The world is in the midst of a climate change crisis. This summer, temperatures all over the Earth have shattered heat records in places that typically boast moderate climates, and the hottest places on the planet are just getting hotter. Forest fires have broken out in the Arctic Circle, and the lowest overnight temperature in Oman hovered at 42.6 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit). While scientists are unsure of how often heat waves like this will happen in the future, they do say that the likelihood of “extreme heat” across the globe has increased. Even with the comforts of modern infrastructure, it is difficult to deal with these temperatures — but it’s dangerous to think that the effects of climate change are just an annoyance and not a matter of life and death for millions around the world.
In fact, that is the case for much of the world’s indigenous population. Whether dealing with deforestation, water contamination, or exploitation of natural resources, these people groups have little-to-no say in the processes that can cause sometimes irreversible damage to the ecosystems that they rely upon. In Alaska’s arctic regions, the disappearance of sea ice has threatened the homes and food sources of the Inupiat people, while also releasing toxic elements like mercury and carbon from the permafrost and weakening the foundations of buildings and roads. Similarly, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is home to many indigenous tribes whose survival depends on the river and the health of its ecosystems, which are being threatened more than ever before by man-made climate change as a byproduct of industry.
An unfortunately common theme across stories like these is a lack of governmental support for these populations. In the worst cases, official powers have treated them with blatant disregard. Many will remember the highly publicized 2016 protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, an initiative that a leader of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation derided as an example of “reckless and politically motivated development projects… that ignore our treaty rights and risk our water.” All over the world, governments are allowing economic motivations to dictate their relationships with indigenous populations, whether that means intruding on sacred sites or damaging the ecosystems they depend on. But even in cases where political structures aren’t actively endangering native cultures and climates, their inaction can be just as threatening. When national leaders don’t give climate change the proper attention, state and local governments follow suit, as is the case with Alaska’s federally subsidized oil and gas industry. What’s more, authorities in Brazil have been unable to prevent the economic struggle over natural resources from becoming violent.
These already dangerous situations become worse when members of these affected communities choose to stand up and take matters into their own hands. In 2017, almost 200 nature defenders around the world were killed while attempting to protect their lands and rivers from illegal and environmentally harmful activity, including deforestation, mining, and poaching. “Nature defenders” are people from indigenous communities, or those who work closely with them to protect their interests when authorities are unable or unwilling. The most violent conditions for nature defenders exist in Latin America, where in March of this year, 24 countries brokered a U.N.-sponsored and legally-binding environmental rights pact that codifies defenders’ human rights and obliges governments to investigate when those rights are violated. This was hailed as a critical step towards responsible environmentalism in a region where authorities had been accused of complicity in the oppression of vulnerable communities — including, all too often, indigenous peoples.
So, what does this mean for the traveler? We at Passion Passport encourage travelers to always be conscious of the environmental impact of their lifestyles, both at home and on the road. As transcendental as travel can be, it is vital to remember that it’s often entwined with industry, since the resources that power our journeys have to come from somewhere. The strain that human industry puts on our planet has reached an unfortunate point, now leaving even the most long-protected lands vulnerable. No one is affected more directly by this reality than the people whose lives are most intimately entwined with their native lands. It’s tragic that they should suffer for industrial advances, given the cultural richness that indigenous societies endow a nation — their languages, traditions, and artistry color a state’s relationship to its sovereign ground, from New Zealand to Yukon. To endanger their livelihood is to threaten the soul of a nation, not to mention the world we all share.
The best way for a traveler to become more cognizant of how climate change affects indigenous communities is to encourage and partake in local activities that celebrate their heritage. The beauty of travel is that it doesn’t take a grandiose, global trip to partake in meaningful experiences — a simple road trip to a neighboring city or a casual walk along the trails behind your house can bring refreshing new perspectives. If you live near an indigenous community, take the opportunity to visit and learn. They will be able to share more with you about their celebrations and tribulations than you could ever get from a distance, and you might leave with a clearer idea of how to help. Or, if you’re looking to volunteer, there are also organizations such as this one in Australia and this one in America that place individuals in such communities when needed.
Climate change affects every global citizen. We only have one home, and it is struggling to cope with the increasing burdens of our habits and consumption. What compounds this situation is that this environmental burden is not evenly distributed across humankind; instead, it weighs most heavily upon those who are least responsible for the current conditions. With governmental authorities slow to pick up the slack, responsibility now rests mainly on individuals’ shoulders to reverse the negative effects of climate change where possible, or at least to stand in the way of further destructive practices. One look at global temperatures, landfills, or our oceans will tell you that the planet is crying out for relief, but people are, too.
We must make sure they are heard.
There are steps that every individual can take to combat climate change. For the sake of the planet, and those who only seek to live in harmony with it, we encourage our readers to adopt greener practices and raise awareness of indigenous issues in their communities.
Header image by Cayetano Gil