Polar bears aren’t the only casualties of climate change. Indigenous people groups, whose food, livelihoods, and traditions are integrally linked to their environment, are among the hardest hit by changes in weather patterns. For instance, in the Arctic, flooding from melting ice has forced coastal tribes to evacuate entire communities, and has limited their ability to hunt, fish, and travel. In the Brazilian Amazon, a 2010 drought isolated communities dependent on the river for transportation, causing accidents and limiting the ability of fisherman to trade.
So while indigenous people have done the least to cause climate change, they are often the most affected by it. What’s more, many indigenous activism groups fear that new efforts to minimize climate change will also negatively impact their groups.
Biofuels created from sugar cane, for instance, are often promoted as a form of green energy. Yet in countries like Brazil, increases in sugar cane production and sugar plantations have led to land grabs by the government. Groups like Brazil’s Gurani tribe face eviction from their ancestral land, and many now live camped on roadsides or on tiny parcels of land.
Hydroelectric dams have had many of the same results. Though dams provide a clean source of energy, groups such as the Penan in Malaysia have been forced from their homes to make way for projects that flood their communities.
Other initiatives, such as REDD+ schemes (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degredation), also have the potential to negatively impact indigenous groups. REDD+ schemes are meant to curb deforestation, which accounts for 20% of all CO2 emissions, by allowing developed countries to pay poorer countries to protect their forests. This allows developed countries to offset their own carbon emissions, and motivates governments to limit deforestation.
However, the schemes raise questions about land ownership in developing countries. Who owns the trees, the forest, and the land the forests are grown on, and who should be paid to preserve it? Tens of millions of people live in and depend on the forests for a livelihood, and may face eviction by their government under the REDD+ schemes.
Indigenous groups are understandably wary of the potential outcomes of REDD+ plans. During the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico this December, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) condemned the Agreements surrounding REDD+. Leaders say that REDD+ agreements will commercialize nature, promote further governmental landgrabs from indigenous people, and threaten human rights.
So while progress is being made towards raising awareness and action to curb climate change, this progress must include the voices of all stakeholders. This includes indigenous communities who are most affected by climate change.