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Voices that must be heard: minorities and indigenous people combating climate change

19 November 2008

From the Batak people of Indonesia to the Karamojong in Africa, those who are least responsible for climate change are amongst the worst affected by it. They are often referred to in generic terms such as ‘the world’s poor’ or ‘vulnerable groups’ by international organizations, the media and the United Nations (UN). But these descriptions disguise the fact that specific communities – often indigenous and minority peoples – are more vulnerable than others. The impact of climate change for them is not at some undefined point in the future. It is already being felt to devastating effect. Lives have already been lost and communities are under threat: their unique linguistic and cultural traditions are at risk of disappearing off the face of the earth.

In a statement to mark World Indigenous Day in August 2008, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, commented on the threat to indigenous languages, saying, ‘The loss of these languages would weaken not only the world’s cultural diversity but also our collective knowledge as a human race.’

But all too often the impacts of global warming on human diversity are overlooked. More column inches have been devoted to the polar bear’s plight than to the Inuit, the Arctic people who live in harmony with the wilderness.

This briefing paper addresses this gap and brings together a rare collection of interviews with members of minority and indigenous groups from across the world. The people presented here include communities from the El Molo on the shores of Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya, to Sami reindeer herders in Finland, that live in remote regions of the world, who have very limited access to the media or to international organizations, and whose voices are rarely heard.

These stories are being told in critical times when major international decisions on climate change are being taken. UN member states are currently negotiating a climate change deal that will set carbon emission and other targets for countries to achieve beyond 2012 (see fact box). This deal is expected to be reached at a state-level meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009. The penultimate state-level negotiations on this issue will take place in Poznan´, Poland, in December 2008. Yet these vital discussions will take place with little or no input from the communities most affected. As indigenous and minority communities are often politically and socially marginalized in their own countries, and in some cases discriminated against, they are unlikely to be consulted on any national or international level climate change strategies.

But the message from the interviews presented here is clear: these communities want their voices heard. They want to be part of the climate change negotiations at the highest level.

This briefing paper starts by outlining the key issues – including how communities are affected by climate change and their role at international level discussions. It presents the testimonies, and in conclusion, it considers the way forward for these communities and makes a series of recommendations on how governments and the UN can harness their distinct knowledge.

Download (PDF, English)


Farah Mihlar