UNITED NATIONS - One night about four years ago, Lakhan Bibi's grandfather told her that things in their land were going to change. "How come?" she asked. "Look up to the sky," he said. "You see the moon? It is no longer where it used to be."
To many, it may sound superstitious. But Bibi, a former commercial airline pilot and young leader of the indigenous Kailashi people of the Hindu Kush mountains, has no reason to doubt her grandfather's wisdom. "He was right," she said. "Since that moment things have changed."
"We had never seen before what are seeing now. Our herds are running away. Our homes are getting buried in huge glaciers," Bibi told IPS at a news conference Tuesday called by the U.N. to highlight the significance of the International Day of Biodiversity on May 22.
Wearing a colourful Kailashi dress, Bibi said that with faster melting of the glaciers, her people are increasingly worried about the future of their livelihoods and traditional lifestyle, which has been based on a self-sustained economy for hundreds of years.
The lush green Kailash valley is located in northern Pakistan, home to some of the world's highest mountains, ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 metres in altitude. The natives live there in close proximity to nature, with crystal lakes and dense forests.
Bibi, a delegate to the sixth annual meeting of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said she feared many of her people might be forced to leave their homes if the world community did not take urgent and practical measures to mitigate the impact of climate change.
As a result of glaciers melting and collapsing, many native people have been killed and wounded in the past few years. "That had never happened before because they knew when it was going to happen," she said. "But not anymore. The glaciers are falling very frequently. It was different in the past."
U.N. experts on the science of biodiversity say concerns about the changing patterns of the natural environment are all too real, and high-altitude areas in various parts of the world are being particularly affected by the rising temperatures caused by climate change.
"An important common feature and characteristic of high altitude areas is that they provide low-lying communities with a vital source of fresh water," according to a U.N. draft paper on indigenous communities' vulnerability to climate change. Mountain glaciers are important for water levels in lower lakes and rivers, and comprise a vital part of many communities' subsistence and economy. Recent research suggests that faster melting of glaciers may be the "most serious" impact of climate change.
According to the U.N. draft paper, which is based on numerous studies, climate change is already having adverse impacts, with new weather conditions posing "severe difficulties for many indigenous communities."
Bibi said her people are losing the crops and animals on which they completely depend for survival.
But the natives of her mountains, as well as in the Himalayas and Andes, are not the only ones who are bearing the brunt of the greenhouse gas emissions fueling global warming. Experts say those living in the snow-covered Arctic region and small islands across the world are equally threatened.
According to researchers, in the Andes of Latin America and the Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, the retreat of glaciers is accelerating. In February, National Geographic magazine reported that some glaciers in the Andes are melting 10 times faster than they did 20 years ago.
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Indigenous leaders point out that their communities are least responsible for the industrialisation triggering climate change, yet they are the ones who are hardest hit, not only forced to abandon their lands, but also the knowledge about those lands.
"It is time to stop the senseless exploitation of the Earth's natural resources," said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a native of the Philippines and president of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which brought more than 1,000 activists here last week.
Scientists working with the U.N. now fully acknowledge that traditional knowledge about plant and animal species is key to their understanding of how to conserve natural resources and protect species that are vital for the survival life on Earth.
"The link between biodiversity and traditional knowledge is evident," said Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, who says he views the Earth as a "spiritual mother who not only gives life and therefore food, but also provides the cultural and spiritual identity of its occupants."
Believing that indigenous peoples' dependence on the sustainable management and use of biological sources "can protect and enhance" biodiversity, he adds: "Their cultures and cosmo-visions are therefore essential in the global effort to halt biodiversity loss and natural habitat destruction."
The biodiversity treaty, which has been signed or ratified by 190 countries, not only recognises the significance of traditional knowledge, but also asserts the need to "respect" and maintain indigenous innovations.
Though appreciative of the objectives laid out in the treaty, indigenous leaders are upset that the U.N. General Assembly has failed to recognise their right to exercise full control over their traditional lands and resources.
"Although in recent decades some progress has been made in the area of legal recognition of indigenous peoples' right to the protection of their lands, territories, and natural resources," notes Tauli-Corpuz, "in practical terms, this recognition has not translated into reality."
Threats to indigenous peoples' lands and territories, according to Tauli-Corpuz, include mineral extraction, logging, toxic contamination, privatisation, and development projects, as well as the use of genetically modified seeds and technology.
When the U.N. General Assembly met last September, many had high hopes that the body would unanimously endorse the draft declaration on the universal rights of the world's indigenous peoples, but that did not happen.
Though already approved by the U.N. Human Rights Council, the United States, Canada, Australia and some other nations refused to accept the text because it included a clause calling for the recognition of indigenous peoples' right to self-determination.
Indigenous leaders say unless the world body recognises their peoples' right to self-determination, international efforts to reverse the loss of biodiversity and overcome the challenges of climate change will remain futile because their resources will continue to be exploited by private corporations.
"On the one hand, they recognise our traditional knowledge as part of the solution," Arthur Manuel of the Canada-based Indigenous Network on Economics and Trade told IPS. "But how can we share our knowledge without exercising our right to control our traditional lands and resources?"
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service