Indigenous peoples undersupported on frontline of hotter, drier, fiery world
Sep 13, 2023
It’s official: This has been the warmest June-July-August on record, and much attention has focused on the urgent need to achieve climate resilience in impacted urban areas. But how are rural Indigenous communities around the world living with these new extremes?
Indigenous peoples — from Africa to the Arctic to Central America — report unprecedented heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfires, extremes that are impacting the wildlife they hunt, the plants they gather, crops they grow, livestock they raise, and their very survival.
Given that many Indigenous peoples live close to the land and depend directly on local resources, they’re especially vulnerable to the massive changes now sweeping our planet.
But while Indigenous peoples are considered by many researchers and activists to be Earth’s best land stewards, their communities aren’t receiving the funding or resources necessary to adapt to a hotter, drier, stormier, fiery world, often due to the lack of access to their traditional lands.
“The heat is unbearable or almost unlivable,” says Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an Indigenous activist from the Mbororo people in Chad. “During … April, the temperature was almost 52° Celsius [125.6° Fahrenheit]. All this has an impact for my Mbororo people, who find themselves with drought and a great lack of water for cattle and humans.”
Seminomadic herders living in Africa’s Sahel region, the Mbororo are a minority group who have long endured discrimination and other abuses. Now, they’re facing down the expanding Sahara Desert — the result of climate upheaval and a global climate crisis they’ve played no role in causing.
“When it’s hot, it’s difficult to find water,” she says. “This can become a source of conflict between communities who are all looking for this rare commodity. And when there is no water, the cattle will not be able to produce milk, and this impacts food security and the economy of the community.”
All of which has spurred an explosion of devastating extreme weather events: The U.S., Europe, Africa, the Middle East and China all suffered numerous deadly record-shattering heat waves, likely resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, though we don’t have the full data yet.
While these and other extraordinary meteorological happenings in the industrialized world have been well documented and reported, impacts among Indigenous peoples, who have fewer resources for responding to extreme heat, drought and deluge, were less in the news.
Indigenous groups, numbering about 476 million people worldwide, are now living on the frontlines of our rapidly changing climate, and are particularly vulnerable given their close economic and cultural ties to the land and nature.
Indigenous groups also often inhabit remote areas far from government aid, lack resilient infrastructure, and have long histories of suffering oppression, official neglect and poverty. Exacerbating these difficulties, many groups don’t even have access to, or legal ownership of, their ancestral lands, making climate change adaptation far more challenging.
“The vulnerability of some Indigenous communities to climate change is based on cultural, social, and economic dependence on local species, habitats, and ecosystems, as well as legal, social, and political contexts of colonialism, institutionalized racism, and forced relocation,” reads a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The USDA also emphasizes this “vulnerability is not characteristic of a community, but the product of systems of inequality.”
Climate upheaval in far-flung places
“The rains have been scarce; the corn planting has been uneven. The corn crops are wilting a lot, as well as flowers and vegetables,” says Josefina Santiago of her farm in the Oaxaca Valley in southern Mexico. Santiago is a leader among the Zapotec Indigenous group, who have lived in the region for nearly 3,000 years, and who developed one of the first written scripts in Mesoamerica. Large portions of the Oaxaca Valley are experiencing moderate drought in 2023 — heaped atop more years of extended drought and water shortages.
“The rain falls in some places and not in others and is of short duration. The rain has run very little in the rivers,” says Santiago. “Some crops were lost due to hailstorms, and suddenly some torrential rains fell, knocking down many trees, and in a short time some rivers overflowed.”
These extremes — grilling heat and extended drought, punctuated by sudden storms and floods — are emblematic of a new climate regime on a planet rapidly hurtling toward 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial levels due to the burning of fossil fuels, destruction of forests, and unsustainable industrial agriculture. And things may get worse fast: El Niño is expected to intensify into next year, with scientists forecasting June-August 2024 being hotter than 2023, and the next five years being the hottest on record — almost certainly generating even more extreme weather.
