Scientists agree that climate change is real, that it is caused by human activities, and that it is accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels. In the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, it was determined that to ensure the health of the planet, average global temperatures should not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (average temperatures through 1880).
Additionally, scientists agree that carbon dioxide must be reduced to 350 parts per million (ppm) in our atmosphere. Since the beginning of human civilization, the ratio of carbon dioxide remained fairly consistent at approximately 275 ppm, and this is the level at which life on Earth has evolved to live optimally.
As of early September 2015, the average global temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Celsius since 1880, and nine of the ten hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. Carbon dioxide stands at 400.84 parts per million, the highest levels the Earth has experienced in 650,000 years. And the world's nations are still deliberating about how to move forward with a binding climate change agreement. It is hoped that at the COP21 meetings in Paris in December 2015, a new universal climate agreement will be signed; an agreement with clear goals and commitments.
Humans' dependence on fossil fuels, our learned habits of consumption, and our global economy built on achieving ever-higher profits and continuous growth, are all part of the dream of the modern world. We have learned to act in certain ways that drive global warming and put life on Earth—not only human life but that of all plants and animals as well—at risk. Our society is built upon certain economic and political principles that seem to force our hand and make it very difficult to change our course.
A Different Dream of Reality
One way to shift our focus and incorporate a more Earth-friendly (and life-friendly) way of living into international policy as well as our everyday lives, is to weave together modern knowledge and indigenous wisdom.
Indigenous peoples typically maintain a deep, often spiritual, connection with the land on which they live. In most cases, indigenous traditions are based on living sustainably, taking no more from the land than what is necessary, and respecting the other life forms that inhabit the same area, such as the local plants and animals.
One example is the Seventh Generation Principle. This idea was included in the Constitution of the Iroquois Nation and states that whenever a decision is made, it must take into account not just the current generation, or the next one after that, but also the impact on people living seven generations in the future. We would do well to use this principle in our policy-making today.
Indigenous people not only live their own lives in harmony with nature, but many indigenous people—including our indigenous partners—are also advocates for all of humanity to do the same.
At the same time, studies have shown that indigenous people will be among the first to suffer the greatest and most immediate impact from climate change. For example, in the Amazon rainforest, deforestation and the warmer climate is causing changes to the growing seasons and fires in forested areas that previously were too wet to burn. In the high altitudes of the Himalayas as well as in the Arctic, indigenous people are severely impacted by the glacial melting and sea level rise which has impacted their hunting and their ability to travel safely amid the changing ice and weather conditions.
Why does this dichotomy exist, and what can be done to change it?
Why Indigenous People are Most at Risk from Climate Change
Many indigenous groups live in the most biodiverse regions of the planet. One of the greatest and most valuable resources that we stand to lose as a result of climate change is biodiversity. Global warming is currently causing unprecedented rates of extinction. In highly biodiverse areas, extinction rates are accelerating as climate change and other human-driven impacts (such as oil drilling) cause changes in temperature, seasons, water quality, and the balance of micro-organisms in the ecosystem. These changes then force the plants and animals to alter their migration patterns, nesting places, growing season, growing altitude, and so on. Indigenous people depend upon their local biodiversity for food and medicines, and so their way of life will be severely impacted by the shifts in plant and animal life.
2. Geographic location
Arctic regions, islands, deserts, high-altitude areas, and tropical rainforests include the most delicate ecosystems and as such are at the highest risk from the effects of climate change. These regions are also where the highest numbers of indigenous people are located. Indigenous people have survived in these more challenging environments while the majority of the Earth’s population is focused in places with moderate temperatures, near the coast lines, and in areas already highly populated with thriving national and global economies.
Because the geographic areas where indigenous people live are some of the most fragile, they are the same areas being targeted in the UN Climate Change discussions for measures that are intended to mitigate climate change. These policies often set indigenous lands aside for conservation projects, “smart” agriculture, and clean development projects such as hydroelectric dams and geothermal power plants.
While these efforts may seem important in mitigating climate change on a global scale, they push indigenous people off their ancestral lands or alter the land in ways that make it difficult for indigenous people to continue living in their traditional ways.
3. Cultural Survival
Changes in their ecosystem force indigenous people to depend on the social and political provisions of the surrounding cultures. As biodiversity decreases and weather patterns change due to global warming, indigenous people may find themselves unable to subsist based on the traditional methods that their ancestors have used for centuries. When this happens, they may become more dependent on the local government; for example, they may need to change their livelihoods in order to find a job and earn money, instead of hunting or growing their own food, in order to feed their families. If they are located in a nation that has fewer economic resources to begin with, they will have difficulty maintaining the same quality of life that they experienced when they were independent of outside society. Furthermore, as they become more dependent on mainstream modern culture, their unique cultures will disappear and their connections between indigenous knowledge systems and the local environment will become more severely eroded.
How Indigenous Knowledge Can Help Us to Survive Climate Change
What is at greatest risk is also the greatest solution. Over the course of human history, humans have been periodically forced to adjust their society and ways of living due to shifts and changes in climate. One of the primary ways that people have been able to rebound from disruption has been due to biodiversity. For example, if the weather changed so that one crop would not grow, then humans could shift their dependence to a different crop. Biodiversity provides many benefits such as a wide array of foods, a variety of medicines and ways to support human health, and buffering ecosystems from disturbances.
