The world's original scientists' observations of climate change

November 28, 2011

The Innu of northeast Canada say climate change has affected wildlife © Dominick Tyler

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As the UN’s climate change conference begins in Durban, Survival calls for the ecological knowledge and insights of tribal peoples to be heeded in global decisions concerning climate change.

From the Amazon to the Arctic, tribal peoples typically have the smallest ecological footprints, having practiced sustainable ways of life for thousands of years, but they are also more vulnerable to climate change than anyone on earth, and bear the brunt of mitigation measures such as biofuels, hydroelectric dams and conservation projects. (Download report, pdf, 3.2MB)

Most tribal peoples have developed an intimate knowledge of their surroundings, and observe minute changes in their ecosystems.

Tribal peoples’ observations include:

  • Inuit hunters of northwest Canada report thinning sea ice, shorter winters and hotter summers, change to the permafrost and rising sea levels.
  • Innu people of northeast Canada report observing birds in Northern Labrador such as blue jays that are typically only found in southern Canada or the U.S., less snow during the coldest months of the year and fewer mosquitoes during the summer.
  • Nenet reindeer herders of Siberia report that frozen rivers are melting earlier in the season, which hinders their reindeer’s spring migration, forcing them to swim instead of walk across the ice. They also report fewer mosquitoes.
  • Tsaatan reindeer herders of Mongolia report that the growth of lichen and moss that nourish their reindeer is being adversely impacted.
  • Yanomami of the Brazilian Amazon report a change in the pattern of rainfall in the rainforest. They urge the world to recognize the vital role of the Amazon in the regulation of the world’s climate, and the contribution of deforestation to global warming.

’Climate change has started in our country,’ says Davi Kopenawa, spokesman for the Yanomami people. ‘The rich countries have burned and destroyed many kilometers of Amazon forest. If you cut down big trees and set fire to the forest, the Earth dries up. The world needs to listen to the cry of the Earth, which is asking for help.’

Brazil's Yanomami have noticed different rainfall patterns. © Fiona Watson/Survival

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Inuit activist, said, ‘Hunters have fallen through the sea ice and lost their lives in areas long considered safe. The Arctic is considered the health barometer for the planet. If you wish to see how healthy the planet is, come and take its pulse in the Arctic.’

‘Traditional weather reading skills can’t be trusted any more,’ said Veikko Magga, a Saami reindeer herder. ‘In the olden times one could see beforehand what kind of weather it will be. These signs and skills hold true no more.’

‘Tribal peoples are the world’s original scientists,’ said Stephen Corry, Director of Survival. ‘It’s self-evident: where they have been allowed to continue living on their lands, forest cover and biodiversity can be much higher than in other kinds of protected areas. And without their ecological knowledge, many vital medicines might never have been developed.

‘Now it is vital for us all that their knowledge and views are seen as legitimate. Tribal peoples should have a far greater role in policy decisions regarding climate change mitigation, and their right to the ownership of their land needs to be recognised.’