Indigenous Peoples Needed to Meet the Challenge of Climate Change

Gimuy Wallabarra Yidinji Dancers performing Welcome to the Country in Cairns, Australia. Photo: Gleb Raygorodetsky


“Planning is not part of our culture. You just get up in the morning and do what you need to do for the day,” said Marilyn Wallace of the Kuku Nyungka ‘mob’ (aboriginal nation) in northern Queensland, Australia.

“Bama,” people caring for their local territory, is an important part of aboriginal culture and identity, Wallace told participants at a mini-workshop in Cairns, Australia today (March 25th) prior to the start of the main workshop Climate Change Mitigation with Local Communities and Indigenous peoples.

Caring for the land includes monitoring the impacts of climate change and using traditional knowledge to keep or sequester carbon, she said.


Visit with Marilyn Wallace, a Kuku Nyungkal Aboriginal woman at her home on the eastern shore of Australia’s tropical north.  Like her ancestors before her, Marilyn walks through the Nyungkal bubu, the Nyungkals country, acknowledging and conversing with the Spirit beings around her. Video: UNU Channel

Henrietta Marrie, an Aboriginal leader of the Gimuy-Walubarra Yidinji Nation of Cairns. Photo: Stephen Leahy

Indigenous peoples and local communities are the least responsible for climate-altering emissions of carbon, but they can play an important role in helping to reduce emissions through the way they manage their lands.

However, Indigenous peoples have not been involved in discussions about climate change in most countries, said Henrietta Marrie, an Aboriginal leader of the Gimuy-Walubarra Yidinji Nation of Cairns. Indigenous and local peoples collectively represent more than a billion people, said Marrie, organizer of Sunday’s workshop and a representative of The Christensen Fund, a U.S.-based private foundation with a program in northern Australia.

“In Australia Indigenous peoples have legal rights to sixteen percent of the continent and own and manage 25 percent of the protected lands here,” Marrie said.

There are many reasons why the voices of indigenous people go unheard, including historical, political, and practical reasons like the simple fact they often live in remote areas, she said. Another is the fact that their views and experiences are rarely reflected in the technical reports in scientific journals.

“We know wider knowledge exists about what is happening on the ground,” said Youba Sokona, a climate expert from the African nation of Mali. Sokona is a co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group that will report on ways carbon emissions can be reduced.

The IPCC is the world authority on climate change. Countries take the IPCC’s policy-relevant recommendations very seriously since it represents the best and most credible science. The IPCC does not do climate research, it only reviews and assesses the quality of existing research found in peer-reviewed technical or scientific journals.

The IPCC and United Nations University (UNU) have organized this week’s main workshop to incorporate and “credibly validate” indigenous people’s traditional knowledge, Sokona said. This also needs to be done in a fair and equitable way.

This is a vitally important effort. For example, the vast forests of the Congo Basin are the territories of local communities and there may be important opportunities to manage those forests as carbon sinks, he said.

Burning fossil fuels and deforestation puts heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere and has raised the global average temperature 0.8C. CO2 will stay in the atmosphere virtually forever, but forests can sequester or trap some of this carbon — hence the term ‘carbon sink.’

Global emissions of carbon continue to increase year on year. Emissions need to peak and begin to decline in the next five years or so to have a decent chance of keeping the rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees C. That’s the target the nations of the world are committed to since greater temperature increases will result in increasingly dangerous impacts.

But reducing carbon emissions through afforestation or growing biofuels have the significant potential to adversely affect Indigenous peoples, so the IPCC has a responsibility to examine possible impacts, Sokona said.

To meet the climate challenge “all possible options for reducing carbon emissions need to be on the table,” he said.

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Human Journey

Meet the Author
An international environmental journalist for more than 20 years, Stephen Leahy has been published in dozens of publications around the world: National Geographic News, The Guardian (UK), Vice, New Scientist, Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS), Al Jazeera, Mo Magazine (Brussels), TerraGreen (India), Toronto Star, China Dialogue (UK), Earth Island Journal, The London Sunday Times, Wired News, BBC Wildlife. Stephen was a co-winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for reporting on Climate Change, and the author of Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products (Winner Best Science Book 2014)