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Climate Change Impacts on First Nations Peoples

One of the greatest challenges the world faces has not gone away because of COVID19 and that is climate change. In the words of NASA The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.

Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. This body of data, collected over many years, reveals the signals of a changing climate.

The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century. Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many instruments flown by NASA. There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.

Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Ancient evidence can also be found in tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. This ancient, or paleoclimate, evidence reveals that current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.

Here in New Zealand we are already seeing the effects of climate change from, glacial change in the South Island, changes in temperature, prolonged droughts and increasing instances of tidal changes. In fact, we already have significant problems with our eco system and nowhere more is that obvious than the state of our water ways, freshwater ecology and much more. Our changing climate will affect our economy, environment and way of life.

According to NIWA Maori could be particularly impacted Climate has always been important for Māori. It affects natural environmental systems and resources, influences social-ecological knowledge and practice, shapes community vulnerability and resilience, and is directly linked to economic investment and government policy. Given the diverse realities and climate sensitivities that exist for Māori across New Zealand there is a widening interest to know more about the implications (and risks) of a variable and changing climate on different iwi/hapū/whānau. Māori stakeholders wish to learn more about the links between climate adaptation, natural hazards and sustainable development; to understand what makes some stakeholders more resilient than others; and to promote Māori knowledge and values in environmental policy, planning and management.

Projected climate change impacts - and the adaptation they will demand - will present new challenges (as well as opportunities) for iwi/hapū/whānau and Māori enterprise. Reaffirmation of traditional ways and knowledge as well as new and untried strategies will therefore be important for ensuring the long-term sustainability of climate sensitive communities and activities in the context of a changing climate. Inevitably, there is some uncertainty about the timing and exact nature of climate change impacts, but those who consider and plan early for the future impacts of climate variability and change will likely secure considerable advantage.

And it’s not just Maori who are affected as a first nations people – right across the world Indigenous peoples are will be impacted. Take for example the rapid rate of deforestation in the Amazon. Deforestation on protected indigenous lands in the Amazon was almost three times higher than the loss of trees in the region as a whole and the highest since 2008, according to a new study based on satellite imagery.

The data from Brazil’s space research institute INPE studied by ISA, a socio-environmental NGO working with indigenous people, shows that between August 2018 and July 2019 deforestation on reservations reached 42,600 hectares.

That represents only 4% of overall loss of forest in the Amazon in the same period (totalling 9,762 square kilometres or 976,200 hectares), but it is a dramatic increase over previous years and the highest since this data was first collected in 2008.

Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, owing to their dependence upon, and close relationship with the environment and its resources. Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by vulnerable indigenous communities, including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment. According to the United Nations this includes:

  • In the high altitude regions of the Himalayas, glacial melts affecting hundreds of millions of rural dwellers who depend on the seasonal flow of water is resulting in more water in the short term, but less in the long run as glaciers and snow cover shrink.

  • In the Amazon, the effects of climate change include deforestation and forest fragmentation, and consequently, more carbon released into the atmosphere exacerbating and creating further changes. Droughts in 2005 resulted in fires in the western Amazon region. This is likely to occur again as rainforest is replaced by savannas, thus having a huge affect on the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples in the region.

  • Indigenous peoples in the Arctic region depend on hunting for polar bears, walrus, seals and caribou, herding reindeer, fishing and gathering, not only for food to support the local economy, but also as the basis for their cultural and social identity. Some of the concerns facing indigenous peoples there include the change in species and availability of traditional food sources, perceived reduction in weather predictions and the safety of traveling in changing ice and weather conditions, posing serious challenges to human health and food security.

  • In Finland, Norway and Sweden, rain and mild weather during the winter season often prevents reindeer from accessing lichen, which is a vital food source. This has caused massive loss of reindeer, which are vital to the culture, subsistence and economy of Saami communities. Reindeer herders must, as a result, feed their herds with fodder, which is expensive and not economically viable in the long term.

  • Rising temperatures, dune expansion, increased wind speeds, and loss of vegetation are negatively impacting traditional cattle and goat farming practices of indigenous peoples in Africa’s Kalahari Basin, who must now live around government-drilled bores in order to access water and depend on government support for their survival.

So where do we go from here as Maori? As first nations Indigenous peoples? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be releasing a series of conversation topics on the following:

  1. Managing our water

  2. Managing our waste

  3. Managing our forests

  4. Carbon sequestration, capture and storage

  5. The future of jobs and the Maori / Indigenous economy

What are your thoughts? Are you see the challenges of climate change in your own back yard?

Sources: NASA / NIWA / the UN

About the author: Matthew Tukaki is formerly a member of the Board of the United Nations Global Compact, appointed by former Secretary General, Ban Ko Moon and Australian Representative to the UNGC. Matthew is currently the interim CEO of the Maori Carbon Foundation, Executive Director of the New Zealand Maori Council and Chairman of the National Maori Authority. Matthew is formerly Chair of Deakin University CSaRO (Australia)

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