Central America’s indigenous peoples sound warning over climate change

Effective measures to prevent global warming and its consequences will require a change in worldview, say indigenous groups from one of the regions most at risk from global climate change.

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Representatives of indigenous groups from across Central America met earlier this month to pronounce a stark warning on the future impacts of climate change to the region, which they say will be an inevitable result of the economic model in place across the world and will pose grave threats to inhabitants of the isthmus over the coming decades.

The 7th Wallace Conference on Climate-smart territories in the tropics: production, mitigation and adaptation for improved well-being was held in the Costa Rican town of Turrialba, 60km outside the capital San José, bringing together indigenous representatives as well as climate scientists, sociologists and other academics, to discuss the challenges presented by climate change to agricultural producers and other living in rural regions.

Indigenous leaders lined up to criticise a global system based on mass production and consumption which, they say, is accelerating climate change and destroying indigenous territories across the world as well as in Central America. Irma Velásquez Nimatuj, a Guatemalan anthropologist and a member of the Quiché people, themselves part of the Maya ethnic group, said in an interview with Spanish-language newswire Efe that Central American indigenous peoples were frequently affected by hurricanes and storms which, while they have always played a part in the climate systems of the Caribbean basin, are becoming more and more frequent.

Floods in El Salvador in 2011. Scenes like these could become more commonplace with the advent of climate change

She also said that “the acceleration of this destruction the likes of which has never happened before, has been caused by a world economic system that is based on mass production and mass consumption. This happens at the expense of the extraction of resources which are found within indigenous territories. This model doesn’t work, it kills people and communities”. Furthermore, Velásquez highlighted that indigenous peoples are very aware of the responsibility they have today, to leave behind a healthy environment and society for those from the next generation just as their ancestors did for them before.

Meanwhile, a representative for Guatemala’s Maya Kaqchikel people, Miriam Pixtum, said that climate change must come to be seen as more than simply ‘global warming’, as life itself is being put at risk. She also cited the policies carried out by Central American governments which have led to the increased use of chemical and poisonous products, thus contributing to the acceleration of global climate change while also destroying more local environments. “Another crucial topic which we are absolutely clear about is that mega-projects, such as those involving mining, are playing a part in the acceleration of climate change, and for that reason our peoples are against these kinds of projects”, said Pixtum.

While she recognised that her community contributes in one way or another to environmental and climate change, she insisted that this was to such a small degree and that it cannot be compared to the “irreversible environmental impacts caused by mining”. She also suggested that widely-held worldviews make up a significant part of the problem, saying that “for our community the individual is every bit as important as the collective”, but that “for those in the West the individual must come first, without thinking about everything else that surrounds him”.

The head of Honduras’ Maya-Chortí National Indigenous Council, Juan Manuel Díaz, stated meanwhile that his people have been working against climate change and a changing environment for some 15 years, and that the effects of these phenomena are a part of everyday life, especially when the rivers dry up and their harvests yield less and less each year. The representative of indigenous peoples from the Kuna Yala region of Panama, Randy González, said that in his community people were beginning to grow a consciousness about the issue of climate change, but that these changes were inevitable and that they were now searching for ways in which to work their lands without contributing to the damage done by climate change. “People say that it isn’t part of the problem, but we are already living it and experiencing it”, he added.

Indigenous peoples tend to be more vulnerable than other socioeconomic groups when it comes to dealing with climate change, whether through their ability to mitigate against the worst effects by taking precautionary measures or through geophysical factors that often place them in the path of extreme events aggravated by climate change. This is certainly no different in Central America and the Caribbean, especially given the region’s heightened vulnerability to climate change in general, thanks to low-lying coastal areas threatened by sea-level rises and storm surges from more frequent and intense storms and hurricanes, along with widespread poverty among rural populations, where the majority of the region’s indigenous population is found. Events such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which in Honduras alone caused US$3.8bn in damage (the equivalent of around 70% of the country’s annual GDP at the time), wiped out the agricultural sector which its economy and rural communities depend on, and killed almost 15,000 people, are stark reminders of how such extremities in the regional climate can have a devastating and long-lasting effect on its inhabitants.

Hurricane Mitch, which caused widespread damage in Honduras and other parts of Central America in 1998

Indigenous livelihoods are intrinsically linked to the land and to natural resources, which are already being affected by rising temperatures and changes in rainfall and seasonal patterns. This is something highlighted by Pixtum, who claims that climate change harms indigenous peoples more directly, as it is bringing about changes in agricultural and seasonal cycles, thus affecting production of the agricultural products which indigenous peoples depend on, either for subsistence or as their main source of hard cash.

However, as Velásquez points out, indigenous communities generally have poor access to the resources and technologies that are necessary if they are to take preventative measures to stave off the worst effects of climate change and the extreme weather events aggravated by it. This includes information on how to protect their crops from harm caused by these phenomena, what new crops or farming measures they could turn to as their environments or seasonal patterns change, and the hard resources such as cash and equipment needed to implement any adaptive or mitigatory measures.

However, the signs are there that action is being taken to try and dampen the effects of climate change in Central America, both on local scales with efforts to learn and share adaptive and mitigatory measures and on larger, national and pan-regional scales with government policies on carbon emissions and environmental protection. At the end of 2012, regional indigenous leaders created a Central American Workshop on Climate Change and Natural Resources in Indigenous Communities, with the aim of “making public the knowledge of our ancestors and the experience of the Mayan people, in order to protect the environment and reduce the effects of climate change”, as Víctor Cal, a member of Belize’s Maya Qeqchi people, said at the time. National governments are also pledging to act to contain their contributions to climate change, with Costa Rica joining New Zealand, Iceland and Norway in 2008 in asserting its aim of going carbon neutral by 2021, with a greening of its economy and projects of mass reforestation and environmental conservation.

Furthermore, the region is emerging as a global leader in renewable energy, according to the remarks of a regional energy expert earlier this month. Salvador Rivas of the Central American Energy and Environment Alliance (AEA) underlined the region’s potential in this area as it had virtually every type of renewable energy resource at its disposal, including wind, hydro-, solar and geothermal energy. According to the AEA, the region has the potential to meet 100% of its energy needs from these clean renewable sources. Currently around 62% of electricity comes from these sources, but an estimated 7 million people still don’t have any access to electricity, while around a half of the region’s population continues to use firewood as a source of energy for cooking. Costa Rica draws roughly 70% of its energy from hydroelectric sources, while El Salvador gets a quarter of its energy from geothermal power, to name but a couple of the examples of the region’s exploitation of clean, renewable energy sources.

However, Rivas also highlighted the need for further investment in these renewable sources if the region is to shake off its dependence on petroleum and other fossil fuels, a particularly important issue as the regional economy continues to grow, dragging demand for energy up with it. Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs that Central America as a whole is taking some of the right steps in limiting its contributions to global climate change and environmental degradation while at the same time trying to bring about poverty reduction. Yet as the indigenous leaders assembled in Costa Rica earlier this month profess, the danger is that this will all be small change for as long as the more general global pattern is one of plunder and economic growth at all costs, with little concern for the wellbeing of the environment or of the rural and indigenous peoples whose livelihoods are so badly affected by climatic change and variability.

A hydroelectric plant in Costa Rica