Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Voices of the Indigenous Peoples at COP16

Last year, at COP16, there was a lot of discussion about climate justice, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), carbon credits to help invest in developing nations, and a green fund. I was particularly struck this year by how much more vocal various groups (whose voices have traditionally been minimized) – demanding justice and speaking out about the problems with “solutions” that have been designed by industrialized nations (the global north).  In fact, they view this as a human rights issue.

Indigenous people from around the globe note they have sustainably managed their land for hundreds or thousands of years. Yet, the “agents of the north” typically aren’t coming to talk to them to see first-hand how climate change is impacting their livelihoods or to learn about their ideas for climate change adaptation. “So why do we need REDD?” they ask. There is much concern that the poor will be coerced into signing contracts with the lure of money, but then have restrictions placed on how they use their land. For example, if a country wants to protect a forest under REDD, they may set up conditions which would eliminate opportunities for the local people to obtain food or medicines from the forests they had managed sustainably for centuries or longer. Many of these indigenous people don’t read, haven’t had formal education, and don’t really know about climate change; thus, they won’t necessarily understand the political or legal complexities of the agreements they are being asked to enter into.  Throughout history, they have been exploited and are afraid that this is happening again.

They have a clear sense of the challenges of adapting to climate change ranging from the impact on their traditional lifestyles to increasing pressures for land privatization (many indigenous people manage land communally). But they also see challenges with programs like REDD such as having security over land tenure, the need to map resources that include things that they value (despite the lack of a global market for such resources) and guaranteeing the role of women who are often the ones who gather products from the forest. They don’t want to be exploited by carbon markets and demand guarantees that they will share in future benefits arising from these markets and clean development mechanisms (CDMs).

In one side event, Joseph Ole Simel, a pastoralist from Kenya who works with MPIDO – the Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization, showed photographs of the Loita forest in the southwest part of the country near the border with Tanzania. This forest is one of the last remaining tropical forests in the country and has long been managed and controlled by the Maasai. The images showed a diverse and healthy forest. In contrast, the images of the Mau forest – under government control – showed smoke from the fires where trees are being cut to produce charcoal and fragmentation.

Joseph, along with indigenous representatives from Nicaragua and Indonesia, spoke of efforts to educate people and to garner a political voice for indigenous peoples in their countries – changing political rhetoric and even constitutional language.

In another side event focused on enhancing the leadership of women in climate change, Ms. Constance OKollet a peasant farmer from Uganda spoke about the profound and devastating effect that a series of flooding and drought has caused in the area that she is from since 2007. Homes, farm fields, lives and livelihoods were destroyed and people wanted to know why god was punishing them. Oxfam reached out to Constance to attend an educational meeting where she learned about climate change for the first time. Since then, she has become active in organizing her community and educating people about climate change, its impact and how they can adapt. She is a founding member of Climate Wise Women http://www.climatewisewomen.org/.

I doubt that there were many dry eyes as Constance told powerful stories of having to use moonlight to cook supper (if food could be found) and told the crowd that “people are dying down there”.

Constance is in the middle of the panel (photo by Corey Husic)

The Moravian College delegation was honored to have Samwel Naikada as a breakfast guest. I met Samwel last year giving a presentation in a panel that also included Wangari Maathai talking about how climate change was impacting his Maasai community in Kenya. He contacted me in Cancun to see if I was there and we got together. He asked if he could meet with the students to talk about the Maasai people and their culture, and how their lives are changing.

Samwel with the Moravian College delegation at the Beachscape Hotel
The Maasai are nomadic pastoralists and livestock are essential to many parts of their life including their food source, their rituals and social status. Indeed their very identity (especially for the males) is linked to cattle. As severe droughts have hit Kenya, the lack of water holes has caused the Maasai to travel farther distances in search of water often leading to conflict as they come on lands of others.

Samwel noted that the nutritional value of the grasses is poorer due to the altered growing conditions and seasons, and this is reflected in the health of their animals. Between malnutrition and the drought, animals have died by the thousands. In some cases, this has led to herders committing suicide because of the sorrow and dishonor.

Samwel talked about the forest conservation efforts of the Maasai (confirming what Joseph had said in the side event), but noted that many of the trees no longer produce fruit like they used to. This affects both the Maasai who gathered food from the forests and the wildlife. Baboons that normally eat fruit are now attacking young livestock and entering homes of the indigenous people to steal food. The bees of the forest that provided important honey for the people are disappearing.

The poor nutritional quality of the savannah grasses is also impacting the native wildlife. Samwel noted how zebras and impala are animals which never before entered the forest now are routinely found amongst the trees scavenging for food. Hungry elephants are no longer afraid of humans and can become quite dangerous.

As if these problems weren’t enough, other tribes are now coming to cut wood in forest to prepare charcoal (a fuel) to sell or to hunt game.

Samwel said that there is pressure to have the Maasai change their ancient traditions and begin agriculture. He noted that this is very difficult as it changes all aspects of the culture of non-sedentary people and questioned whether it is fair that because of climate change that his people need to give up their age-old customs. A different perspective on this issue is presented in this video new report from April 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04MfFrqPJls&feature=related

Samwel noted that unpredictable growing conditions of late, especially with the severe droughts, make it very difficult to rely on agriculture for the primary food source. He noted examples where people had tried to grow maize, but the water shortages and decrease in soil fertility caused crops to fail after only a few years. These people don’t have knowledge of or money for fertilizers, which, of course, are not good for the environment anyway.

The stories we heard from this special guest were incredibly informative and we finished our visit by discussing ways that we might continue to learn from and help each other. Samwel would love for a team from the U.S. to come to camp in their forest and collect stories about how climate change is impacting the Maasai.


I am so grateful for the unique opportunity to spend time learning from Samwel and for the international friendship that has been forged through our attending the COP events. 

Samwel shows us images of the forest near his village in Kenya

If you are interested in these topics, you can learn more about livestock management in Kenya from Danielle Nierenberg, co-project director of the year-long Nourishing the Planet program of the WorldWatch Institute who presented at the Agriculture and Rural Development Day in Cancun.


She comments on traditional livestock raising practices and the knowledge of indigenous peoples to do this in a sustainable way –- assuming that climate change doesn’t make this impossible.

The link below is from a visit to Kenya by Danielle in November 2009.


And finally, last year in Copenhagen at COP15, Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now, did a segment on Voices from Africa. At time 29:22, there is a short segment from Samwel.


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