Friday, January 9, 2009

Cultures Threatened as Climate Changes

Hurricaine effects on island habitats

TreeHugger posted a moving article about how native cultures are endangered by climate change. This is something that I've felt move me before, and, in fact, it's one of the reasons I got so fired up about climate change personally. I blogged about attending a Marshall Islands Cultural Celebration for the Burke Museum of Culture and National history when I was in Seattle interning there. The president of the Marshall Islands was there as well as dancers, artisans and others of Marshal Island ancestry now living in the Seattle area. President Kessai Note gave a passionate address about climate change and the devastation affects it was and will have on the Marshall Islands - an island chain that has low elevation and is at great risk of disappearing forever.

As I watched these joyful people celebrate their heritage and dance and laugh, I wondered how anyone could could choose to hasten their culture's extinction. I felt that by not doing anything, I was partially responsible. All of the consumer-y crap I do to deplete resources when I don't need to be is only making things worse for people who are going to soon be struggling for their very survival. That was the moment when climate change became real for me.

TreeHugger's post reminded me of this moment and goes on to describe the very real dangers facing indigenous cultures:

In Tibet, sacred glaciers are melting and alpine medicinal plant populations are disappearing. In the Borneo rainforest, Dayak tribes report unusual alterations in wildlife seasonal patterns: native birds aren't showing up in their usual places, or at the usual times. In Central Africa, changing rainfall patterns have altered stream flows, making it harder for the Mbaka (pygmy) women to catch fish.

In Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia, milder winters are decreasing lichen populations, a key food source for both wild and semi-domesticated reindeer. For the first time in history, Sámi peoples have to search for fodder to feed their reindeer herds.

In the Arctic Circle, the permafrost isn't "permanent frost" anymore. It is melting. And as it melts, the tundra dries, reducing the vegetation available for caribou herds. With less food available, caribou are more prone to disease and food-borne illnesses.

Elsewhere in Alaska, melting glaciers are changing fish distribution patterns, affecting sea birds, mammals, and the indigenous communities dependent on them. Walruses and seals have fewer resting platforms (critical to maintaining their core body heat), and sea mammals are migrating further in search of fish. Earlier ice break-up and later freezes shorten hunting periods and increase risk along routes for Native Inuit hunters.

As glaciers along the Alaskan coast retreat, 180 Native villages have already experienced increased flooding and erosion from strong waves, their shorelines no longer protected by sea ice walls.

On the other side of the equator, retreating glaciers in the Peruvian Andes are reducing water flow to wetlands where vicuna, alpaca, and llama graze. Native Quechua herders are distressed not only at the negative impact on their livelihoods, but on the spiritual consequences of humankind's disregard for sacred mountains.

Here's the irony: the peoples of the world with the tiniest ecological footprint-who have contributed the least to our current state of global warming-are the first, and the hardest hit, by the negative impacts of climate change.

Native peoples are deeply connected to their natural landscape - and not just in economic terms. Cultural identity, belief systems, songs, and stories of indigenous peoples around the world are centered around the flora, fauna, forests, mountains, and waters of their traditional territories. Native Alaska peoples such as the Gwich'in consider themselves as the "Caribou People". Their creation stories tell how the Gwich'in people and the caribou share a part of each other's heart. According to Tibetan villagers, their sacred mountains have souls, just as humans do, and need to be treated accordingly.

Why care? Because diversity gives humanity and all of Earth's species more chance at long-term survival. I don't know about you, but I'm not willing to give up on the human experiment just yet.

Related posts:
The Problem with the Green Movement
This is a True Story
More Ways to Use Human Energy

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Fred Sanford said...

A few years back Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a trilogy that started with the novel - Forty Signs of Rain.

You should give them a read...

kcmeesha said...

Humans (and animals) were killed or inconvenienced by global events since day one. from Pompeii to dust bowl to tsunami to upcoming eruption in Yellowstone. just a fact of life on earth. nobody complained when these islands appeared as a result of some other geo-calamity.or when kansas stopped being beach-front property. stuff happens.

May said...

m.v. - Just because stuff happens doesn't mean I'm okay with destruction on a mass scale enough to sit around and do nothing when I can make a difference.