Most Vulnerable Left to Sink or Swim

UNITED NATIONS - The world's minorities and indigenous groups are the "silent victims" of the potentially disastrous effects of climate change, says a new study by Minority Rights Group (MRG) International.

Although both groups are often disproportionately affected by climate-related disasters, the international community continues to ignore their plight, the London-based human rights organisation charges.

The report points out that even though climate change has finally made it to the top of the international agenda, recognition of the acute difficulties that minorities face is often missing.

"From the immediate aftermath of a disaster to the point of designing policy on climate change, the unique situation of minority and indigenous groups is rarely considered," said Ishbel Matheson, MRG's head of policy and communications.

The disadvantaged include the Dalits (or "untouchables") of India, the Rakhain fishing community in Bangladesh, the pastoralists of Kenya, the Karamajong community in Uganda, the Afro-Colombians in Colombia, the Roma communities in Europe and the Sami people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

When the Dalits in Bihar, India, were disproportionately affected during the 2007 floods, relief was a long time in coming and they were subject to blatant discrimination in the aid distribution process, the report says.

"The close relationship of many indigenous peoples and some minorities to their environment makes them especially sensitive to the impact of climate change," it points out.

Indigenous people have extraordinarily intimate knowledge of weather and its effects on plants and animals, but climate change is now affecting their way of life, the report adds.

David Pulkol from Uganda's Karamajong community is quoted as saying: "In our community the elders interpret certain signs from nature to know when to plant their crops or when to start the hunting season. But with climate change it is becoming impossible for them to make such predictions anymore."

"We have had an unusual increase in droughts which has resulted in greater loss to livestock and increased poverty and starvation in our community," Pulkol adds.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global warming and more extreme weather events can, to a large extent, be attributed to the burning of fossil fuels and other polluting activities, which are raising the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Responding to a question, MRG's Matheson told IPS that the United Nations and its environmental bodies definitely have a role to play in focusing attention on the plight of minorities hardest hit by climate change.

"However, the difficulty is that until very recently, most of the controversy around global warming has focused on the extent to which humans have caused the global warming, and to charting the real and projected environmental effects," she added.

She said the U.N.-organised negotiations have obviously been around measures to curb the levels of carbon dioxide emissions, or to mitigate their effects.

"This is obviously a priority [and is the focus of the successor talks of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change]. But given that the actual effects of global warming are already being felt at a human level, then policy-makers need to look beyond the environment impacts to the impact on communities -- and which communities are disproportionately affected, including minorities and indigenous communities, Matheson added.

She noted that the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples has already taken up this issue -- and has published a number of reports on it.

The theme of the upcoming seventh session of the Permanent Forum, scheduled to take place Apr. 21-May 2, will be "climate change, bio-cultural diversity and livelihoods: the stewardship role of indigenous peoples and new challenges".

"Climate change is considered to be a critical global challenge and recent events have demonstrated the world's growing vulnerability to climate change," says a study that will go before the Permanent Forum next month. "For indigenous peoples, climate change is already a reality and poses threats and dangers to the survival of their communities."

The study warns that climate change "also has serious economic and social implications".

"Climate change is, fundamentally, a sustainable development challenge, that should be linked more firmly to the broader development agenda, including to poverty reduction and other internationally agreed development goals," the study adds.

At a conference of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in New York last September, several representatives pointed that key challenges facing indigenous groups included the impact of mono-culture plantations; mass migration; poor water quality; food security; human health and infrastructure.

An international expert workshop on indigenous peoples in Russia last August focused on environmental damage, including pollution and toxic dumping on indigenous peoples' lands.

According to the MRG report, indigenous and minority communities across the world are also hurt by the planting of biofuel crops, which have been championed by many governments as one solution to climate change.

Biofuels, derived from plant matter such as corn or oil palms, are seen as the greener option because they produce lower emissions of carbon dioxide.

"But communities face forceful eviction and destruction to their livelihoods and culture for biofuel crops to be planted," the report notes.

In South American countries such as Colombia, Brazil and Argentina, indigenous and minority communities have been forced off their lands, in some cases violently, to make way for biofuel plantations.

Social marginalisation is another factor. In Kenya, pastoralists have borne the brunt of recent cycles of drought. But the effects are exacerbated by the Kenyan government's neglect of these remote areas, and its failure to implement successful drought strategies.

The explosion of bio-fuel crops is particularly problematic. In Colombia, for example, by 2005, more than 90 percent of the land planted with oil palms had belonged to Afro-Columbian communities.

Violent displacements because of paramilitary groups are consolidated as oil palm companies move in to take over, Matheson added.

She said the 50 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are drawing up National Adaptation Programmes of Action, under the auspices of the U.N., to lay out the steps they must take to combat the effects of climate change.

"But they are under no compulsion during this process to pay attention to the special needs of minorities and indigenous peoples," she said.

The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) are often the lead U.N. agencies which work with the LDCs to draw up their adaptation plans.

They too need to look at the impact on minorities -- such as the Rakhain fishing community in Bangladesh -- to address the fact that, for these communities, it is not simply a matter of loss of livelihood or a loss of culture, but their very survival, Matheson said.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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