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Native Currents

A truth: 'Real, immediate and devastating'

Part one

Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier's March 1 testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights put a spotlight on climate change and Indigenous peoples. Below is an excerpt of her testimony; a second part will appear next week.

My name is Sheila Watt-Cloutier. I was born in Kuujjuaq in Arctic Canada where I lived traditionally, traveling only by dog team, for the first 10 years of my life. I now live in Iqaluit, the capital of the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut.

I am here today to talk to you about how global warming and climate change are affecting the basic survival in many vulnerable regions and, in particular, of indigenous cultures throughout the Americas.

Of course, what I know best is from my own region - the Arctic, which happens to be the hardest hit by climate change. As such, many of the impacts that I will refer to will come from my own homelands. However, you can consider similar impacts on most indigenous peoples who remain integrated with their ecosystems. Inuit and other indigenous peoples continue to be an integral part, and not separate, from the ecosystems in which we live. Climate change brings into question the basic survival of indigenous people and indigenous cultures throughout the Americas.

To quote the words of the Hon. Julian Hunte, ambassador and permanent representative of Saint Lucia to the United Nations: ''[...] the adverse impacts of climate change are real, immediate and devastating.''

I will give some insight into the impacts of global warming and climate change on indigenous peoples within the Hemisphere.

In our region, elders say that the weather is uggianaqtuq - meaning it behaves unexpectedly, or in an unfamiliar way. [In February], we had record-breaking winds in Iqaluit that tore roofs off buildings and homes.

In the Caribbean, Venezuela, Central America and the United States, the adverse effects of climate change and the associated phenomena of sea level rise have contributed to the increase in the intensity and frequency of hurricanes threatening the lives of many. In 2004, over 3,000 persons were killed in Haiti as a result of Tropical Storm Jeanne. That same year, Hurricane Ivan destroyed or damaged over 90 percent of the houses in Grenada and caused over U.S. $815 million in damages or twice the GDP of that country.

Global warming is impacting Inuit and many indigenous communities who are coastal, seagoing peoples. Inuit happen to journey on a frozen ocean for much of the year.

For Inuit, sea ice allows for safe travel on the perilous Arctic waters and provides a stable platform from which to hunt its bounty. The ice is not only our ''road,'' but also our ''supermarket.'' Deteriorating ice conditions imperil Inuit in many ways. Ice pans used for hunting at the floe edge are more likely to detach from the land fast ice and take hunters away. As the ice is melting from below, hunters can no longer be certain of its thickness and how safe it is to travel upon. Many hunters have been killed or seriously injured after falling through ice that was traditionally known to be safe. Thinner ice also means much shorter hunting seasons as the ice forms up later and melts sooner.

In turn, some ice-dependent species such as ringed seals, walrus and polar bears are experiencing impacts and the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment projects that these species will likely be pushed to extinction by the end of this century. Inuit have relied on ringed seal for food and clothing for millennia.

The lack of ice also has profound impacts on our communities. As the land fast ice and pack ice disappears, the coastline, where most Inuit live, is exposed to fierce storms - whole communities, such as Shishmaref in Alaska, are having to move altogether, because the storms are eroding the land out from under them.

These impacts are destroying our rights to life, health, property and means of subsistence. States that do not recognize these impacts and take action violate our human rights.

Similarly, in the south, coral reefs are dying under the rising ocean temperatures, leaving costal communities equally vulnerable to storm surges and coastal erosion. In the Caribbean, Central America, Venezuela and Uruguay, sea level rise leads to the loss of land and the intrusion of saltwater into freshwater resources, impacting the ability of local communities to farm and to have sufficient freshwater for basic needs.

As little as one meter of sea level rise could displace up to 8 million people in the Caribbean and Latin America. The impact of a one-meter rise on Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana and the Bahamas would be catastrophic, displacing as much as 7 percent of their national populations. The current atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is sufficient to raise sea levels substantially more than one meter.

Of course, the land is not resistant to the changes brought on by global warming. Increased temperatures have affected subsistence agricultural practices throughout the Americas, many of which are directly tied to the survival of indigenous cultures. Indigenous communities in Ecuador and elsewhere are unable to farm in the manner and locations where they have for generations, and must choose between subsistence farming and maintaining their cultural ties to land they have lived on and cultivated for generations. These changes thus undermine the realization of their rights to culture, life, health and means of subsistence.

(Continued in part two)

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is originally from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, northern Quebec. She is the outgoing chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Watt-Cloutier has been nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.