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Posted on on April 29th, 2009
by Pincas Jawetz (

Indigenous Wisdom Against Climate Change

By Stephen Leahy*
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Apr 28 (Tierram̩rica) РWhile industrialised countries like Canada continue to emit ever-higher levels of greenhouse-effect gases, indigenous peoples around the world are working to survive and adapt to an increasingly dangerous climate.

Over millennia, indigenous peoples have developed a large arsenal of practices that are of potential benefit today for coping with climate change, including some holistic and refreshingly practical ideas.

“Why not give automobiles and planes a day of rest? And then later on, two days of rest. That would cut down on pollution,” suggested Carrie Dann, an elder from the Western Shoshone Nation, whose ancestral lands extend across the western United States.

Dann, winner of the 1993 Right Livelihood Award – known as the Alternative Nobel Prize – for her efforts to protect ancestral lands, made her proposal before the 400 delegates gathered in Anchorage, Alaska, Apr. 20-24 for the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change.

Dann warned that Mother Nature is getting warmer and the “fever” needed to be cured. “We see many range (grassland) fires in my territory, it is getting so hot,” she said.

To prevent similar uncontrolled wildfires that have burned up large portions of Australia and killed hundreds of people in recent years, the Aborigines of Western Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, are using traditional fire practices to reduce such wildfires.

Preventing these fires also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and, for the first time in the world, these Aborigines have sold 17 million dollars’ worth of carbon credits to industry, generating significant new income for the local community, according to a report presented in Anchorage.

Australia’s Aborigines have traditionally used controlled burning following the rainy season to create barriers to stop the intense wildfires later during the dry season.

Wildfires account for a substantial portion of Australia’s carbon emissions and have been very destructive. However, in recent years few Aborigines live on the land any more so there have been fewer controlled burns. But now there is a new role to play in the fight against global warming.

According to Sam Johnston, of the Tokyo-based United Nations University, a summit co-sponsor, it is in the world’s best interest to take into account indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge.

In Asia, indigenous people are developing diverse crop varieties and utilising different cropping patterns, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Filipina leader and chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, told the delegates.

They are also involved in sustainable agro-forestry and energy production based on small-scale biomass and micro-dam projects.

On the Indonesian island of Bali, indigenous peoples are doing reef rehabilitation work and protecting mangroves. In the Philippines, they are mapping ancestral waters and developing an integrated management plan.

“Many are doing these things on their own, with no support,” said Tauli-Corpuz.

In Honduras, faced with increasing hurricane strikes and drastic weather changes, 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.

Indigenous peoples in Guyana have adopted a nomadic lifestyle, moving to more forested zones during the dry season, and are now planting manioc, their main staple, in alluvial plains where it was previously too moist to grow crops.

Farmers in Belize are returning to traditional agricultural practices and moving up to higher ground, other delegates reported.

In Africa, the Baka Pygmies of southeast Cameroon and the Bambendzele of Congo have developed new fishing and hunting methods to adapt to a decrease in precipitation and an increase in forest fires.

Although indigenous peoples have great capacity to adapt, many treaties and international laws guarantee their rights to food and traditional livelihoods, but climate change threatens all of this, according to Andrea Carmen, a member of the Yaqui Indian Nation, of the U.S. southwest.

When the chiefs of the tribes in the western Canadian province of Alberta declared that there should be no more oil production from tar sands, they were ignored, said Carmen who is also executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council.

Alberta’s tar sands oil projects are the major reason why Canada’s latest greenhouse gas inventory increased four percent from 2006 to 2007. That increase puts the country 33.8 percent over its commitments established in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, in force since 2005.

But indigenous peoples are also wary of recent actions by governments and industries undertaken in response to climate change, such as building wind farms and biofuel plants, because these are often located on or directly affect their lands and livelihoods, says Gunn-Britt Retter, of Finland’s Saami Council.

“We have the knowledge of how to live through these climate changes. We need to use traditional knowledge to help all our cultures live through these changes,” Retter said.

“Our message to the world is that we need full and effective participation at the national and international levels in order for our cultures to survive these changes,” he added.

It has been 17 years since the first U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings were held to solve the climate crisis, said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the former head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

“We must act quickly… This is the last chance to take control,” she told the delegates by videoconference from her home in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada. “The world needs the wisdom of our cultures.”

(*Correspondent Stephen Leahy’s travel to Alaska was financed by the United Nations University and Project Word, a U.S.-based non-governmental organisation for media diversity. This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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