Indigenous peoples’ health affected by climate change

Maxine Lancelot

Indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions, often living carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative lifestyles. Ironically, they are the most sensitive to the effects of deforestation, which challenges indigenous access to and ownership of traditional forest lands, and the emerge of climate-related health challenges exacerbated by high rates of poverty, marginalization, unemployment, and inadequate access to health care.

Indigenous peoples around the world are especially vulnerable to the health effects climate change, given their strong reliance on their lands and natural resources. The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights noted as early as 2008 that more than 370 million Indigenous peoples across North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific were already facing serious threats to their cultural identities and livelihoods.

The increased frequency of natural disasters like intense storms and flooding as well as high temperatures will create food insecurity, exacerbating the long-observed tendency toward nutrition deficiency in Indigenous peoples. In the arctic region, traditional food sources including walruses, fish, reindeer, and polar bears have become scarce in response to changing ice and weather conditions. Indigenous peoples in Kalahari Basin now rely on government-drilled water bores for survival as rising temperatures and increased wind speeds have made traditional cattle and goat farming impossible. Many examples of this type of direct impact of climate change have been observed around the world.

The dramatic predicted increase in rainfall along with increasing temperatures will also increase the spread of water-borne diseases like cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. As clean water becomes rarer, Indigenous peoples in remote locations who often have inadequate water infrastructure will be particularly affected.

The spread and emergence of climate-related disease like respiratory disease, malaria, dengue, and most recently Zika virus will also particularly affect Indigenous peoples who have low access to allopathic medicine. Though traditional medical knowledge can be powerful and deep, these sicknesses are new to most areas and so will present particular challenges.

On the other hand, there is evidence that Indigenous peoples have remarkable adaptive capacity and solutions to some of the problems posed by climate change that they may even offer in aid of nonindigenous populations. Traditional knowledge of lands and food systems, for example alternative harvesting techniques, can be harnessed and applied to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change on agriculture. For example, Indigenous people in Guyana are moving to forest areas, and planting their traditional staple crop Cassava on floodplains that have become too wet for other crops to grow.

Special consideration for Indigenous peoples was not included in the Paris Agreement, despite their active participation in COP21 through side-events, press conferences, and public manifestations. National Congress of American Indians representative Frank Ettawageshik expressed keen disappointment on behalf of the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change, but promised that Indigenous peoples will continue to insist on their rights as protected by the agreement’s preamble.


James D Ford and his article Indigenous Health and Climate Change (American Journal of Public Health. 2012;102(7):1260-1266. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2012.300752. Accessible at

International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs and their resources on climate change accessible at

International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change and their resources related to COP21 accessible at

The US National Climate Assessment 2014 report accessible at

Jakob Kronik and Dorte Verner and their book titled Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean (Kronik, Jakob and Verner, Dorte. Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2010.)

European Parliament study Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change published in 2009 and accessible at

UN Climate change and indigenous peoples backgrounder from 2008 with additional sources listed accessible at


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