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Indigenous communities are on the front line of climate change.

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Image: Demonstrators dressed in indigenous clothing holding anti-climate change posters during a protest.

The impacts of climate change are global environmental problems caused by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Although these environmental issues are felt on a global scale, the adverse impacts are disproportionately burdening indigenous people and their communities.

Making up only 5% of the world’s population, these communities live responsibly and sustainably within their environment, yet they account for 19% of extreme poverty, that are marginalised and brutalised by exploitation of their land. Climate change is set to exacerbate these problems.

The ‘term indigenous peoples’ are culturally distinct societies and communities whereby no two groups of indigenous groups are the same. Nevertheless, they share commonalities as they all have ancestral ties to their land and natural resources within their environment. Their surrounding resources, on which they depend, are inextricably linked to their cultures, identify and livelihoods, that shapes their physical and spiritual well-being.

How are these communities impacted?

Indigenous communities across the world are among the first to face the direct effects and dangers of climate change, yet they have the smallest carbon footprint. Communities are having to shift their agricultural activities and their settlements to new locations which are less susceptible to adverse climate conditions. This is due to their dependence and close relationship to natural resources to which they depend on for ultimate survival.

These communities live in vulnerable areas and directly contribute to conservation efforts as part of their lifestyle and values to protect the environment. In fact, they are vital to interpret and react to these impacts through tradition knowledge and other natural solutions needed to strengthen their resilience to cope with impending environmental changes.

For example, indigenous peoples in Guyana, South America, have shifted from their savannah homes to the forest areas during severe droughts to shift cassava plantations which are normally too wet for other crops.

Nonetheless, their sustainable management systems and self-governance of these ecosystems are not fully being recognised, whereby local conservation efforts are weakened as a result of political and economic marginalisation, loss of land and resources, human rights violation and discrimination.

Indigenous environmental and rights activism

As a result of constant drawbacks and difficulties of responding to the effects of climate change, the youth activism groups within indigenous peoples are gaining global momentum at an unprecedented rate.

An environmental justice activist, Helena Gualinga, is among one of the youngest female activist from the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest community, continuing her family’s legacy of fighting for the protection of nature. Her mission is to be a voice for her people and protect their land from further deforestation and colonial threats by the Ecuadorian government. The Kichwa Sarayuku community of 1,500 people have emerged as leaders in the fight for human rights and nature conservatism.

An emblematic case of territorial defence lost back in 2002, whereby the Ecuadorian state granted permission to the Argentine oil company General Company of Combustibles (GCG) to enter their community without consent from native communities of the rainforest. As a result, the company began a highly destructive seismic exploration using almost 1.5 tons of explosives causing severe environmental damage and mortality among the community.

The Sarayuku area and surrounding regions are still under constant threat from the oil industry.

Helena Gualinga

As she became a spokesperson and found her voice, she spread the message about the destructive industries and their impact on the Amazon region, native communities and environment in Ecuador. Helena’s activism also raised awareness of the environmental impacts that her community would face as a result of climate change such as forest fires; disease spread by floods and desertification.

She took the international stage and attended two major climate conferences such as COP25 and the 2019 Climate Summit, to protest and respond directly to fossil fuel companies for influencing world governments and markets. Her motives are rooted on the fact that successful mitigation and adaptation strategies against climate change, should be fully aligned to respecting indigenous rights, social equity and climate justice.

Helena attended COP 26 to raise awareness and share her disappointed as a result of the destructive oil companies within the Amazon and her community. She attended COP 27 on the panel of discussion centred on the needs needed to tackle climate change by adapting a holistic approach. She provided insights into some examples where climate is intersects with health, gender, energy and food.

Helena continues her work, marked by resistance, with a through line of Indigenous leadership to empower women and the idea that humanity is not separate from nature. She intends to use these guiding principles through her activism to save the Amazon and Earth from further destruction.


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