Indigenous perspectives on climate change

By Michelle Chen Apr 28, 2009

Representatives of indigenous peoples from around the planet convened in Anchorage, Alaska last week to discuss the challenges that climate change poses to their communities. The Indigenous People’s Global Summit on Climate Change called for holistic solutions to global warming, democratic grassroots participation in environmental policy-making, and protection of social and cultural rights. They also challenged environmentalist orthodoxy by resisting the solutions often trumpeted by policymakers and the media. While officials and international bodies have advocated market-based emissions reduction policies, the forum highlighted indigenous opposition to conventional carbon trading schemes. Specifically, activists blasted the “Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries and approaches to stimulate action” (REDD) program, adopted as part of the “Bali roadmap” under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The plan calls for technological and national policy approaches to “sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.” That may sound promising, but the Indigenous Environmental Network, one of the leading organizations in the Anchorage summit, says REDD undercuts indigenous people’s traditions and land rights while greasing environmental destruction by governments and industries. Many are alarmed that the World Bank, notorious for abetting the rape of critical habitats in the past, will play a key role in financing and implementing REDD. While economic incentives could spur large-scale climate action, ethical questions are likely to intensify as governments expand carbon trading models. The core concern is that a reliance on markets to manage the environment would revolve around on unilateral demand-and-supply principles at the expense of fostering overall ecological balance. In a December 2008 interview, Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network criticized REDD as a kind of "corruption of the sacred":

"To be involved with a system that defines something that we hold sacred, and that is the scared element of air, to be part of a neo-colonial system that privatises the atmosphere, to put a money value to it, creates resistance from our heart. These are the same conflicts that have arisen in other international venues such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity where there is struggle with accepting regimes that privatise and want to trade life and buy our traditional intellectual property rights to knowledge."

Kevin Smith of the Transnational Institute summed up the dangers of distilling environmental stewardship into a cost-benefit analysis:

"…the seductive simplicity of this concept is based on collapsing a whole series of important considerations, such as land rights, North–South inequalities, local struggles, corporate power and colonial history, into the single question of cost-effectiveness. The mechanisms of emissions trading and offsetting represent a reductionist approach to climate change that negates complex variables in favour of cost-effectiveness."

So what’s to stop corporations and politicians from shifting ecological burdens onto those too weak to buy their way out? Maybe just our collective wisdom, including the values that indigenous peoples struggle desperately to preserve. Of all the natural resources policymakers are scrambling to catalog and commodify, social conscience is among the most valuable and yet the hardest to price. Image: Nergui Manalsuren / IPS