UN DPI/NGO Briefing: Climate Change and its Impact on Indigenous Peoples

20 March 2008
Climate Change Panel Summary

Climate change is altering the way in which human beings coexist with their environment. The briefing examined how the issue of climate change applied to indigenous peoples, who maintain an intimate relationship with the land. Speakers included H.E. Mr. Colin D. Beck, Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of the Solomon Islands to the United Nations; Ms. Elsa Stamatopoulou, Chief, Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; and Mr. Roberto Mukaro Borrero (Taino), Chairperson, NGO Committee on the International Decade for the World's Indigenous Peoples.

H.E. Mr. Collin D. Beck spoke about the effect climate change had on small island states and the challenges for indigenous peoples of the Solomon Islands. He noted the great diversity among the half million people living in his country, 90 percent of which belong to indigenous groups who speak 80 different languages. Ambassador Beck stressed that all of the basic needs of indigenous peoples came from natural resources, which were greatly influenced by the changes in the environment. Climate change issues varied within each indigenous community and were related to their specific geographical region. The frequent occurrence of natural disasters such as high tides, tsunami and cyclones in disaster prone areas caused the progress made in certain locations to regress. Ambassador Beck also mentioned the subject of indigenous peoples migrating to bigger islands because of climate change. With migration came the threat of conflict between different ethnic groups and the loss of traditional culture. Furthermore, urbanization contributed to increased poverty. The Ambassador called for the need to move away from policy making into taking action on the ground.

Ms. Elsa Stamatopoulou discussed the importance of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which will be focusing on climate change and indigenous peoples during this year's session, more specifically the issues of indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands. Ms. Stamatopoulou stressed the importance of raising awareness on issues faced by the indigenous peoples, and said that the effect of climate change on indigenous peoples was a matter of survival. She stated that indigenous peoples were "hardly contributors to climate change, but suffered the gravest consequences". And yet, the voices of indigenous peoples have not yet entered the mainstream of the climate change debate. Ms. Stamatopoulou also mentioned a study on biofuel development and its impact on the territories and the livelihoods of the indigenous populations. For example, corn used to fill up one SUV tank with ethanol would feed one person for a year. Ms. Stamatopoulou cited the right to food and blamed development of biofuels for the 40 percent increase in food costs worldwide. Ms. Stamatopoulous concluded by stating that solidarity was an important factor in addressing indigenous issues.

Mr. Roberto Borrero greeted the audience and introduced himself in his native indigenous language. He said that climate change was about the kind of world we were going to leave for our children and their children. He called for long-term rather than short-term solutions. Mr. Borrero examined the importance of indigenous peoples to be actively involved in preserving their culture and land. He defended the right to ownership by indigenous peoples and discussed the difficulties indigenous peoples encountered when trying to protect or preserve the land they did not own. Mr. Borrero stated that indigenous peoples noticed climate change years before the climate change debate started. For example, some indigenous elders gathering plants for traditional medicines could no longer find those. Mr. Borrero also mentioned the difficulties indigenous peoples faced accessing mainstream healthcare. He concluded by saying "for many years people have seen ice melting around the world, now it is time to melt the ice in the hearts of men."

During the question-and-answer period, a question was asked in regards to the effects nuclear testing had on indigenous peoples. Ambassador Beck mentioned the nuclear treaty preventing any more testing in his country. He also responded to a question regarding the urbanization of indigenous peoples by stressing the importance of investing in the development of rural areas. This would result in indigenous peoples not having to travel to urban areas for school or work. A question was asked about what NGOs could do to help indigenous peoples. Mr. Borrero referred to the CONGO website as a source for practical ways NGOs could assist indigenous peoples. He noted one of the most important ways NGOs could help was by disseminating information on indigenous peoples to the mainstream media and local communities.

The briefing was attended by about 100 representatives of NGOs, United Nations and Permanent Mission staff. The 1 hour and 20 minute archived webcast of the event is available at http://www.un.org/webcast/2008.html

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Photo: Ms. Elsa Stamatopoulou and Roberto Mukaro Borrero speaking on Climate Change at the United Nations on March 20, 2008. (UN DPI Photo)

Source: United Nations, DPI/NGO Resource Centre, Room L-1B-31

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