News Release

Indigenous peoples hardest hit by climate change describe impacts

Biofuel production, renewable energy expansion, other mitigation measures uprooting indigenous peoples in many regions

Peer-Reviewed Publication

United Nations University

Indigenous peoples have contributed the least to world greenhouse gas emissions and have the smallest ecological footprints on Earth. Yet they suffer the worst impacts not only of climate change, but also from some of the international mitigation measures being taken, according to organizers of a United Nations University co-hosted meeting April 3 in Darwin, Australia.

Impacts of climate change on indigenous people worldwide include:

  • In tropical and sub-tropical areas, an increase in diseases associated with higher temperatures and vector-borne and water-borne diseases like cholera, malaria and dengue fever;

  • Worsening drought conditions and desertification, leading to more forest fires that disrupt subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering livelihoods, as well as serious biodiversity loss;

  • Distinct changes in the seasonal appearance of birds, the blooming of flowers, etc. These now occur earlier or are decoupled from the customary season or weather patterns;

  • In arid and semi-arid lands: excessive rainfall and prolonged droughts, resulting in dust storms that damage grasslands, seedlings, other crops and livestock;

  • In the Arctic, stronger waves, thawing permafrost and melting mountain glaciers and sea-ice, bringing coastal and riverbank erosion;

  • Smaller animal populations and the introduction of new marine species due to changing animal travel and migration routes;

  • In Boreal Forests, new types of insects and longer-living endemic insects (e.g. spruce beetles) that destroy trees and other vegetation;

  • In coastal regions and small-island states, erosion, stronger hurricanes and typhoons, leading to the loss of freshwater supplies, land, mangrove forests and dislocation (environmental refugees);

  • Increasing food insecurity due to declining fish populations and coral bleaching;

  • Crop damaging pest infestations (e.g. locusts, rats, spruce beetles, etc.), and increasing food costs due to competition with the demand for biofuels;

  • Extreme and unprecedented cold spells resulting in health problems (e.g. hypothermia, bronchitis, and pneumonia, especially for the old and young).

As well, indigenous people point to an increase in human rights violations, displacements and conflicts due to expropriation of ancestral lands and forests for biofuel plantations (soya, sugar-cane, jatropha, oil-palm, corn, etc.), as well as for carbon sink and renewable energy projects (hydropower dams, geothermal plants), without the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people.

Specific instances of indigenous people being harmed by climate change mitigation measures include the case of a Dutch company whose operations include planting trees and selling sequestered carbon credit to people wanting to offset their emissions caused by air travel. In March 2002, its project was certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and from 1999 to 2002 over 7,000 hectares of land were planted in Uganda.

The Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA), responsible for managing all national parks, forced indigenous people to leave the area. Forced evictions continued to 2002, leading indigenous people to move to neighboring villages, caves and mosques. Over 50 people were killed in 2004.

Meanwhile, indigenous peoples in Malaysia and Indonesia have been uprooted by the aggressive expansion of oil palm plantations for biofuel production. Likewise, nuclear waste sites and hydroelectric dam-building displace indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories.

Participants in Darwin, Australia will hear first hand the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples and how they are adapting to a warming world. They will also explore factors that facilitate or obstruct the participation of indigenous peoples in international processes and deliberations related to reducing emissions and emissions trading.

Entitled the International Expert Meeting on Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples, the event is being organized by UNU’s Japan-based Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) in conjunction with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNFII) and the North Australia Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA).

(Papers / documentation are available online at

Specific objectives of the meeting:

  • Exchange information on the effects of climate change;

  • Draw attention to the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples, their livelihoods, cultural practices and lands and natural resources;

  • Identify options and advance plans to address migration and many other issues faced by indigenous peoples due to climate change;

  • Identify international institutions interested in partnership with indigenous peoples;

  • Highlight good practice models; and

  • Identify information gaps and prescribe a way forward.

The meeting’s final report will be to be submitted to the seventh session of the UNPFII.

“Indigenous peoples regard themselves as the mercury in the world’s climate change barometer,” says UNU-IAS Director A.H. Zakri. “They have not benefited, in any significant manner, from climate change-related funding, whether for adaptation and mitigation, nor from emissions trading schemes. The mitigation measures for climate change are very much market-driven and the non-market measures have not been given much attention. We hope this meeting will help address that imbalance.”

Adds Dr. Zakri: “Most indigenous peoples practice sustainable carbon neutral lives or even carbon negative life ways which has sustained them over thousands of years.

