The UN defines an indigenous person as someone with “Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies, Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources, Distinct language, culture and beliefs, Form non-dominant groups of society, and Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.” In many statistical studies, indigenous peoples are represented using an asterisk. It’s used when the population cited is less than one percent, or “statistically not significant.” The NCAI policy research center explains that the main reason for this are circumstances that ruin the validity of the results, like small sample sizes or large errors. As a result, Indigenous communities are practically invisible in data collection and state studies. Dubbed the “asterisk nation,” they can no longer receive valuable resources from federal agencies and have policies implemented to help them.
Yet, this is just one example of how they are often forgotten in the political sphere; even in an issue that globally affects everyone: Climate change. The warmest period of 98% of the surface of the earth happened after the twentieth century. For reference, that’s about the time the Reagan Administration took office. As more issues arise from climate change, it’s time to consider whom it may be affecting the most.
Indigenous peoples share close ties with the land, often basing much of their culture on their surroundings, as well as depending on it for sustenance. As the Earth continues to deteriorate, so does their ability to survive. The UN explains that Indigenous peoples are already facing issues that climate change only exacerbates: “political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment.” Even worse, indigenous communities contribute the LEAST to greenhouse gas emissions, but are being hit with it the hardest.
Let's take a closer look at how climate change has impacted two juxtaposing environments:
An overwhelming amount of scientists agree that the arctic has been warming at exponential rates. In fact, the Arctic Circle is seeing its highest ever recorded temperatures. Coupled with longstanding controversial plans and debate from the US government to permit oil drilling, millions of migratory birds, birthing grounds, animal habitats, and multiple indigenous communities are at an extremely high risk.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) provides two specific examples of nations that live this lifestyle: The Yup'ik and Iñupiat populations. They rely on the condition of the sea ice near the coast to travel and hunt for various marine life. Unfortunately, due to rising temperatures overtime, the sea ice melts faster and faster every spring, which shortens the hunting season. It also makes it more unpredictable and unsafe to travel across ice that keeps getting thinner and thinner.
The elders of Diomede, a community on an island located between Alaska and Siberia, have commented saying, “In the northern Bering Sea, sea ice used to be present with us for eight months a year. Today, we may only see three or four months with ice.” They've had to shift their travel methods from Ice Runways to less accessible helicopters.
As more ice begins to melt, large storms become more frequent. It’s because the sea ice allows less water to evaporate, which dampens the ability for stronger or more frequent storms. More importantly, some communities would utilize weather patterns to give them crucial information for the season and hunting conditions. Now, as the weather begins to shift more rapidly and severely, they can no longer use these indicators as reliably.
The cultural impacts cannot be ignored either; In the Arctic National Wildlife refuge (ANWR), an area northeast of Alaska, indigenous groups have built a strong cultural relationship with the Caribou for 11,000 years, according to the National Park service. Caribou are animals that are similar to reindeers. Other than being used as food, they would also provide warmth as clothes, and tents as shelter. Unfortunately, as the arctic continues to deteriorate from warming, drilling, and human neglect, the livelihood of all these peoples are at risk.
The Kalahari Desert
Shifting to a completely opposite climate, the state of the Kalahari desert has only worsened. Located in Southern Africa, it is home to the Bushman or San peoples in mainly Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. These peoples rely on their environments to farm livestock and crops. As warming continues, soil moisture declines, leading to severe droughts, dune activity, and harsh winters persist; this is killing livestock and natural vegetation. Another issue adding to the already deteriorating landscape is desertification, which is when fertile land becomes infertile through improper use or harsh weather. Livestock are eating the plants before they can grow back, which results in deterioration.
Due to a lack of wildebeest and zebra in the area, the San have had to rely on goods provided by outside sources. While subsidy systems have been provided by the government of Botswana, that's where the help ends. In fact, they’ve repeatedly blocked outside help from foreign sources. Some Indigenous peoples in the Desert are even being forced to live around government drilled bores.
Climate change has also been giving some governments the excuse to move people out of reserves and where they live. Governments along with companies and NGOs are teaming up to create an “inviolate zone” that needs to be free of human life. The stereotype that tribes peoples are ruining the land themselves-- when the bigger issue is climate change-- is being used as a way to blame the tribes peoples for ruining the land and overusing it. The tribes are forced to leave with no choice. This ties back into a big theme of governments wanting to integrate, “civilize,” and control tribal peoples that has been recurring over centuries across the world.
Mary Abi-Karam is a high school sophomore at American Heritage School in Plantation, FL.