Skip to main content

Native Currents

A truth: 'Real, immediate and devastating'

Part two

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. Last week, Indian Country Today published the first part of her testimony. Below is the conclusion. The full text can be read online at

In North America, in the Great Lakes region, climate change is disrupting traditional foods of wild rice and berries. Early and rapid winter snowmelt is causing flooding and endangering peoples' lives and property. The dramatic fluctuations in water levels and warmer lake waters is negatively affecting fish populations and allowing for severe infestations of disease-spreading insects, such as mosquitoes.

While Inuit are not an agricultural people, we depend on the bounty of the land for our survival. The traditional Inuit diet is being eroded as animals are less plentiful, less healthy and more difficult to harvest. Further, as the planet warms, more persistent organic pollutants, of which Inuit are the net highest recipients on the planet, find their way to our homeland through the additional runoff from watersheds that empty in the Arctic. We can no longer rely on the traditional practice of food caching as food rots and insects invade the caches. Often our access to our traditional hunting is cut off as sea ice is depleted and permafrost slumps or melts. These changes undermine the realization of our rights to culture, life, health and means of subsistence.

In the Arctic and elsewhere, glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates, turning streams into dangerous torrents in the summer. Glaciers are melting rapidly in all Andean countries, from Venezuela and Colombia to Chile. Many of the large cities in the Andes, including Quito, Ecuador and La Paz, Bolivia - one of the poorest cities in Latin America - are dependent on melting glacier ice for drinking water. The Altiplano of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia is home to large numbers of indigenous peoples who could be devastated by loss of water from glaciers. The rapid melting of these glaciers may cause flooding in the near term and the complete loss of fresh water in some communities in the longer term.

Human health will be affected by changing disease vectors, extreme heat and reduction of air quality. Mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and possibly avian flu are spreading to higher elevations and newly warming regions. Ground-level ozone and other air pollutants are increasing, afflicting the most vulnerable members of society: the elderly, young children, those who suffer from respiratory diseases - such as asthma and emphysema - and the poor, who lack access to air conditioning and adequate health care. Areas already suffering poor air quality will be hardest hit.

Native housing is typically sensitive to prevailing climatic conditions. Air conditioning is often not as available to address increasingly hot and dry conditions. Increased dust and wildfire smoke could well aggravate respiratory conditions. Health care options for indigenous communities are limited, and extreme weather events are likely to cause significant interruptions to access.

Culture is well beyond what many people understand it to be. Culture is not only folklore, legends and songs, although those in and of themselves are important and powerful. For instance, the hunting culture that I come from is not only about the pursuit of animals and the technical aspect of a hunt. Hunting is, in reality, a powerful process where we prepare our young for the challenges and opportunities not only for survival on the land and ice, but for life itself. The character skills learned on the hunt of patience, boldness, tenacity, focus, courage, sound judgment and wisdom are very transferable to the modern world that has come so quickly to the Arctic world. We are seeing this powerful training ground on the land and ice being destroyed before our very eyes. Not only are our livelihoods being threatened; we are losing lives as a result of these dramatic changes as the sea ice depletes and creates precarious situations for our hunters and their families.

It is within this context, or similar ones, that indigenous peoples are experiencing and will increasingly be subjected to devastating impacts of climate change. Global warming and climate change touches on almost every aspect of an indigenous person's life. When viewed in the context of the cumulative impacts of all the other cultural, economic and environmental degradation that indigenous peoples face, climate change threatens our very survival as peoples.

The nonphysical impacts of climate change are sometimes more difficult to measure but, nonetheless, just as devastating. The impacts on the Inuit culture are already happening. One hunter, in Barrow, Alaska, summed up the impact climate change is having this way:

''There's a lot of anxieties and angers that are being felt by some of the hunters that no longer can go and hunt. We see the change, but we can't stop it; we can't explain why it's changing ... our way of life is changing up here; our ocean is changing.''

As I sit here today at this hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I fully understand the challenge of connecting of climate change and human rights. I appreciate fully the opportunity you have given me to speak to these urgent matters.

The individual rights of many are at stake. The collective right of many peoples to their culture is also at stake. I encourage the commission to continue its work in protecting human rights. In so doing, you will protect the sentinels of climate change - the indigenous people. By protecting the rights of those living sustainably in the Amazon Basin or the rights of the Inuit hunter on the snow and ice, this commission will also be preserving the world's environmental early-warning system.

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