“There are at least 370 million indigenous people throughout the world living relatively neutral or even carbon negative life styles. While not a large number when compared to the world population of 6 billion, it does have a substantial impact in lowering emissions. Compare this to the impact of the United States, with a population of 300 million -- only 4% of the world’s population – but responsible for about 25 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions.”

The meeting will also hear how indigenous people are adapting to changing climate conditions.

In Bangladesh, for example, villagers are creating floating vegetable gardens to protect their livelihoods from flooding. In Vietnam, communities are helping to plant dense mangroves along the coast to diffuse tropical-storm waves.

Additional background follows.

A brief overview of climate change effects on indigenous people:


There are 2.5 million kilometers of dunes in southern Africa covered in vegetation and used for grazing. However the rise in temperatures and the expected dune expansion, along with increased wind speeds, will result in the region losing most of its vegetation cover and become less viable for indigenous peoples living in the region.

As their traditional resource base diminishes, traditional practices of cattle and goat farming will disappear. There are already areas where indigenous peoples are forced to live around government-drilled bores for water and depend on government support for their survival. Deteriorating food security is a major issue for indigenous peoples residing in these drylands.


In Asia’s tropical rainforests, a haven for biodiversity, as well as indigenous peoples’ cultural diversity, temperatures are expected to rise 2 to 8 degrees Celsius, rainfall may decrease, prompting crop failures and forest fires.

People in low-lying areas of Bangladesh could be displaced by a one-meter rise in sea levels. Such a rise could also threaten the coastal zones of Japan and China. The impact will mean that salt water could intrude on inland rivers, threatening some fresh water supplies.

In the Himalayas high altitude regions, glacial melts affect hundreds of millions of rural dwellers who depend on the seasonal flow of water. There might be more water short term but less long term as glaciers and snow cover shrink.

The poor, many of whom are indigenous peoples, are highly vulnerable to climate change in urban areas because of their limited access to profitable livelihood opportunities and will be exposed to more flood and other climate-related risks in areas where they are forced to live.

Central and South America and the Caribbean

This very diverse region ranges from the Chilean deserts to the tropical rainforests of Brazil and Ecuador, to the high altitudes of the Peruvian Andes.

As elsewhere, indigenous peoples’ use of biodiversity is central to environmental management and livelihoods. In the Andes, alpine warming and deforestation threaten access to plants and crops for food, medicine, grazing animals and hunting.

Earth’s warming surface is forcing indigenous peoples in this region to farm at higher altitudes to grow their staple crops, which adds to deforestation. Not only does this affect water sources and leads to soil erosion, it also has a cultural impact. The uprooting of Andean indigenous people to higher lands puts their cultural survival at risk.

In Ecuador, unexpected frosts and long droughts affect all farming activities. The older generation says they no longer know when to sow because rain does not come as expected. Migration offers one way out but represents a cultural threat.

In the Amazon, the effects of climate change will include deforestation and forest fragmentation and, as a result, more carbon released into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. The droughts of 2005 resulted in western Amazon fires, which are likely to recur as rainforest is replaced by savannas, severely affecting the livelihoods of the region’s indigenous peoples.

Coastal Caribbean communities are often the center of government activities, ports and international airports. Rapid and unplanned movements of rural and outer island indigenous residents to the major centers is underway, putting pressure on urban resources, creating social and economic stresses, and increasing vulnerability to hazardous weather conditions such as cyclones and diseases.

The relationship between climate change and water security will be a major issue in the Caribbean, where many countries are dependant on rainfall and groundwater.


The polar regions are now experiencing some of Earth’s most rapid and severe climate change. Indigenous peoples, their culture and the whole ecosystem that they interact with is very much dependent on the cold and the extreme physical conditions of the Arctic region.

Indigenous peoples depend on polar bears, walrus, seals and caribou, herding reindeer, fishing and gathering not only for food and to support the local economy, but also as the basis for their cultural and social identity. Among concerns facing indigenous peoples: availability of traditional food sources, growing difficulty with weather prediction and travel safety in changing ice and weather conditions.

According to indigenous peoples, sea ice is less stable, unusual weather patterns are occurring, vegetation cover is changing, and particular animals are no longer found in traditional hunting areas. Local landscapes, seascapes and icescapes are becoming unfamiliar.

Peoples across the Arctic region report changes in the timing, length and character of the seasons, including more rain in autumn and winter and more extreme heat in summer. In several Alaskan villages, entire indigenous communities may have to relocate due to thawing permafrost and large waves slamming against the west and northern shores. Coastal indigenous communities are severely threatened by storm-related erosion due to melting sea ice. Up to 80% of Alaskan communities, comprised mainly of indigenous peoples, are vulnerable to either coastal or river erosion.

