Oct 10, 2022 - Energy & Environment

To go or not to go

Photo illustration of a collage of hands holding a family on a background of sunrises.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Land isn’t just a resource for many Indigenous peoples. It’s a sacred space, central to culture, livelihood and ancestry.

The big picture: As climate change displaces millions of people every year, Indigenous communities around the world are grappling with an impossible choice: to go, or not to go.

Context: According to a 2022 report by the UN Refugee Agency, at least 21.5 million people every year are displaced due to climate-related disasters, like droughts, wildfires and floods.

Why it matters: Climbing temperatures driven by fossil fuel pollution are creating unlivable conditions for tribal communities across the world, according to Angelo Villagomez of the Center for American Progress, who is Indigenous Chamorro from the island of Saipan.

  • "If we lose this connection to the land, we lose who we are, and if we lose this diversity, of ways of knowing and ways of being, we lose something in terms of a global society and being able to tackle some of these issues," said Villagomez.

The backstory: While every tribal nation faces distinctive climate challenges, something all Indigenous communities in the U.S. have in common is being disproportionately impacted by the warming world.

  • Historic tribal land loss plays a major part.
  • A 2021 study published in the journal Science found that European colonization and expansion of North America is responsible for Indigenous peoples' relocation to lands now experiencing an increased exposure to climate hazards.
  • The study's authors told Grist that when compared to historic territories, the present-day Indigenous lands are more vulnerable to climate hazards like excessive heat and reduced rainfall.

Zoom out: Indigenous peoples across the country are facing hazardous climate risks to their homes — forcing many to leave behind remaining ancestral lands.

  • Decreasing sea ice and warming temperatures are increasing flood and erosion risk in Alaska, threatening to displace dozens of Native Alaskan communities. Several villages have started relocating in the face of that.
  • Land subsidence, or sinking land, worsened by sea level rise, has submerged much of southeastern Louisiana's coastline — forcing Indigenous groups like the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw to leave or weather vanishing shores.
  • Rising seas, erosion, increasing tsunami and flood risk have led some of the Quinault Nation community of Taholah, Washington to begin preparing to relocate to higher ground.

Beyond U.S. borders, the number of displaced people is growing steadily, with the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting 143 million people may be uprooted by climate-related disasters like rising sea levels over the next 30 years.

But for some, leaving is not an option.

  • Jupta Itoewaki, president of the Mulokot Foundation and member of the Wayana tribe in Suriname, South America, told Axios in an email that her tribe "never" talks about moving or relocating to another place.
  • "It is important to know about the relationship and the responsibility of Indigenous peoples towards their community, towards their ancestral land," Itoewaki wrote.
  • "Migration would mean running away from [one's] responsibility, not caring of the relationship we have with our land."

Of note: Increased flooding, droughts and changes in growing seasons continue to impact the tribe's farms, leading to failed crops — making food insecurity a pressing concern.

  • Despite these compounding climate stressors, resettling is not on the table. Only adaptation is.
  • "Our land means our home to us, our land also tells which tribe or clan or family we belong to," Itoewaki wrote. "Land means life to us."

What they're saying: The Indigenous Environmental Network's Brenna TwoBears — who is Navajo, Ho-Chunk, and Standing Rock Lakota from Wisconsin and Arizona — told Axios that they are hopeful that Indigenous culture and connection to land in many places can still be preserved.

  • Rapid cuts to global emissions and investments in clean energy are vital solutions to that, according to TwoBears.
  • "The land, for right now, is still there. And we are going to fight for it."
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