But the changes that occurred in the past 5,000-8,000 years have been far more subtle and gradual than the changes we will face in the next 100-200 years. Indigenous people, over the centuries, have utilized the biodiversity of their lands to respond positively to climate change. Some options to ensure survival could include migration, water conservation techniques, changing the time of year or elevation of plant cultivation, or adjusting existing traditions such as eating habits. If we can learn from these methods, we will become more resilient as a species and be able to survive climate change while simultaneously treading more lightly on the planet. But in order for this to work, it is critical that we preserve the biodiversity of the planet.
2. Resilience of Ecosystems
Indigenous people typically do not take more than they need to survive, whether they are harvesting herbal medicines or hunting game for meat. This is a lifestyle that we absolutely must learn to emulate on a global scale. If we reduce our consumption of the Earth’s resources including (a) natural resources such as fossil fuels and timber, and (b) food-based resources such as animals and plants, then the human impact on the planet will drop significantly. Keep in mind that the question we now face is whether humans, and most of the plant and animal life that we currently know, will be able to survive the significant climactic changes on the Earth if temperatures rise above a certain level. If we can reduce the amount of resources that we remove from the Earth, and simultaneously reduce the amount of harmful greenhouse gases that we emit, then the planet will more likely remain closer to the stability of our current and past climate, and maintain its resilience to recover from lesser human impacts, much as it has for tens of thousands of years.
3. Creative Solutions to Climate Change
One study of Pacific islanders living on atolls found that the people there are already severely impacted by climate change. However, due to their long-term familiarity with the constantly-changing atoll ecosystem, they have been able to develop “adaptive and flexible resource management regimes which could provide a model for global responses to climate change.” Similarly, another study found that Tibetan people living in the Himalayan mountains are more susceptible to climate change, yet they utilize a wide range of ecological zones for their subsistence, and as such they are able to be flexible and resilient when changes are required. Many studies are currently being conducted to determine how we can utilize this type of wisdom on a global scale.
4. Long-Term Knowledge of Their Environment
Indigenous people possess a detailed and long-term knowledge of their ancestral lands. Due to their close physical and spiritual relationship with the ecosystem, they are able to provide detailed observations of changes to their environment, weather patterns, animal and plant behavior, and temperature changes, in many cases going back generations based on the information that has been passed down from their ancestors. This is extremely helpful to scientists and researchers who need to determine climate change impacts in geographical areas where there is a scarcity of scientific data.
5. A More Holistic View of the Universe
Our current Western worldview is based on continuous development, an emphasis on the rights of the individual, and capitalism. From a young age, we are taught the illusion of separation which tells us that human society is separate from Nature.
Indigenous cultures, on the other hand, are built on the knowledge that we are all interconnected. Indigenous societies have existed for centuries, surviving in ways that do not harm the environment and in many cases help their ecosystems to thrive. The good of the community is placed above that of the individual. The idea of community is expanded to include Nature, plants, animals, and the Earth. Nature itself must be cared for and respected. The land cannot be owned; it should be honored in order to allow its abundance to grow. These concepts are just beginning to be applied in international law and policy under the Rights of Nature and the concept of Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir.
Indigenous People in International Policy and Climate Change Negotiations
The good news is that the United Nations and other international organizations have increasingly recognized the importance and value of indigenous knowledge as we proceed with serious efforts to reduce the human impact on the planet.
One new technology is Community Based Monitoring Information Systems (CBMIS), in which indigenous people are asked to track certain information such as how many trees have been cut down, whether any local species appear to be declining, how many tourists have entered an area, or whether pollution has increased.
Organizations such as Forest Peoples, Idle No More, Survival International, and the Pachamama Alliance are working to assist indigenous peoples in securing legal rights to their land, as well as to open the international forums to include rights and respect for traditional peoples as part of current and future policy.
Barriers to Inclusion in Policy Negotiations
Unfortunately, due to factors as simple as the language barrier and as complex as differing belief systems, integrating indigenous knowledge into our modern worldview has been a very slow process.
For example, during the COP20 sessions in Lima, Peru, in December 2014, indigenous people were invited to participate in Indigenous Pavilions. This provided them with the opportunity to voice their specific concerns related to climate change and offer proposals for solutions. However, in some cases an interpreter was not available, and many of the indigenous people involved felt that their suggestions did not influence the actual policy in any significant manner.
After COP20, indigenous people created a list of demands such as Recognition of the Role of Indigenous Peoples in Adaptation and Mitigation [of climate change], and Respect for Indigenous Peoples’ Participation in Climate Change Actions. In addition, the (UNDP) has published a report on Supporting Meaningful Participation of Indigenous Peoples in COP 21. These documents seek to ensure that indigenous people will have a voice and active participation in the COP21 sessions to be held in Paris in December 2015.
How Can We Move Forward?
It is critically important that we, as a global society, recognize and respect the vast wealth of knowledge that indigenous people possess, and that we invite indigenous people to play an active, possibly even a leading, part in determining how all people should move forward to reduce the impacts of climate change and ensure the ongoing health of the Earth.
Arkan Lushwala's book The Time of the Black Jaguar is a shining example of recent literature which seeks to explain the destructive nature of the modern world in terms of ancient wisdom, and illuminate the path toward the more just, fulfilling, and sustainable world that we know is possible.
The Pachamama Alliance has been working with indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest since 1995. The Achuar people of Ecuador are fully committed to maintaining their stewardship of the rainforest, and the Pachamama Alliance has been present to support their efforts, as well as to share their message with the international community in hopes of creating a more socially just, spiritually fulfilling, and environmentally sustainable human presence on the planet.
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