Published on
the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska)

Climate Concern Unites Natives at UN Conference in Anchorage

Elizabeth Bluemink

Decked out in flowing African garb, Mary Smat marveled Monday over how she ended up on the other side of the world from her home in Kenya, attending an international climate change meeting in Anchorage.

Smat, a Masai woman, is anxious about her work in Anchorage over the next week: helping craft a joint statement about climate change to be signed by indigenous groups from around the globe, she said.

"There's a lot of controversy," Smat said.

"I would like for us to come out with one voice," she said.

Smat works for a Masai tribal nonprofit in Kenya that works on education and economic development. She's also one of roughly 400 delegates from more than 70 countries to this week's Indigenous People's Global Summit on Climate Change at the Dena'ina Convention Center in downtown Anchorage. The summit was sponsored by the United Nations, the World Bank and many foundations and nonprofits.

On Monday morning, hundreds of delegates -- some wearing traditional clothing with long underwear underneath -- listened to Native leaders from Greenland, Russia, Scandinavia and Alaska talk about how global warming is changing their lives in the Arctic. The session was translated into several languages, including French, Russian and Spanish.

Gunn-Britt Retter, with the Finland-based Saami Council, talked about how her nomadic people, who herd reindeer in Scandinavian countries, are building up their own expertise to address changing animal migrations, longer growing seasons and the appearance of new pests that interfere with their pastoral lifestyle.

She said the Saami are also scrutinizing recent actions by governments and industries undertaken in response to climate change, such as building wind farms and biofuel plants. Like climate change itself, these projects also change the land used by indigenous people, she said.

The Saami people created their own international study group, called Ealát, to maintain their reindeer-herding culture in spite of changing weather patterns that make it more difficult for reindeer to find food, she said. Also, they are trying to bolster their traditional knowledge by creating a Saami university in Norway, she said.

Aqqaluk Lynge of Greenland shared observations he gathered from Inuit people in Alaska, Canada, Russia and his country: Arctic villages are crumbling due to the melting of permafrost and increased coastal erosion. Traditional food caches dug into the icy ground are melting. Water supplies have become contaminated, he said.

Melting permafrost and other consequences of climate change make it more difficult for Inuit people to live their traditional lives; that has led them to work together on a plan to address food and sanitation in the Arctic, he said.

The Inuit people are also watching oil, gas and mining firms take a greater interest in the Arctic due to the rapid retreat of sea ice, he said.

Even if these industries develop the Arctic, they will not be able to compensate for the social impact that climate change is having on the Inuits' health and well-being, he said.

His organization, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, raised more than $1 million over the past two years to bring indigenous leaders from Africa, Asia, the Arctic, the Caribbean, Latin America, North America and the Pacific islands to this week's summit.

The council said it hopes to publish a joint statement Friday that it will provide to the United Nations, which is hosting key international negotiations on climate change in December. The intent of that meeting is create an international agreement among the world's developing and developed countries on actions they will take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and as well as plans for adapting to climate change.


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