Native Cultures Endangered By Climate Change


Dayak woman dancing the hornbill dance in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Hornbills are one of the bird species that appear to be impacted by rising average temperatures in Southeast Asian rainforests. Image credit: Jeanine Pfeiffer.

In Tibet, sacred glaciers are melting and alpine medicinal plant populations are disappearing. In the Borneo rainforest, Dayak tribes report unusual alterations in wildlife seasonal patterns: native birds aren't showing up in their usual places, or at the usual times. In Central Africa, changing rainfall patterns have altered stream flows, making it harder for the Mbaka (pygmy) women to catch fish.

In Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia, milder winters are decreasing lichen populations, a key food source for both wild and semi-domesticated reindeer. For the first time in history, Sámi peoples have to search for fodder to feed their reindeer herds. In the Arctic Circle, the permafrost isn't "permanent frost" anymore. It is melting. And as it melts, the tundra dries, reducing the vegetation available for caribou herds. With less food available, caribou are more prone to disease and food-borne illnesses.

Elsewhere in Alaska, melting glaciers are changing fish distribution patterns, affecting sea birds, mammals, and the indigenous communities dependent on them. Walruses and seals have fewer resting platforms (critical to maintaining their core body heat), and sea mammals are migrating further in search of fish. Earlier ice break-up and later freezes shorten hunting periods and increase risk along routes for Native Inuit hunters.

As glaciers along the Alaskan coast retreat, 180 Native villages have already experienced increased flooding and erosion from strong waves, their shorelines no longer protected by sea ice walls.

On the other side of the equator, retreating glaciers in the Peruvian Andes are reducing water flow to wetlands where vicuna, alpaca, and llama graze. Native Quechua herders are distressed not only at the negative impact on their livelihoods, but on the spiritual consequences of humankind's disregard for sacred mountains.

Here's the irony: the peoples of the world with the tiniest ecological footprint-who have contributed the least to our current state of global warming-are the first, and the hardest hit, by the negative impacts of climate change.

Native peoples are deeply connected to their natural landscape - and not just in economic terms. Cultural identity, belief systems, songs, and stories of indigenous peoples around the world are centered around the flora, fauna, forests, mountains, and waters of their traditional territories. Native Alaska peoples such as the Gwich'in consider themselves as the "Caribou People". Their creation stories tell how the Gwich'in people and the caribou share a part of each other's heart. According to Tibetan villagers, their sacred mountains have souls, just as humans do, and need to be treated accordingly.

This week, as we enter a holiday season of sacred underpinnings, perhaps it is time to connect the dots. Which dots? Our choices here plus the impacts elsewhere. Why do this? Because how we choose to live our lives this month (and the next, and the next), will affect peoples across the globe for the rest of the year, most likely for the rest of our collective lives.

Here's the equation: human consumption of gas, coal, petroleum, and methane = increased greenhouse gases = global warming = abnormal weather patterns = hard-hitting changes for the most endangered cultures on the planet.

A quick way to assess one's contribution to global warming involves calculating your personal greenhouse gas emissions. If you haven't done so recently, check out the calculators at We Can Solve It, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/ind_calculator.html], The Berkeley Institute for the Environment or The Climate Trust.

For example, taking into account my frequent travel for work this year, according to one calculator, my annual figure - 42.75 tons - was six times the national USA average (7.5 tons/year). But on another calculator, because I heat my home with a wood stove, purchase 100% of my electricity from wind power, drive my SmartCar less than 5000 miles/year, and recycle obsessively, my household figure was 8.3 tons, less than 15% of the average US household.

After I calculated my own emissions, I did the calculations again for my adopted father, the tribal chief of the Tado, a Kempo Manggarai community in Eastern Indonesia. I took into account the fact that he has no car, no electricity, has never gotten on an airplane, and the women in the household collect medium-sized branches from trees surrounding their rice fields for fuelwood.

His score? (Actually, I calculated the score for his entire household, which currently includes six people).

Less than 2 tons a year.

More on the intersection of climate and culture.
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Tags: Carbon Footprint

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