Aborigine, Inuit tradition can fight climate change

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Alaskan Inuits, Australian aborigines and Pygmies from Cameroon have a message for a warming world: native traditions can be a potent weapon against climate change.

At a summit starting Monday in Anchorage, Alaska, some 400 indigenous people from 80 nations are gathering to hone this message in the hope that it can be a key part of international climate negotiations.

“We don’t want to be seen just as the powerless victims of climate change,” said Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat native of Nome, Alaska, who is chairing the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change.

“Our conference is really stirred by our wanting to become leaders ... on climate change because we have the ability to bring information from our communities to the rest of the world,” Cochran said in a telephone interview from Anchorage.

Indigenous traditions are hardly static, she said, noting that native people have always adapted to their changing and often harsh environments.

For instance, Cochran said, Inuit people in Alaska are reverting to traditional dogsleds instead of modern snow machines as the icy region warms.

“People go out on their snow machines, fall through the ice and are never seen again,” she said. “But our sled dogs will tell you when the ice is not safe ... and they’re a lot easier to feed than (to pay) the gas prices that we have, $10 a gallon in many of our villages.”

The summit is taking place about 500 miles from the Alaskan village of Newtok, where intensifying river flow and melting permafrost are forcing 320 residents to resettle on a higher site some 9 miles away in a new consequence of climate change, known as climigration.

Newtok is the first official Arctic casualty of climate change. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study indicates 26 other Alaskan villages are in immediate danger, with an additional 60 considered under threat in the next decade, Cochran said.


Climigration is also threatening the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific, where rising seas are forcing 3,000 islanders to relocate to Papua-New Guinea, said Sam Johnson of United Nations University, a summit co-sponsor.

While indigenous people are expected to feel the impact of climate change first and hardest, and have contributed the least to it, they have traditional knowledge that helps them cope with the change, Johnston said by telephone from Melbourne, Australia.

In Western Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory, aborigines have used traditional fire control practices -- setting small fires throughout the year rather than letting huge stocks of fuel for bush fires build up -- reducing greenhouse gas emissions as a result.

This has enabled them to sell $17 million worth of carbon credits to industry, Johnston said.

In Africa, Baka Pygmies of Cameroon and Bambendzele of Congo have developed new fishing and hunting techniques to adapt to decreased rainfall and more forest fires.

Because indigenous people are often on the front lines of climate change, they are expected to report to the summit on changes affecting them now.

For example, Dayak villagers in Borneo see climate change in observations of bird species, rising water levels and the loss of plants traditionally used for medicine.

In the Andes, temperature changes have hit farming and health hard, with more respiratory illnesses and a shortened growing season.

The summit ends Friday, and participants plan to craft a declaration that will call for world governments to include indigenous people -- as many as 350 million people, or about 6 percent of the world’s population -- in any new international climate pact.

Climate negotiators are gathering in Copenhagen in December to forge a new agreement to succeed the carbon-capping Kyoto Protocol.

More information about the summit is available online at

Editing by Todd Eastham