Minority and Indigenous Peoples Hardest Hit by Climate Change

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A new report shows that minorities and indigenous groups are disproportionately suffering — both from climate change itself and from “solutions” like biofuels

A study of several recent environmental disasters across the world shows that it is minority and indigenous groups that have been worst affected by changing weather patterns but in most cases when a disaster strikes help and relief reach them last, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) says in their annual State of the World’s Minorities report.

The report argues that unless policy-makers pay urgent attention to the effects of climate change on disadvantaged minorities, the very survival of some of these fragile communities is at stake.

“Climate change has finally made it to the top of the international agenda but at every level, be it inter-governmental, national or local level, recognition of the acute difficulties that minorities face, is often missing,” says MRG’s Ishbel Matheson. “From the immediate aftermath of a disaster to the point of designing policy on climate change — the unique situation of minority and indigenous groups are rarely considered.”

The report cites cases from across the world of minorities and indigenous groups being most affected in climate-related disasters because they live in the poorest, most marginalized neighbourhoods. When Dalits (or “untouchables”) in Bihar, India, were disproportionately affected during the 2007 floods, relief took long to reach them and they were subject to blatant discrimination in the aid distribution process.

The close relationship of many indigenous peoples and some minorities to their environment makes them especially sensitive to the impact of climate change. Indigenous people have extraordinarily intimate knowledge of weather and its effects on plants and animals, but climate change is now affecting their way of life.

“In our community the elders interpret certain signs from nature to know when to plant their crops or when to start the hunting season. But with climate change it is becoming impossible for them to make such predictions anymore,” David Pulkol from the Ugandan Karamajong community says. “We have had an unusual increase in droughts which has resulted in greater loss to livestock and increased poverty and starvation in our community.”

Indigenous and minority communities across the world are also hurt by the planting of biofuel crops championed as a solution to climate change. Communities face forceful eviction and destruction to their livelihoods and culture for biofuel crops to be planted. In South American countries such as Colombia, Brazil and Argentina indigenous and minority communities have been forced off their lands, in some cases with the use of violence, to make way for biofuel plantations.

Not only are minorities and indigenous groups disproportionately suffering as a result of climate change but they are affected by what the world sees as solutions to climate change. There is now a greater urgency to make these voices heard in the climate change debate.”


The following are some specific cases described in the MRG report

Scorched earth — the effects of climate change on Kenya’s pastoralists

In northern Kenya, increasingly severe and frequent droughts, as well as major floods, have had a devastating impact on pastoralists. Traditionally, pastoralists have survived by herding animals, in an already harsh and dry environment. However, drought in the region in 2005-6 led to a 70 per cent fall in the size of their herds of cattle, goats and camels, leaving some 80 per cent of pastoralists dependent on international food aid.

Droughts force them to travel long distances in search of water and have also sparked deadly conflicts over water. The deaths of so many livestock in 2005-6 reduced pastoralists’ food supplies and damaged their health.

Indigenous peoples of the Arctic on the frontline of global warming

In the Arctic, where the atmosphere is warming twice as quickly as in the rest of the world, there are currently some 400,000 indigenous peoples. They include the Sami people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, who traditionally herd reindeer as a way of life.

Olav Mathis-Eira, a herder and vice-chair of the executive board of the Sami Council, says higher temperatures and increased rainfall are making it harder for reindeer to reach the lichen they eat, which in winter can be covered in ice.

The thinning of the Arctic ice has also made reindeer herding tracks dangerous, forcing people to find new routes. Many aspects of Sami culture — language, songs, marriage, child-rearing and the treatment of older people, for instance — are intimately linked with reindeer herding, says Mathis-Eira.

“If the reindeer herding disappears it will have a devastating effect on the whole culture of the Sami people… In that way, I think that climate change is threatening the entire Sami, as a people.”

From an interview with Aqqualuk Lynge, leader of Greenland’s Inuit people:

“In my lifetime, we have seen a big difference in floes of ice and animal migration, and we have seen the weather change. The Greenland ice cap is melting very fast and this will affect the rest of the world — that’s why the Arctic is a barometer. We have known about it for a long time — before other famous people started talking about it.”

“We have a legal petition under way in the US at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, to look into the issues we are facing. The case is not to get compensation; we need support for decision-makers to understand that we are paying a great price for what others are doing to the environment. I hope the government realizes this and adapts for the future. We are small nations and we cannot afford to shut up.”

India’s Dalits marginalised and discriminated in flood relief

One of the most shocking examples of minorities’ greater exposure to climate change is in India, where some 170 million people known as Dalits are physically, socially and economically excluded from the rest of society. As a result they were worst hit by the unusually severe monsoon floods in 2007.

