As the world struggles to adapt to global warming, indigenous peoples face unique climate-related challenges, exacerbated by centuries of conquest of their lands by settlers and governments.
In the United States, most indigenous tribes have moved to the country’s less desirable lands, which have limited resources and infrastructure to cushion the impacts of climate change. In the Southwest, for example, the Navajo Nation faces a severe water shortage as a prolonged drought, intensified by climate change, further limits access to clean water. In Oklahoma, the Cherokee’s ancestral crops are increasingly difficult to cultivate, threatening their food security and cultural heritage.
“As the climate changes, we find ourselves in a situation where we have limited adaptation tools and resources given the small, uneven land areas we have,” said Clint Carroll, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies. ethnic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation. .
With the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 28, approaching on November 30, CU Boulder Today spoke with Carroll about why it’s critical that indigenous people have a say in planning climate action and how indigenous knowledge can provide solutions.
How has land loss exacerbated the climate risks faced by indigenous peoples?
Over the past centuries, European settlers and later the U.S. government forcibly removed Native Americans from their native lands and pushed them onto smaller, separate lands. For this reason, indigenous peoples must now adapt to their environment and a changing climate with very limited resources and restricted mobility.
The Cherokee Nation, for example, lost access to about a third of the plants we use medicinally when the tribe was forcibly relocated from the southeastern United States to what is now Oklahoma in the 19th century. The territory we currently have is much smaller and more fragmented. Tribal lands today are demarcated not by ecological boundaries like mountains or rivers, but by political boundaries and socially constructed human activities such as clear-cutting of forests and imposition of private property .
As the climate begins to change, the plants we rely on today could shift habitats, or even die, while property boundaries remain the same. With the territory we have, our capacity to adapt is limited.
What are indigenous communities doing to adapt?
Sometimes the only story we hear about Indigenous people is a litany of tragedies. But Indigenous people are not standing idly by in the face of challenges. As a nation, we work hard to conserve the lands we have to preserve our culture and traditional knowledge. Both are deeply connected to the land and nature.
Additionally, we are navigating the political system with the goal of opening access to other places that could help our communities adapt to the effects of climate change. One project I have worked on involves initiating and maintaining collaborative agreements with entities such as the National Park Service that will allow Cherokee people to collect plants in the Buffalo National River area of Arkansas.
Can indigenous knowledge be applied globally to mitigate climate change?
Yes and no. Indigenous knowledge is often linked to a specific place that has a specific set of ecological conditions and specific animals and plants. It is therefore possible that this knowledge is not widely adoptable.
But I think many of the ethical principles adopted by indigenous people when thinking about our relationship with the non-human world are very valuable. It is difficult to summarize Indigenous ethics, but many communities share this overarching understanding that the Earth is alive and has rights.
A somewhat common principle among native tribes is “don’t take more than you need.” It seems simple, like something we tell children, but it still needs to be said when it comes to extractive activities happening around the world.
I think a good starting point for people who are not indigenous is to try to understand what it means to have a good relationship with the land and that we have an obligation to that.
What does it mean?
Many people view our connection to the land in a romanticized way, imagining a stereotypical image of Pocahontas talking to birds and raccoons, which is not accurate. We need to look at the relationship through an Indigenous law lens.
Indigenous communities relate to the land in such a way that their legal framework defines obligations and responsibilities towards the animals and plants that share the land, as well as towards the land itself. An example of this would be the Cherokee clan system, where animals have something to teach the Cherokee people. Thanks to this, the members of these respective clans had the obligation to defend these beings.
The ethical principles of these forms of governance may offer something better for the planet than dominant forms of political organization, some of which do not focus on the importance of the relationships between human beings and the place where they live, and the other animals that reside there. .
How can we ensure our climate action is inclusive?
One of the most important things would be to actively listen to indigenous people and understand what they are saying. Time and time again we attend conferences like the COP, but it is important to recognize that many people do not come through the door of the COP and their voices are not heard.
Indigenous people have something to teach the world. So it is absolutely important to listen and understand in a way that centers Indigenous voices.
Provided by University of Colorado Boulder
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