News from the frontier (3)

Indigenous peoples: when will we learn from them?Business as usual must end, because business as usual is killing us,” the indigenous peoples of the world have stated, in a powerful and eloquent summing up of the five-day Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change, held in Anchorage, Alaska at the end of April.

Climate change brings into sharp relief the confrontation between industrial civilisation and indigenous peoples. Caused by the actions of the rich, polluting nations its effects are felt most keenly by those who live closest to nature and whose livelihoods most directly depend on their immediate environment. (Just 500 miles from the summit, in the village of Newtok, intensifying river flow and melting permafrost have forced 320 residents to relocate to higher ground; meanwhile stories like “Water people of the Amazon face extinction” are increasingly and depressingly familiar.)

Many of these traditional or indigenous people are voiceless, stateless or both, and as a group they have no say whatever in international climate change negotiations. Yet because of their sophisticated local knowledge and traditional skills they can be the first to warn of its effects and the best equipped to develop adaptation strategies to the change. The UN-affiliated summit gave them a chance to share their experiences and to speak out with a unified voice.

It reported to the world that in Asia, indigenous people are developing crop varieties and innovative cropping patterns that cope better with the new climate. On the Indonesian island of Bali, indigenous people are doing reef rehabilitation work and protecting mangroves. In the Philippines, they are mapping ancestral waters and developing an integrated management plan. In Honduras, faced with increasing hurricane strikes, the Quezungal people have developed a farming method that involves planting crops under trees so the roots anchor the soil and reduce the loss of harvests during natural disasters.

As well as descriptions of devastating change and doughty responses, the summit gave voice to urgent calls for action, summarised in the Anchorage Declaration, which includes the following:

We are deeply alarmed by the accelerating climate devastation brought about by unsustainable development. We are experiencing profound and disproportionate adverse impacts on our cultures, human and environmental health, human rights, well-being, traditional livelihoods, food systems and food sovereignty, local infrastructure, economic viability, and our very survival as Indigenous Peoples.

Mother Earth is no longer in a period of climate change, but in climate crisis. We therefore insist on an immediate end to the destruction and desecration of the elements of life.

The participants – representing indigenous people from some 80 countries – were clear in their conviction that responsibility for this action falls on the developed nations, calling for ‘a binding emissions reduction target for developed countries of at least 45% below 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 95% by 2050,’ for all states to ‘work towards decreasing dependency on fossil fuels,’ and for ‘a just transition to decentralized renewable energy economies, sources and systems owned and controlled by our local communities to achieve energy security and sovereignty.’

They were also clear in their rejection of market-based approaches to the problem, such as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) regime, observing that such mechanisms do not address the underlying drivers of deforestation.

Yet the mood of their appeals was conciliatory rather than critical: the participants also offered ‘to share with humanity our traditional knowledge, innovations, and practices relevant to climate change,’ provided their rights ‘as intergenerational guardians of this knowledge’ are recognised and respected.

Despite the moving accounts of catastrophe, of spirited and inspiring responses, and of calls for united action, national media chose largely to overlook the event. For a first-hand description, try British lawyer Polly Higgins’ blog entry of her experiences at the summit.

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