Many Dalits lived in rickety homes in flood prone areas outside main villages, leaving them especially exposed. They were often last to get emergency relief, if they received it at all, because relief workers did not realize that Dalits live outside the main villages, or because dominant groups took control of distribution or were given priority.

A survey by Dalit organizations of 51 villages on 8-9 August 2007 found, among other things, that 60 per cent of the dead were Dalits, that none of the Dalit colonies (or tolas) attached to the main villages had been visited by government relief officials and that Dalits’ housing had suffered the worst damage because most was of poor quality and in low-lying areas.

Roma worst affected in climate disasters yet discriminated in resettlement

In Europe, Roma communities’ housing conditions are notoriously unpleasant and unhealthy. That some are at high risk of flooding has been less widely noted, perhaps because of the more obvious hazards they face. However, a few studies have found that Roma people suffered especially badly during floods.

In Jarovnice, in Slovakia, which suffered the worst floods in its history in June 1998. Some 140 Roma homes were affected, compared with 25 non-Roma homes, and of the 47 people who were killed, 45 were Roma. Of those who died, 42 had lived in a shanty town in the valley of the River Svinka, which had flooded, while non-Roma lived in the village above the valley.

In the city of Ostrava, Czech Republic, which experienced severe flooding in 1997 Roma communities were treated very differently from “white” residents, who were resettled much faster and in superior accommodation.

‘Eco-friendly’ fuel impacting marginalised communities in Colombia

From an interview with Aparicio Rios, indigenous activist from Colombia’s Nasa people and leader of the Cauca Indigenous Regional Council (CRIC).

“Both communities [indigenous and Afrodescendant] have suffered massive displacement from their communal lands [in the Choco in north-western Colombia].” “Paramilitary groups first terrorize and then displace communities in the area and then take over the land to cultivate oil palm. They are rich, well-armed and powerful and often in the pay of large landowners.”

“The UN Special Rapporteur on Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People concluded on his last visit that 10 of Colombia’s 92 indigenous groups were in danger of extinction.”

“This is a critical situation, practically the same as genocide… We ask that the international community pressure the Colombian government to provide comprehensive protection for indigenous communities and live up to its promises of buying and setting aside land for indigenous reservations so that we can preserve our traditional way of life.”

3 Responses

  1. Joe Wade March 16, 2008 at 10:36 am |

    There is no doubt that irresponsible corporate decisions on mass production of biofuels can have devastating effects on indigenous people. Unfortunately this would not be the first time that man kind have done this. It is easy to plough fields with a pencil while having board meetings thousand of miles away from the fields. Indigenous communities have an intimate knowledge and love for the flora and fauna of remote areas of our planet. Their survival itself is a living proof of their often spiritual respect for nature and indirect practice of sustainable farming and forestry. A clear example of this is the “rediscovery” by modern scientists of the value of bio-char (Terrapreta), an ancient farming practice by Amazonian tribes long before the discovery of America. On the other hand it is important to evaluate the opportunity that cellulosic biorefining can provide to the local native communities. Today’s cellulosic minirefineries processing 160.000 Tones/year with 50% moisture biomass can have a positive impact on these communities. The indigenous people would have the ability to source, collect or produce sufficient volumes of a variety of local renewable cellulosic biomass to justify the introduction of small biorefining plants. For generations they have being dealing with abundant biomass considered as weeds without nutritional value and often invasive species to their crops and settlements. This would be the case of species such as Pampagrass and Papyrus among many other perennial species. These species are well established and locally adapted without the need of fossil fuels in their production and collection. Well planed and managed cellulosic minirefineries projects could provide an industrial opportunity in the sustainable development of indigenous economies. Contrary to logging and crops production, it would not be economically viable to destroy the natural resources but manage them and promote it energy independent sustainability instead. Ironically we have often destroyed native communities by taken their indigenous resources and supplying them with alcohol. Let’s reverse this situation and bring them responsible sustainable industries to allowed them to stay in the region as the truly custodians of the flora of our planet.

  2. Indigenous Peoples Researcher March 13, 2008 at 12:29 pm |

    Thank you for this informative post. Where I live – in one of the US’s most “green” cities – people think that biofuel is a great environmentally friendly alternative. They keep buying new cars to run on biofuel, but few of them actually understand the impacts the biofuel industry is having on indigenous peoples and the environment. I tell them about the giant palm oil plantations in the Philippines and how indigenous peoples are being displaced in the Amazon for mega soy farms and they look at me with a blank stare. Now I’ve got some more facts to throw at them in hopes of some sort of cognitive jump…

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