Tribal communities play growing role in climate protection | Global Ideas | DW | 07.08.2012
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Global Ideas

Tribal communities play growing role in climate protection

In many parts of the world, climate change has hit indigenous communities especially hard. Often, their intimate knowledge of the surrounding nature makes them a crucial partner in the battle against climate change.

A group of American Indians

Indigenous communities are found around the world

From the Arctic to tropical forests, remote coastal and mountain regions – many of the world’s original inhabitants of these regions still live in harmony with nature. It's no surprise, then, that these so-called indigenous people are among those most affected by climate change.

But that’s not the only reason why the global climate change debate is increasingly focusing on tribal communities. Climate change is also beginning to impact indigenous habitats. Many tribal communities live in regions – especially forested areas – that are in the frontline in the battle to save the climate.

According to a recent study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), indigenous peoples are set to bear the brunt of the changing climate, especially because they largely live in fragile eco-systems, tucked away in some of the world's remotest of regions. For centuries, that isolation has protected them and their cultures from outside influence and interference.

But the growing demand for natural resources and minerals in an increasingly industrialized world has meant that regions across the world - from the deserts of Africa to the Arctic tundra and the Amazon rainforest - have fallen prey to corporate and international interests.

Forestland in particular has suffered greatly from rampant logging. A study commissioned by the Germany Agency for International Cooperation (GiZ) reports that up to a fifth of global CO2 emissions can be traced to forest degradation.

'Important stakeholders' in climate change protection

Since many tribals live in and off forests, their importance in preserving the environment has long been an issue in global climate change negotiations. At UN climate talks in Bali in 2007, indigenous peoples were tapped as important stakeholders in implementing REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.

US President Obama with Indian leaders

President Obama's signature is noticeably absent from the UN declaration

The REDD initiative encompasses a variety of international projects aimed at slashing greenhouse gases from deforestation and the destruction of forest land, including the sale of carbon credits for protecting woodlands. Many politicians have paid lip service to the importance of REDD and the involvement of indigenous communities, but few have followed through.

Indigenous organizations like the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) are still waiting until today for a direct involvement in climate negotiations. Many such groups fear that any funds raised from carbon credits will simply be used to further exploit their land. And despite the 2007 UN declaration, hardly any country has established a natural reserve area for its indigenous population.

Global initiatives under fire

"At the end of the day, REDD will lead to the largest example of landgrabbing the world has ever seen," Tom Goldtooth, a Navajo Indian who heads IEN, said. "Carbon credits will lead to colonialism and forced privatization, to the detriment of indigenous peoples living on rainforest land. The people with the most power and money from the other end of the world can get their hands on massive tracts of land in developing countries."

Indigenous groups stepped up demands for their legal participation in climate change negotiations at this year’s Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development too.

But their efforts have so far haven’t been successful. Tribal representatives rejected the closing statement in Rio, saying the financial crisis in Europe appeared more important to the international community than finding a real solution to the world's ecological crisis.

As long as no country is willing to protect indigenous regions from environmental destruction and landgrabbing at the hands of timber and mining companies, they said, those communities will have much more pressing concerns than protecting the climate.

Economic interests trump social ones

Dionys Zink set up Action Group Native Americans & Human to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in North America. He said he’s been forced to witness many environmental efforts proposed by Canada's Lubicon Lake Indian Nation being sacrificed in favor of Canada's greater economic interests.

Trucks drive past sticky mounds of tar sand

Tar sands - not a suitable living environment

Tar sand deposits have been exploited and forest land destroyed, crippling the habitats of the indigenous population. Dionys Zink says the original Lubicon Cree members who fought for self-determination and the ability to negotiate on political stages have vanished, only to be replaced by "unrelated welfare recipients of Indian descent" who have neither the time nor the strength to save the climate or realize any forest preservation projects.”

The GiZ study "Indigenous peoples and climate change" came to the conclusion that everyone stands to benefit by protecting indigenous cultures. The report says projects must be adapted to reflect regional needs, as global solutions - drawn up by industrialized countries - do little to help.

Regional projects show the way

In that vein, numerous small, regionalized and tailor-made projects are already being implemented. The Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Brazilian Amazon exports medicinal plants like Guarana, rosewood oil and acerola fruit via a fairtrade network,. The network guarantees fair prices for the tribe as well as sustainable cultivation and distribution process. Fairtrade organizations around the world offer a promising alternative - a way to empower farmers and producers to work independently and under fair conditions.

Another example is the Taiga Rescue Network (TRN), an umbrella organization encompassing hundreds of NGO's and indigenous peoples who are fighting to preserve the world's boreal forests, or taiga. TRN protects everything from swamp and forestland in western Siberia to Sami indigenous communities in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Janice Barry of TRN has thrown her support behind so-called non-timber-forest-products, or NTFP's - products from a forest that don't require logging.

Tom Goldtooth b

Tom Goldtooth fears 'climate colonialism'

"When it comes to forestry, first of all nobody really thinks about untouched forestland. Unlike the way forests are used today, the people of the Taiga know how to use it for nourishment, medicinal products and other basic necessities without disrupting the eco-system," said Barry. She means without cutting trees, of course. She says the sale of meat, berries, mushrooms and medicinal plants has been a major economic boon for taiga communities whose land have been protected by the government.

Some point out that protecting indigenous cultures is a win-win situation. "Indigenous peoples can provide solutions for sustainable economic activity,” Tom Goldtooth said. “ Indigenous peoples have provided for entire civilizations without using chemical fertilizers, pesticides or oil," he pointed out.

Author: Wiebke Feuersenger /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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