Far from southern Mexico, Indigenous communities near the Arctic are facing similarly large challenges this year. Tonje Johansen, a member of the Sámi Indigenous group, lives in northern Norway near the Arctic Circle and says life is changing drastically there.
While she notes this summer was “really good” at the edge of the north polar region, with warm days and little rain, she worries what it means for the Sámi’s all-important winter. A hot summer “usually [leads into] a hot winter these days,” says Johansen, an adviser to the Sámi Council in the Arctic and Environment Unit.
“A hot winter is very problematic for us for many reasons, particularly for those who are out on the land during winter, either [for] recreational, or hunting, or gathering activities, or for those who are reindeer herders. Because a hotter winter also means a higher degree of risk factors.”
Johansen says reindeer herders have noticed shifts in their animals’ behavior too, with rising temperatures also causing intensified challenges and risks to the herd. Hotter summers have also impacted the growth of cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), a culturally important food for this Indigenous group.
“Climate change risks changing basic conditions for Sámi culture, food security, the use of the traditional Sámi area, areas for hunting and fishing and Sámi Indigenous knowledge,” reads a 2023 report compiled by the Sámi Council on Climate Change.
Across the Atlantic, in the temperate U.S. state of Washington, fire has become an ever-rising concern for Indigenous groups. “We have seen almost 700,000 acres of our 1.4-million-acre reservation” — 283,000 out of 567,000 hectares — “burn since 2015,” says Cody Desautel, an executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, located in northeast Washington.
Desautel is also the president of the Intertribal Council on Timber, a nonprofit that helps tribes manage their forests across the U.S. Increasing numbers and intensity of wildfires have put these forest resources at grave risk. Desautel says he doubts whether most tribal members will see their lands return to pre-fire conditions in their lifetimes.
Loss of access, loss of adaptability
As climate change sweeps Indigenous communities, the first concern is, of course, the loss of human life: Fire, as this summer showed over and over, can kill. Many Indigenous groups, like Africa’s Mbororo, are also facing temperatures that can be lethal. The heat, the fires, droughts, floods and other climate impacts are also degrading and destroying the natural resources Indigenous people depend on.
For the Mbororo, the heat puts their greatest resource, their livestock, at grave risk. For the Zapotec people of southern Mexico, it’s their traditional crops that are at serious risk. Such losses are becoming a fact of life for Indigenous farmers around the world, narrowing their avenues for survival. “Many Indigenous communities have been confined to the least productive and most delicate lands because of historical, social, political, and economic exclusion,” reads a 2021 paper in Nature Communications.
In the U.S., rising temperatures and fires are threatening forests that tribes rely on for hunting, gathering and logging. “The heat creates stress on the forest, which makes the trees more vulnerable to insect and disease outbreaks, which then makes our lands susceptible to potential large-scale catastrophic fires,” says Phil Rigdon, the vice president of the Intertribal Council on Timber and a member of the Yakama Nation. He notes that Yakama lands suffered “major fires” in 2015 “that will take generations to restore.”
“This makes it critical that tribes and other forest managers have the resources to treat and restore forest to reduce impacts from fire,” Rigdon adds.
Desautel says wildfires on the Colville Reservation burned “over 1 billion board feet [2.4 million cubic meters] of timber … and cost the tribe hundreds of millions in potential timber revenue.”
In Norway, the Sámi struggle to access their traditional lands, even as their available resources come under pressure from climate change. Norway recently put increased pressure on traditional Sámi regions by building wind farms there and mining for minerals for renewable energy — highlighting the complexity of tackling climate change.
“The land encroachment [by wind farms and mining] is actually making it more difficult for us to adapt because with a changing climate, we need more flexibility. The land and nature and animals need more flexibility,” says Johansen. In fact, “we need more land. We can’t have less land because you need to shift grazing land more often, or you need to have new types of grazing lands … The flexibility issue is a very big one for us.”
