whereas the cost of establishing and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples within this region only amounts to 1% of this. 

These numbers clearly show that protecting Indigenous land rights is a highly cost-efficient way to approach climate change mitigation.

Examples of how indigenous communities can be supported, and the Earth’s ecosystems protected

Mexico 

75% of Mexico’s forests are managed by 12 million local and Indigenous peoples. However, a significant percentage of these people face threats of climate change, poverty, and high levels of youth migration. Supporting these communities is therefore imperative if we want to protect their culture, and protect Mexico’s forests. This is why the World Bank created a financing program to provide funding to locally established sustainable farm and forestry enterprises. 

Vietnam 

The Rainforest Alliance is helping to support sustainable agriculture in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Training in sustainable farming skills is being offered to Indigenous communities in the region to help conserve the local environment, coupled with financial literacy training to improve the economic situation of the region.

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The importance of legal protection for Indigenous rights

The examples above showcase the important role that charities and associations, as well as international institutions, can play in supporting Indigenous peoples. However, what’s even more effective is the introduction and enforcement of legal rights for such communities. 

An example of this in action can be found in the legal ruling of the United States of America vs State of Oregon. This case saw the legal upholding of Indigenous rights over fish stocks in the Columbia River. By providing legal protection to the Indigenous communities, local tribes were able to participate in the development of river fish management plans which has allowed fish stock in the river to recover and the health of the river to improve. This example perfectly illustrates the environmental benefits of introducing and upholding the legal rights of Indigenous peoples over their local environment. 

Unfortunately, examples like this are few and far between. The legal rights of Indigenous communities are often ignored or denied in favour of commercial gain and development. Thankfully, however, there are signs of improvement in some countries. For example, in Brazil, President Lulu has committed to protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and has created a new Indigenous Peoples Ministry as well as resumed the legal titling of Indigenous land ( a practice that was suspended under former President Bolsenaro’s tenure). 

👉 To read more about how President Lulu has vowed to increase the protection of the Amazon rainforest and protect the rights of Indigenous communities, check out our article.

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Is enough being done to secure the rights of Indigenous peoples and to include them in climate change discussions?

Following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, Indigenous communities have been pushing for inclusion in discussions centring on climate change. However, they have unfortunately often been sidelined and excluded from crucial talks.

Initially, Indigenous Communities were considered to be victims of climate change as opposed to valuable assets in the fight against it. But thankfully, we’re starting to see a change in attitudes and Indigenous peoples are increasingly being invited to participate in climate change talks. Indigenous peoples and local community activists are now invited to participate in international events such as the annual Conference of the Parties (otherwise known as COP). Yet there is undeniably more work to be done to ensure that the opinions and experiences of Indigenous communities are given an adequate platform.  

While it's important that governments and international bodies such as the UN work to increase their inclusion of indigenous communities in climate change discussions and considerations, it’s also essential that countries with Indigenous populations include Indigenous peoples in their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC - i.e. national climate action plans required by the Paris Agreement). 

It is recommended that countries adopt the following provisions in order to protect Indigenous communities and their local environments: 

  • Recognise and uphold the land rights of Indigenous peoples. This includes support (legal and practical) when Indigenous land is encroached upon. 
  • Sufficiently compensate Indigenous communities for the ecosystem services that they perform. For example, they should be appropriately compensated for their protection of forests which sequester carbon. 
  • Support for Indigenous communities who sustainably manage their land and natural resources. This includes protection from illegal activities.
  • The provision of resources and education to Indigenous communities to support their businesses and organisations. Ensuring the economic survival of such communities is intrinsically linked to environmental protection.
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The importance of financial support for Indigenous communities

In addition to increased participation in climate change discussions and governmental support in terms of land rights and legal protections, Indigenous communities also require adequate financial support. 

The participation of Indigenous communities in crucial climate change talks and action is often constrained by lack of access to funding. Indigenous communities have an important role to play in terms of protecting our invaluable environments - something that helps to mitigate climate change - however, they can only achieve this if they are adequately remunerated.

Looking forward 

Indigenous communities and peoples play a crucial role in combating the devastating threats of catastrophic climate change. The environments that they manage are unparalleled in their capacity for carbon sequestration, and also act as vital reservoirs of global ecosystem services - services such as biodiversity conservation, watershed protection, and soil fertility enhancement, to name just a few. 

Given the significant role that Indigenous peoples play, it’s therefore paramount that the international community and governments around the world take action to include these communities in vital climate change discussions, and to extend legal rights to allow them to effectively protect the invaluable natural environments that they call home.

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What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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