In Nunavut, elders can longer predict the weather using their traditional knowledge. Many important summer hunting grounds cannot be reached. Drying and smoking foods is more difficult due to summer heat undermining the storage of traditional foods for the winter.

In Finland, Norway and Sweden, rain and mild winter weather often prevents reindeer from accessing lichen, a vital food source, forcing many herders to feed their reindeer with fodder, which is expensive and not economically viable long term. For Saami communities, reindeers are vital to their culture, subsistence and economy.

Central and Eastern Europe, Russian Federation, Central Asia and Trans-Caucasia

Survival of indigenous peoples, who depend on fishing, hunting and agriculture, also depends on the success of their fragile environment and its resources. As bears and other wild game disappear, people in local villages will suffer particular hardships. Worse, unique indigenous cultures, traditions and languages will face major challenges maintaining their diversity.

Indigenous peoples have noticed the arrival of new plant species that thrive in rivers and lakes, including the small flowered duckweed which has made survival difficult for fish. New bird species have also arrived and birds now stay longer than before.

Changes in reindeer migration and foraging patterns, sparked by fluctuating weather patterns, cause problems also in this region, whose indigenous people have witnessed unpredictable and unstable weather and shorter winters.

North America

About 1.2 million North American tribal members live on or near reservations, and many pursue lifestyles with a mix of traditional subsistence activities and wage labour. Many reservation economies and budgets of indigenous governments depend heavily on agriculture, forest products and tourism.

Global warming is predicted to cause less snowfall and more droughts in many parts of North America, which will have a significant impact on indigenous peoples. Water resources and water quality may decrease while extended heat waves will increase evaporation and deplete underground water resources. There may be impacts on health, plant cover, wildlife populations, tribal water rights and individual agricultural operations, and a reduction of tribal services due to decrease in income from land leases.

Natural disasters such as blizzards, ice storms, floods, electric power outages, transportation problems, fuel depletion and food supply shortages will isolate indigenous communities.

Higher temperatures will result in the loss of native grass and medicinal plants, as well as erosion that allows the invasion of non-native plants. The zones of semi-arid and desert shrubs, cactus, and sagebrush will move northward. Finally, fire frequency could also increase with more fuel and lightning strikes, degrading the land and reducing regional bio-diversity.


Most of the Pacific region comprises small island states affected by rising sea levels. Environmental changes are prominent on islands where volcanoes build and erode; coral atolls submerge and reappear and the islands’ biodiversity is in flux. The region has suffered extensively from human disasters such as nuclear testing, pollution, hazardous chemicals and wastes like Persistent Organic Pollutants, and solid waste management and disposal.

High tides flood causeways linking villages. This has been particularly noticeable in Kiribati and a number of other small Pacific island nations that could be submerged in this century.

Migration will become a major issue. For example, the people of Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville atoll island of Cartaret have asked to be moved to higher ground on the mainland. The people of Sikaiana Atoll in the Solomon Islands have been migrating primarily to Honiara, the capital. There has been internal migration from the outer islands of Tuvalu to the capital Funafuti. Almost half of Tuvalu’s population now resides on the Funafuti atoll, with negative environmental consequences, including increased demand on local resources.

Warmer temperatures have led to the bleaching of the Pacific Island ’s main source of survival – the coral reefs. The algae that help feed coral is loosened and, because the algae give them colour, the starved corals look pale. Continued bleaching ultimately kills corals. Coral reefs are an important shelter for organisms and the reduction of reef-building corals is likely to have a major impact on biodiversity. Tropical fishery yields are on the decline worldwide and it is now clear that the conditions may become critical for the local fish population.

Agriculture in the Pacific region, especially in small island states, is becoming increasingly vulnerable due to heat stress on plants and saltwater incursions. Hence, food security is of great concern to the region.


UNU Institute of Advanced Studies

The Institute of Advanced Studies is part of the United Nations University’s global network of research and training centres. IAS undertakes research and postgraduate education on leading sustainable development issues, convening expertise from disciplines such as economics, law, biology, political science, physics and chemistry to better understand and contribute creative solutions to pressing global concerns. UNU-IAS works to identify and address strategic issues of concern for all humankind, for governments and decision makers and, particularly, for developing countries.

United Nations University

Established by the U.N. General Assembly, UNU is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable development and the use of science and technology to advance human welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo.

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