Indigenous people are among the groups most affected by the impacts of climate change. There are several reasons why this might be, the first being that Indigenous people already face existing health inequities, making them even more susceptible to others. Another reason may be related to their dependence on their environment for food. Let’s take a closer look at these reasons and more to better understand climate change, Indigenous communities, and their unique challenges.
Existing Inequities in Indigenous Communities
Indigenous people face existing inequities such as language barriers, discrimination, and marginalization due to a history of colonization (Fischer, 2022). These inequities make accessing health care difficult, and many communities experience food insecurity, poverty, and poorer health (Fischer, 2022). For example, Indigenous people can expect to live almost 20 years less than non-Indigenous people (Fischer, 2022). Due to a lack of appropriate health care, they often have to deal with mental health issues from past trauma, heart disease, tumours, and even tuberculosis (Fischer, 2022). Many programs offered to combat these diseases may not reach Indigenous communities, leaving them to fend for themselves (Fischer, 2022). Given that these communities are already fragile enough, it is not hard to imagine what the impacts of climate change may do to exacerbate these effects, whether it be more extreme weather events, dealing with the aftermath, and high temperatures.
Other Unique Challenges
Following traditional lifestyle practices, Indigenous people depend heavily on their land to provide food. As temperatures rise, animals are forced to migrate, and plants may have difficulty growing in certain areas. This compromises the food supply, leading to more food insecurity. Hunting and fishing are also livelihoods for many Indigenous people, and a decrease in fish and available animals to hunt can leave many families struggling to make ends meet. In addition, in Arctic regions, for example, ice offers an alternative road into and out of these communities that are otherwise fly-in, meaning that they rely heavily on planes (Indigenous Climate Hub, n.d.). With temperature increases, there is concern that the ice will melt, leaving these communities completely isolated and entirely dependent on planes for food, supplies, and transportation (Indigenous Climate Hub, n.d.). This is particularly concerning when discussing health care, as people often do not want to leave everything behind and travel far away.
Now, let us discuss some specific examples of climate change’s effects on Indigenous people. As mentioned briefly, Indigenous people living in the Arctic rely on hunting and fishing not only for food and their economy but also for their cultural and social identities (United Nations, n.d.). Increased temperatures and melting ice have negatively impacted the availability of species and food sources, making it more difficult for them to follow their traditions (United Nations, n.d.). Glacial melts increase water supply in the short term but deplete long-term reserves (United Nations, n.d.). In the Kalahari Desert, Indigenous people are forced to depend on government support for survival due to rising temperatures, dune expansion, and increased wind speeds, resulting in vegetation loss and negatively impacting farming practices (United Nations, n.d.). It is clear that Indigenous communities worldwide are dealing with the threats and dangers of climate change, and these will only continue to worsen.
Responding to the Threats
In order for Indigenous communities to adapt, there needs to be education, disaster preparation, medical services, and other strategies implemented, which can be costly (United Nations, n.d.). There will need to be full participation from all parties involved to mitigate further discrimination (United Nations, n.d.). A starting point may be using biofuel to increase crop production and prevent biodiversity loss (United Nations, n.d.). We also need to include Indigenous peoples in the conversations around climate change as they have much knowledge and practices to impart. Above all, we need to build trusting relationships so we can work together to combat this global issue.
Fischer, K. (2022). What Health Disparities Do Indigenous People Face? WebMD. Retrieved Jul 5, 2023, from: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/indigenous-health-disparities#:~:text=Indigenous%20people%20often%20have%20poorer,or%20groups%20handle%20their%20biospecimens.
Indigenous Climate Hub. (n.d.). Equipping Indigenous Communities To Take Preventative Measures. Indigenous Climate Hub. Retrieved Jul 5, 2023, from: https://indigenousclimatehub.ca/effects-on-indigenous-communities/
United Nations. (n.d.). Climate Change. United Nations. Retrieved Jul 5, 2023, from: https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/climate-change.html#:~:text=The%20effects%20of%20climate%20change%20on%20indigenous%20peoples&text=Climate%20change%20exacerbates%20the%20difficulties,rights%20violations%2C%20discrimination%20and%20unemployment.