A global forum takes to the frontlines of climate change

©UNESCO/D.Nakashima
Inuit on Ice, Arctic

By Peter Bates

In response to the outcry over the continuing absence of vulnerable groups from international debates on climate change, UNESCO’s Coasts and Small Islands platform and Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems programme launched an Internet-based discussion forum on 12 June.

The forum has been launched in partnership with the Secretariats of the Convention on Biological Diversity and United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as well as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Frontlines forum will explore the experiences of rural or indigenous communities living in small islands, the circumpolar Arctic, high-altitude zones, low-lying coastal areas, tropical forests, desert margins and other vulnerable environments. For many people, climate change is a distant threat but, for vulnerable communities, it is already a reality. Effects being felt by small islands, for example, include sealevel rise, storm surges and the consequential salinization of vital freshwater reserves and agricultural lands.

Rural, indigenous or island peoples are also keen observers of the impact of climate change. Confronted over the ages with repeated environmental change, many have built up a rich body of knowledge and skills which allow them to adapt to new situations. This knowledge can be crucial for debates on the impact of climate change and adaptation strategies.

In Sachs Harbour in Canada’s western Arctic, Inuit are already using their detailed knowledge of animals and environmental change to modify their hunting and travelling practices in response to climate change. They now hunt polar bears earlier in the year than before and fish through the ice on different lakes and for a shorter duration in spring. Seals are being hunted more often from boats in open water, due to a lack of ice floes. Many Inuit are confident in their ability to cope with climate change, partly due to distinct philosophies which embrace rather than resist uncertainty and change.

Despite their specific vulnerabilities, adaptation strategies and knowledge, indigenous peoples continue to be excluded from debates on climate change. They have voiced their frustration at this, notably through protests on 7 December last year at the United Nations conference in Bali (Indonesia) and at the most recent session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May 2008 in New York (USA).

On 28 March, small island states delivered a clear message on their plight when the Maldives government tabled a resolution on human rights and climate change to the United Nations Humans Rights Council on their behalf. The resolution was adopted by consensus.

The Frontlines forum will explore all of these issues, heightening the profile of vulnerable communities in international debates while providing a platform on which communities can share their experiences. The forum will operate in English, French and Spanish, with possible expansion into other languages in the future. Participants will receive new postings and highlights of discussions via email.

To participate in this online forum, email: peoples(at)climatefrontlines.org; the debates can also be followed at www.climatefrontlines.org

>> Download this article, which appeared in A World of Science, Volume 6, No. 3, July-September 2008

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