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LATIN AMERICA
An indigenous perspective on climate change
Henry Mance
11/15/2007
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Indigenous peoples, long the flag-bearers of environmentalism, watch their perspective on climate change continue to be ignored.

Cameras flashed as two Mayan delegates from Guatemala laid flowers on the stage, a ritual intended to bring good fortune to the Third International Seminar on Indigenous Women and Global Climate Change, held in Bogota in September. Yet as soon as their short ceremony had finished, the audience’s interest waned.

Many attendees who had participated in the earlier talks by academics and environmentalists at the seminar, which brought together indigenous delegates from eight Latin American countries, drifted away. “They always just leave us talking,” complained one indigenous delegate.

This is the challenge for those working to incorporate indigenous voices into discussions on climate change: to make ethnic indigenous perspectives impossible to be ignored.

Even though the World Bank recognizes that indigenous peoples are “extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change” and “hold knowledge that may be critical to climate change adaptation”, many indigenous peoples across Latin America continue to feel excluded from the debate.

According to Pia Escobar, the seminar’s coordinator, “information and awareness about the issue need to be spread.”

One barrier is terminology. “Climate change is a term of academics and policy makers,” says Darío Mejía of Colombia’s National Indigenous and Campesino Organization.

“Within the indigenous sphere, the problem isn’t known as climate change, but as the consequences of predatory and extractivist policies.”

Indigenous perspectives
So, while much mainstream discussion of climate change focuses on the details of market-based mechanisms and low-emission technologies, indigenous forums tend to embrace a wider set of issues, including food security and fumigation, as well as invoking spiritual interpretations of the environment, such as that of pachamama, or Mother Earth.

For Mejía, the neutrality of the term “climate change” provides a smokescreen, allowing for the continuance of environmentally-destructive policies, such as monocultures for biofuels.

On Colombia’s Pacific coast, biofuels such as palm oil are being planted without the consent of the indigenous communities who own the land.

Potential financial opportunities, such as the possibility, under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, which grants financial rewards for reforestation (or potentially, under Kyoto’s successor agreement, for avoiding deforestation) often seem distant and untrustworthy.

“Thousands of carbon capture companies have appeared.

They want to exploit the forests’ timber, and kill the biodiversity where we live,” said Patricia Gualinga, an indigenous Kichwa speaker from Ecuador, at the seminar.

Many indigenous groups also feel neglected by environmental organizations.
“The environmental movement still hasn’t incorporated indigenous voices, particularly on the issue of climate change,” says Escobar.

This detachment is surprising since the strengthened collaboration of environmentalists and indigenous peoples during the 1980s led to significant legal and political gains for both groups.

Ethnicity ignored
Most high-profile research, such as the work of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has practically ignored the issue of ethnicity.

A report published earlier this year by the British Tyndall Center explores indigenous peoples’ roles as victims, observers and mitigators of climate change.

The report notes that the relationship between indigenous peoples and scientists should not be antagonistic. In the Arctic region, for example, there has been significant cooperation between the two groups.

Such cooperation is urgently needed in Latin America to understand the vulnerability of the flora and fauna, on which some Andean populations depend.

In the meantime, scientists are missing opportunities to learn from the local climatic observations of indigenous peoples and their techniques for adapting to species variation.

The failure to refer to other ethnic minorities who may be particularly impacted by climate change could have significant effects.

Across Latin America, Afro-descendant populations often live in areas as remote as indigenous people.

“The issue is still a void for us”, says Escobar. “And if indigenous people are weak in Colombia, just imagine the Afro-Colombians’ position.

” Moreover, ethnic minorities in Latin American cities may be excluded from climate change discussions due to their linguistic and cultural differences, just as they have been in North America.

Greater efforts are being made to incorporate a gender perspective into climate change activity. According to Escobar, “Women in indigenous communities have a special role as reproducers of the groups’ cultures.

They also spend much more time on the land, and come to know it much better.

” Olga Yana, a Bolivian Aymara, has shown how men and women perceive climatic variations differently, with women noting how the color of trees’ leaves can indicate the advent of a harsh winter.

Sensitivity to gender can also guide public policies on climate change.

A sustainable forestry initiative in Costa Rica, which pays compensation to landowners who avoid deforestation on their lands, was potentially male-biased as most landowners are men.

Therefore, a fee was imposed on users, with revenues channeled to help women become landowners.

However, the importance of a female perspective is resisted by Mejía, who claims that “the gender discourse can’t be assimilated into the indigenous movement. Our responsibilities come from our culture, not from our gender.

There’s total clarity between men and women.”

Addressing the distance between indigenous people and the climate change mainstream will require significant political will.

Unfortunately, in many Latin American countries, indigenous movements appear to have lost the momentum that surrounded the constitutional reforms of the late 1980s and 1990s.

“It would be easier to incorporate an indigenous perspective into international negotiations rather than into national-level policies,” Escobar said.

Whether the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed this year by all Latin American governments except Colombia, will invigorate indigenous voices remains to seen.


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