Indigenous people discuss climate change

Hundreds converge in Anchorage for global climate conference

Posted: Monday, April 20, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Hundreds of indigenous people from around the world are gathering in Anchorage this week to discuss climate change and solutions to a warming planet.

Al Grillo / The Associated Press File
Al Grillo / The Associated Press File

The Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change, a five-day United Nations-affiliated conference, will run through Friday, with about 400 people from 80 nations expected to attend.

On the first full day of the conference on Monday, reports on climate change will be presented covering seven regions around the globe.

"Indigenous peoples have contributed the least to the global problem of climate change but will almost certainly bear the greatest brunt of its impact," said Patricia Cochran, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, an organization representing approximately 150,000 Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka in Russia. The council is hosting the event.

While indigenous people are often "on the front lines" of the problem, Cochran said their voices are often not heard when discussing climate change.

The summit intends to change that, she said.

"We wanted to have a unified voice, to be able to have more influence over the political and other decisions that are being made that impact our communities," said Cochran, who also chairs the summit.

Organizers said the summit will conclude Friday with a declaration and an action plan, and a call to governments around the world to include indigenous people in any new regimes on climate change.

Conference recommendations will be presented to the Conference of Parties at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December.

The problems of climate change are real and pressing for many, organizers say. Take the case of Newtok, a village of about 325 people in western Alaska. The Ninglick River is rapidly consuming the land around the Yupik village, forcing residents to relocate to higher ground.

"The global warming is really strong," said Newtok resident Stanley Tom, one of the conference delegates. "The whole village is sinking right now."

Tom said with the increase in temperature, the permafrost has become extremely delicate and the tundra now is prone to tearing if vehicles run over it in the summer.

Village residents stay off it, he said.

"Once it tears, it starts to melt," Tom said.

Summit co-sponsor, Sam Johnston of Tokyo-based United Nations University, said southern Australia is experiencing the worst drought on record. The drought is occurring in an area of the country where much of Austalia's fruit, vegetables and grains are grown.

"It is having a dramatic impact on everybody, including the indigenous people," he said.

Johnston said people living in the Torres Strait Islands of Queensland, Australia, are being forced to move their township because of rising sea levels. The damage from storm surges is forcing them out, he said.

In Papua, New Guinea, indigenous people are being forced to relocate because a rise in sea level is flooding coastal areas there. Entire communities living off the Papau coast are moving back to the mainland.

In Borneo, climate change on the island in Southeast Asia is being blamed on the loss of traditional medicinal plants. And in Mexico, Mayan farmers in the highlands are having to find new ways to irrigate their crops because of a shortened rain season.

If the loss of glaciers continues in the Andean region along the western coast of South America, the growing season could be cut in half. That's because farmers would have only rainwater to irrigate.

In Kenya in east Africa, protracted droughts are killing livestock on which people there depend on for food and economic survival.

Organizers said indigenous groups hope not only to share with others how climate change is affecting their communities but also share ways in which traditional knowledge can be used to lessen the affects of climate change.

Indigenous groups have knowledge that can help, said Cochran. That's because indigenous people have centuries of experience when it comes to adapting to harsh environments, he said.

For example, the Aborigines in a large reserve in northern Australia have used traditional fire practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, allowing them to sell $17 million worth of carbon credits to industry, which in turn has generated significant new income for the community, Johnston said.

Tom said his small Alaska village is now an island, surrounded by a river that is eroding the very earth under their homes. But, he said, Newtok is not alone. Other Alaska villages are having similar problems with erosion and flooding.

Tom wants to learn more about what is happening to indigenous people elsewhere in the world.

"I am really interested outside of Alaska how they are being affected," he said.

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