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American Indians Vital in Climate Change Discussions

Native Americans need to be included in climate change discussions from Protecting Mother Earth Gathering in July to the UN Permanent Forum to the Convention on Climate Change.

On Sept. 13, 2007, I watched the UN General Assembly in New York vote for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was nearly a three-decade-long campaign for some of the American Indians who helped steer its passage.

It was a victorious day giving credence to the maintenance of aboriginal lands and preservation of indigenous rights.

Now, American Indian leaders face another international campaign. This time they are appealing for a seat at the table to discuss climate change impacts on indigenous peoples. They struck out during the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change discussions in Cancun last December.

Indigenous Environmental Network organizers will discuss local-to-global concerns July 28-31 during the Protecting Mother Earth Gathering on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. Panelists will address the following worldwide topics: UNDRIP, green economies, climate change, climate justice, REDD, carbon markets, World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, globalization, and RIO+20.

Climate change poses a monumental problem for indigenous peoples who “are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, due to their dependence upon, and close relationship, with the environment and its resources,” according to a report by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples. “Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by indigenous communities including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment.”

I recently worked with Rose High Bear, an Alaskan Athabaskan, to help her tell the story of climate change and indigenous peoples through a series of radio programs. She’s seeking funding for her project. She told me her personal story in trying to find a suitable caribou hide to make a traditional dress. Many of the hides she comes across have bug-eaten holes, an increasing problem attributable to warmer weather and a proliferation of mosquitos in the Arctic.

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High Bear decided to make her dresses with the holey hides. It was one way to create awareness about climate change and its effect on indigenous communities. She and other indigenous peoples need messengers of all sorts considering the invisibility of indigenous peoples. Consider: It took some 25 years to get UNDRIP passed. Even then, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia – all with considerable aboriginal populations – initially refused to sign.

An environmental and science reporting colleague, Terri Hansen, attended the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change discussions in Cancun. She reported: “Though I’d been there to cover the involvement of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples at the talks, missing from the U.S. delegation was a representative for the 565 federally recognized tribes in the U.S…The tribes have requested that the U.S. include a tribal leader on their climate delegation, yet there is no engagement by the U.S. with the tribes in these climate negotiations.”

She noted the lack of tribal representation as “a grave concern” for the National Tribal Environmental Council and the National Council of American Indians. Attorneys from the Institute of Tribal Environmental Professionals and NCAI made three requests to meet with the U.S. delegation in Cancun.

Bob Gruenig of ITEP said the door was shut on them. “The U.S. delegation didn’t even make an attempt to include a tribal perspective. It was a replay of Copenhagen. Tribes didn’t get that meeting, either.”

In June 2012, world leaders will discuss green economies and poverty eradication as a main theme during RIO+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. American Indians should have more than one seat at the table given that tribes occupy 55 million acres of trust land in the United States.

“Climate change poses threats and dangers to the survival of indigenous communities worldwide, even though indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse emissions,” reports the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples. “Indigenous peoples are vital to, and active in, the many ecosystems that inhabit their lands and territories and may therefore help enhance the resilience of these ecosystems. In addition, indigenous peoples interpret and react to the impacts of climate change in creative ways, drawing on traditional knowledge and other technologies to find solutions which may help society at large to cope with impending changes.