Johansen argues that the Norwegian government is “choosing the cheapest way out of the climate crisis,” while impinging on Indigenous needs. “They say they’re going to build renewable energy sources, but they’re just building renewable energy resources in order to keep up with the same lifestyle or consumption … Thinking that if we just build out enough, what they call ‘green industry,’ then we will save the climate. But nature is one of the most important climate mitigations that we have.”
The native peoples living at the Colville Reservation in Washington state face a similar dilemma of having to adapt to a changing climate with considerably less access to their traditional lands.
“Since tribal reservations and areas where [Indigenous people] have retained rights are static, there is a high likelihood that [as climate change worsens] tribes will lose access to natural resources they depend on for both their culture and subsistence,” says Desautel. The 12 tribes that today inhabit Colville Reservation used to move seasonally across the landscape, following food sources, as did many North American Indigenous peoples. But today, those tribes have lost access to much of their traditional lands.
Denial of legal access to ancestral lands in the U.S., Brazil and other nations has left many Indigenous groups stranded on small, degrading islands of habitat, even as they attempt to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.
Often, nonprofits try to pick up the slack. Ibrahim’s NGO in Chad is currently working on building 2D and 3D maps for the Mbororo to improve resilience and adaptation, and stem conflict over diminishing resources.
“It is a combination of science, technologies and traditional knowledge,” Ibrahim says.
Needs not met, help not given
Indigenous groups, like those in the Amazon, are recognized globally as among the best stewards of the world’s forests and likely vital to efforts to store carbon and curb escalating climate change. But those groups say they need assured property rights, official support and other resources as they’re forced to adapt to an increasingly uncertain climate.
Even programs meant to sequester carbon aren’t necessarily benefiting local people, according to Roberto Tafur, president of the Federation of Communities of the Tapiche and Blanco Rivers (FECORITAYB) in the Amazon Rainforest in northern Peru.
“We only hear about a regional carbon credit project, but nothing clear or favorable for the communities,” he says. “The world needs to agree to care for the Amazon, but also taking into account the needs of Indigenous communities.”
Desautel in Washington state notes that “funding and staffing … is severely lacking in Indian Country. Particularly when compared to investments in other federal and state managed lands.” Indigenous groups need more money for land restoration and resilience planning, along with “access to research and technical support from federal agencies,” he says.
Funding and resources aren’t just required for physical adaptation, but also to reduce the emotional and mental health toll arising from a traumatizing climate change. Johansen says the Sámi people have seen increases in mental health issues related to climate and “land grabbing.”
“Our youth are reporting that they are struggling mentally with the burden of continuing to carry the Sámi culture on their shoulders. And at the same time, their traditional homelands are being taken away piece by piece,” she says. Research shows Sámi reindeer herders, too, are struggling with mental health issues, resulting in a “slight increase in suicidal ideation,” among herders, Johansen adds.
She notes that her community does have a health center staffed by mental health professionals who have developed tools for treating trauma within the Sámi’s unique cultural context. “But it’s not enough,” she says. “That’s just putting a Band-Aid on the problem and there are not enough [health professionals] anyways.”
The Sámi, she concludes, have been “given a double burden with the climate change.” Living near the Arctic Circle, a part of the world that’s warming the fastest, “we’re the one who notices the most, and we’re also the one who have to pay for it.”
Banner image: “We sow our plants and when the time of flowering comes, the drought dries them up and they die,” says Mariano from rural Indigenous Guatemala. Image by S. Billy / EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Leal Filho, W., Matandirotya, N. R., Lütz, J. M., Alemu, E. A., Brearley, F. Q., Baidoo, A. A., … Mbih, R. A. (2021). Impacts of climate change to African Indigenous communities and examples of adaptation responses. Nature Communications, 12(1). doi:10.1038/s41467-021-26540-0
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