It is estimated that there are 350-400 million indigenous peoples in the world; two-thirds of them live in Asia1. However, it is difficult to give an accurate total number of the population of indigenous peoples because many are not recognized and reflected in national censuses in Asia. Indigenous peoples are some of the most impoverished, marginalized and vulnerable peoples in the world and are also the most affected by climate change impacts and its uncertainties.
In general, most of the indigenous peoples inhabit marginal and fragile ecosystems, such as tropical and temperate forest zones, low-lying coastlines, high mountainous areas, flood plains and riverbanks2. These areas are some of those most threatened from increased climatic uncertainties and unpredictability of extreme events and slow onset climatic events like cyclones, hailstorms, desertification, sea level rise, floods and prolonged droughts These events are occurring more often and with increasing intensity, severely impacting the lives of indigenous peoples since their livelihood systems are directly dependent on these ecosystems.
Further, the economy, social organization, identity, and cultural and spiritual values of the indigenous peoples are closely linked to their biological diversity. Therefore, climatic uncertainties can cause specific effects such as demographic changes, loss of livelihoods and food security; land and natural resource degradation; water shortages, health problems, loss of traditional knowledge, housing, forest and natural resource management; and human rights etc.
In addition to these direct impacts, many climate change policies and measures relating to mitigation and adaptation have serious adverse implications to indigenous peoples. For instance, there are many cases of forced evictions or displacement of indigenous peoples from their homelands as a result of mitigation measures such as construction of large dams, bio-fuel plantations and creation of Protected Areas in their territories without their consent. However, indigenous peoples should not be looked upon as just ‘vulnerable people’ to climate change. What is being missed out is that Indigenous peoples are ecosystem peoples who have sound knowledge and intimate relationship with their environment. Indigenous knowledge is unique to a given culture and environment as they are acquired through generations of empirical experiences to ameliorate the anticipated adverse consequences associated with climate change and from other impacts or consequences related to environmental stresses. These rich knowledge systems and practices can be tapped to provide solution to many mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change. Many indigenous peoples are taking their own initiatives in coping with climate change in the form of identifying the changes that are occurring in climatic patterns and the ensuing challenges. In some cases, indigenous communities have developed specific coping strategies to extreme variations of weather, such as:
- Crop diversification to minimize risk of harvest failures—varieties of crops with different susceptibilities to droughts, floods, pest etc. or varieties adapted to different locations such as river banks, high mountains, and close to primary forest etc.
- Change of hunting and gathering periods to adapt to changing animal migration and fruiting periods.
- Increasing food preservation and improving preservation methods and techniques.
- Introduction of food banking and seed banking along with creation of exchange networks among the communities.
- Changes in food habits—improving forest conservation and reverting to gathering food in the forests during bad harvest.
- Introduction of multi-cropping, double cropping and relay cropping systems as appropriate by many communities.
- Altering land use and settlement patterns.
- Other measures such as conservation of forests and watershed, including restoration of ecosystems.
- Awareness raising and solidarity actions to ensure or to address the concerns of indigenous peoples.
- It is therefore essential to recognize both the vulnerability and contributions of indigenous peoples in designing culturally appropriate adaptation and mitigation development plan as defined by the communities.
The two important international processes addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation are the UN Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The UNFCCC is the most important international binding agreement and forum on climate change adaptation and mitigation.
This briefing paper highlights the issues and concerns of indigenous peoples in relation to climate change adaptation. It also highlights the importance of policy advocacy and the full and effective engagement of indigenous peoples in processes and mechanisms of existing governing bodies at regional and international levels.
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