Tuvalu News

Native peoples panel warns of impacts from climate change

Rutland Herald
September 25, 2005

By ED BARNA Correspondent

MIDDLEBURYŚ If the severe storm seasons generated by global warming sent a Katrina or Rita to the wrong place in the Pacific Ocean, an entire nation would be destroyed.

That was the message of Enele Sopoaga, ambassador to the United Nations from Tuvalu, to a Middlebury College conference on how the present "Age of Climate Crisis" is affecting indigenous cultures. Speaking to about 150 people at the college's science center Friday, along with representatives of two Arctic Circle native peoples, he warned that global overheating and rising ocean levels are slowly but steadily doing what a major typhoon would do quickly.

"The impacts are already here, and are happening to our islands," Sopoaga said. And Tuvalu is just one of 43 members of the Alliance of Small Island States, many of whom have similar fears, he said.

On Tuvalu's nine islands, about 10,000 people are living no more than 10 feet above sea level, Sopoaga said, so fiercer tides and storm surges are already a problem. Looking at pictures of Katrina's damage, "if that ever happened to Tuvalu, my country would be disappeared, totally, from the face of the planet," he said.

Yet the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that in 50 to 100 years, melting Arctic ice could raise ocean levels above the highest points on Tuvalu, he said. "The situation is not exaggerated at all. It's getting very, very serious."

In 2000, Tuvalu appealed to Australia and New Zealand to accept its people as refugees in an emergency. In 2002, Tuvalu announced it would sue the United States, which had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocols on carbon dioxide reductions, pointing to studies like that of the National Environmental Trust that said 288 million Americans were producing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of 2.6 billion people in 151 poorer countries.

It's also bad up by the Arctic Circle in Fort Yukon, Alaska, said Craig Fleener, a wildlife biologist with the Council of Athabascan Tribal Groups. Their way of getting food, their culture, their spiritual life, all depend on hunting and gathering at the right times and places in nature, he said, but the warming is destroying all those traditions.

On the coast, the ice pack has loosened, so that storm waves wash away the shoreline, Fleener said. Several villages have been evacuated already, because they were about to crumble into the sea.

In the last year, there were only two inches of rain, he said. The Yukon River that acts as the local highway has been so low that people have not been able to travel by boat, keeping them away from hunting grounds, he said.

Last year, wildfires destroyed six million acres, and this year, for the first time, it looks like there will be two bad fire years in a row, he said. One fire in his Yukon River area, of two million acres, "was the largest fire in recorded history."

When the tundra thaws, lakes disappear, as their water is drawn down into the ground, Fleener said. "When the lakes are dry, there are few places for wildlife to go. That's a tremendous problem," he said.

It is also a problem, in trying to adapt, that governmental hunting regulations and private land ownership restrictions keep them from going where they need to, Fleener said. "You have to have some faith in native control and authority and our traditional rights," he said.

But even when hunters can travel farther from home, increasingly it is dangerous for them to do so because of the weak ice and soft ground, he said.

Some may think warmer winters are better, but "we (native Alaskans) have a need to be cold. We have a right to be cold," Fleener said.

John Mameamskum, director-general of the Naskapi nation, had similar concerns about his region about 1,000 miles northeast of Montreal. "The impacts of climate change are of paramount importance to us, and to all our neighbors across the North," he said.

Forty years ago, there were 20-foot snowdrifts; now for the first time they have seen thunderstorms in midwinter, Mameamskum said. What Katrina was to the United States, the great ice storm of 1989 was to Quebec, he said: a disaster that Hydro-Quebec, whose power lines failed, assured everyone had only a tiny chance of ever happening.

Their way of life, still strongly traditional with Nescapi still spoken, depends heavily on the caribou, Mameamskum said. About 750,000 of them live in the region, he said.

Six years ago, when the caribou left the area in search of food, it took five and a half hours for part of the herd to pass through Schefferville, he said. Even the schools closed, so the children could watch.

Now the herd no longer comes close during its spring and fall migrations, he said. "We have to travel significantly farther to harvest," he said, and as a study he handed out afterward showed, the herd's habitat and health have become concerns.

At least Canada has signed the Kyoto treaty, which will bring carbon dioxide levels 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, he said. "It's an important step in the right direction," he said.

Fleener was less optimistic about Alaska, which he said has a pioneer attitude toward development and a conservative congressional delegation. High oil prices will probably mean drilling not only in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge but also in many other places, he said.

All three agreed that industrialized nations' ideas about religion are part of the problem. For native peoples living on, in and of the land, there is no separation of church and state, and there are no churches to go to on Sunday "and then do whatever it is you do," as Fleener put it.

A fourth panelist, with Penobscot roots, was Dartmouth professor of Native American and environmental studies Darren Ronco. "How we deal with the first round of climate change impacts will influence how we deal with human rights here and around the world," he said.

"This is a global crisis. We need a global response," Sopoaga said. "The consequences we are suffering will be felt by all, if nothing is done urgently."

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