THE HAGUE, HOLLAND - Representatives of 160 countries gathered for two weeks of talks to finalize the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement establishing legally binding limits on emissions of global warming gases from industrialized countries.
Simultaneously, delegations of Indigenous peoples from around the world also met in an effort to have their presence included in the United Nations negotiations.
Tribal delegates from several non-governmental organizations in the United States participated in the parallel meetings during the 2nd Forum of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities on Climate Change. During the forum a working group developed a strategy as well as a mechanism to get U.N.-recognized countries to include the participation of Indigenous peoples in the Protocol.
"There is precedent within the human rights commission where Indigenous peoples have a permanent forum for participation," says Tom Goldtooth, president of the Indigenous Environmental Network based out of Minnesota. "We think by using some of those precedents and by continuing to organize Indigenous peoples' working groups to push forward this declaration (that) we will get a response."
The U.S. delegation included several environmental advocates from Alaskan villages as well as Robert Gough from the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy of South Dakota, and Shelly Means, director of the Seattle Interfaith Global Climate Change Campaign. The U.S delegation met with representatives of the Amazon Alliance for Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the Amazon Basin, the International Indian Treaty Council and International Alliance for Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests and other international Indigenous organizations.
Goldtooth, who organized the U.S. participation, stresses the importance of an Indigenous presence and advocacy on a grass-roots level to change the U.S. government's current laissez-faire position on emissions. The United States, the world's leading polluter, is a partner in the Kyoto Protocol. But loopholes written into the protocol allowing industrial nations to purchase emissions "credits" from less developed nations is weakening the Protocol and allowing industry in the United States to conduct business "as usual," while smaller countries with fewer emissions problems do all the work of developing even tighter emission controls.
"Emissions trading awards the polluters and it promotes more fraud," says Goldtooth. "It divides the business community between winners and losers. My concern is that it really undermines creative thinking toward technological innovation.
"If we have the knowledge and technology to send people to the moon, we must have the intelligence to create technology that will not pollute the world and destroy our communities."
Goldtooth lobbies hard in Indian country for tribal leaders to make a stand against continuing the status quo of industrial development, and urges them to look for innovative solutions to their own - and the world's - economic and energy needs.
It all starts with one person, one community and a single commitment for change. It is, he points out, a common sense decision. For it is Indigenous people who are the most deeply impacted by out-of-control emissions.
"People in Alaska, people here at the Great Lakes, people in Canada, people in the prairies, farmers in the Southwest - a lot of our traditional practitioners are seeing the signs that the climate is changing," he says. "It's affecting their crops and livestock. It's affecting the food web. It's affecting our livelihood and our right to practice our traditional ways."
In Alaska for example, subsistence hunting and fishing are becoming dangerous due to unpredictable melts and unstable ice. Already several deaths have occurred which seem attributable to the precarious conditions. But individual families and village economies depend on hunting and fishing. The people have no choice but to risk their lives to eat.
Many Native scientists and environmentalists attribute the rapid shifts in climate to global warming. Erosion, a once unheard of problem, is now affecting villages along the coastlines and rivers. Rivers no longer freeze, creating transportation problems and reducing harvests of tomcod and trout. Melting glaciers are creating more run-off during the summer seasons, changing the fauna of several regions and affecting the caribou herds.
"I've learned from the elders that years ago we used to get temperatures minus 40 degrees to minus 50 and it would last for weeks on end," says Art Ivanhoff, environmental specialist for the Unalakleet Village. "And it doesn't happen anymore. ... We are up about 120 miles from the Arctic Circle and it's like 30 degrees here. The river is not frozen yet and it's unbelievable."
Ivanhoff says that fisheries have been deeply impacted and that, on top of everything else, the salmon haven't been returning.
"There are a number of variables out there," he says. "There's a problem with fisheries and there's a concern about contamination in our food chain. But I think there is also the possible link with climate change. Maybe it's too warm for salmon to return. ...There been several reports that indicate that might be the case."
For Indigenous representatives at the conference in Holland, the bottom line is that the economic bottom line has got to give. The world and its people can no longer afford to support current destructive technologies. Indigenous people of the world can be of tremendous assistance in developing mitigation efforts and alternate technologies. Having a say in international negotiations is the first step.
"At some point, the Native voice in the Native community will have a say in the process," says Ivanhoff. "I think there's always been confrontation between the Indigenous knowledge and western science because western science has never acknowledged the value of our traditional knowledge.
"What needs to take place is meetings with different stakeholders. Hopefully at some point in time they will accept us and our observations so we can be at the table making decisions with these folks."
Shelley Means, a Lakota-Ojibwe representative from Seattle, returned from the conference encouraged by the atmosphere of education as well as impressed by the concerted lobbying by representatives of the United Nations convention delegates. She said she was pleased with the panel discussions on environmental justice and climate change as well as environmental racism.
"It exposed official delegates, whether they were representing governments or NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), it exposed them to the issues for the first time," she says. "And I think that is a tremendous contribution to the whole debate."