Sunday, December 23, 2007

Indigenous Peoples, Climate Change, and Anthropology

Last month I was in Washington D.C. for the annual American Anthropological Association meetings. As usual, there was a wide array of panels on a variety of topics – ranging from traditional theoretical discussions of kinship to panels organized around critical need topics such as climate change. In fact, climate change was a hot topic in a lot of panels and in many of the books on display in the exhibition room. One panel that I got to attend specifically examined the current impacts climate change is having on indigenous peoples. Titled “Witnessing, Communicating, Acting: Substantiating Anthropology’s Role in Confronting Global Climate Change,” the multi participant panel offered numerous insights into how current climate changes are effecting indigenous populations around the world.

One of the common assumptions is that climate change is really only having an impact on indigenous populations in the far latitudes (i.e., the Arctic, Patagonia, and islands in the southern Pacific Ocean). However, as several panelists discussed, this is just not the case. Joan P. Mencher discussed “Politics, Drought, and Other Obstacles to the Survival of Small Farmers in South India” while Wendy Weisman and Bonnie McCay talked about “Remembering and Forgetting El Nino: Interpreting Narratives of Short-Term Climate Change and its Effects on Fisheries of the West Coast of Central Baja California, Mexico.” What these and other panelists pointed out through solid data was that climate change is having an impact on indigenous peoples in all areas, geographic regions, and ecozones.

The indigenous Aymaran Native peoples of the Andes are experiencing changes to their mountain ecologies as a result of changing climate and weather patterns. Likewise, the Uralic and Turkic indigenous peoples are facing major changes as the permafrost melts and their reindeer herds get bogged down. For the indigenous peoples of the world – already marginalized by imperial and colonial situations – global climate changes brought on largely by activities that they have no part in are already having major consequences.

However, not all is to despair. There are many social scientists, activists, and others working to help give indigenous peoples a voice in climate discussions, in environmental management plans, and in political and developmental activities. Gregory V. Button talked about “Creating Sustainability in Gulf Coastal Communities” while Susan A. Crate discussed “Climate Change and Human Rights: Making the Case for Viliui Sakha of Northeastern Siberia.”

All in all, this panel and many others at the American Anthropological Association meetings demonstrated that anthropology is no longer solely an ivory tower academic discipline. Rather, it is applied, action oriented, and involved. Rather then working on subjects that involved indigenous peoples (often as research subjects), anthropology and social science in general is now working with indigenous peoples in collaborative and on mutually beneficial projects. Because climate change is such a key issue in the health of not only indigenous peoples, but the earth herself, it was great to see other like minded social scientists and indigenous peoples. Through collaboration and cooperation, we can mitigate climate change’s impacts on indigenous peoples while at the same time helping to clear up our own environment – Mother Earth.

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