Cattle grazing outside Sokoto, Nigeria, where large-scale farming is in conflict with local communities.

Climate Change: The End of Indigenous Practices?

When compared to non- indigenous people, indigenous communities all over the world are the first and worst to be affected by climate change. Besides depending on the environment for their entire survival, indigenous tribes have a spiritual connection with their surroundings. So with climate change comes the loss of livelihood, traditional methods of living, ceremonial and historical sites and community disruption.

Indigenous people’s relationship with their land

Indigenous people depend on nature and renewable resources for their social, economic and cultural activities. However, none of their activities exploit nature. Their dependence and ancestry has always rendered them to worship the land the live on. Rather than cling to the idea of ‘This land belongs to me,’ their relationship with their land is defined as ‘I belong to this land.’ Unlike most non- indigenous people, indigenous people believe that their creator put them on the land not to take, but to protect, care and revere the land they depend on. Take care of the land and the land takes care of you. Their law and spirituality are directly intertwined with the land, which can be seen through many of their cultural activities involving paying tribute to nature. The land isn’t just for their livelihood, it is part of their identity and culture.

It is ironic and disheartening to know that despite releasing the least amount of carbon emissions into the environment, it is the indigenous people who are worst affected by climate change. They live in regions that all the more vulnerable to climate change, including rainforests, polar regions, mountains, islands and coastal areas. Melting ice and glaciers, forests destroyed by industrialisation and forest fires, rising water levels in islands and coastal areas wiped rendered unliveable due to floods are only few of the issues caused by climate change that threatens the indigenous way of life, their livelihood, their identities and their culture.

The impact of climate change forces indigenous tribes to migrate, leading to a loss of their connection with the land, their culture and identity. Migration also renders them vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination and environmental hazards. Being born and raised in the middle of nature does not make it easier to move to new or urban areas.

Here, I have cited a few indigenous practices around the world and how climate change destroys them.

The Snow Star Festival in Peru

Thousands gather in celebration of the Snow Star Festival, Peru
credit@ The New York Times

Each year, thousands of indigenous people trek to the ice- capped mountains in the Sinakara Valley of Peru to celebrate Qoyllur Rit’I or the Snow Star Festival. This festival isn’t celebrated by one single tribe- many indigenous tribes come together, combining Catholic, Incan (which itself worshipped many Pagan gods) and other traditional beliefs.

The festival, lasting for three days, celebrates the reappearance of Pleiades (a constellation) in the sky. According to Incan beliefs, the cycle of the moon played a chief role in determining the agricultural activities and the festivals associated with it. Among festivals associated with sowing seeds, harvesting crops and animal husbandry, the most important one was the Snow Star festival which is celebrated on a full moon. The festival begins with the disappearance of the Pleiades. The time of disappearance is marked by paying tribute to Pariacaca, the god of water and rain. The timing is also denoted by qarwa mita, which means when the corn leaves turn yellow. Forty days later, the constellation reappears, marking unquy mita or the harvest season, a time when people have abundant harvest.

To denote the harvest season, honour Jesus Christ and Ausungate (a local glacier which the natives and pilgrims believe to be sacred), the people hike to the sanctuary located at the base of the mountain. Another six hour hike takes them up to a shrine which honours Jesus.

Apart from dance, music and songs, one important traditional practice of this festival is taking back blocks of ice from the mountains. Only a certain group of indigenous people called the ukukus trek up the glacial paths and spend the night there. Blocks of the glacier is cut up and carried down to the people in the valley. The people believe that once melted, the water has medicinal properties. The amount of ice carried back lasts for the next year and is as holy water in churches.

The ukukus harvesting blocks of glaciers, believed to have medicinal properties.
credit@ AP Images Spotlight

You might have already guessed how climate change threatens the indigenous tribes’ activities. The melting glaciers changes the season during which the Snow Star Festival is celebrated. Not only that, the melting glaciers no longer support the weight nor provide a strong foothold for those who climb up the glaciers. Hence, it is no longer done. For the indigenous tribes, this meant losing a vital part of their culture.

The Brokpa tribe and their yaks

Shaving the fur off the yak
credit@ Daily Mail

In the snow- clad Himalayan regions of India, the Brokpa tribe have lived off of their yak population for years. Depending on the animal for meat, milk, skin, fur and dung, the Brokpa lead a semi- nomadic life. Besides providing the tribe with all these, the yak is also important in their cultural festivities.

Climate change has been increasingly threatening the Brokpa’s traditional life. Yaks, with their skin and thick fur, are animals strictly adapted to live in colder regions. Their bodies are adapted to retain heat, and during the now increasing warm temperatures during summer, this makes it difficult for the animal. Snow fall has decreased during the last few years. With the short winters and longer summers, the yak have a difficult time grazing in their pastures. The pastures are affected with a proliferation of summer plants, encroaching their food. Their water holes and wetlands are drying up. The weather patterns have also led to a decline of the yaks’ main food- Paisang leaves (a kind of oak), which flourishes during the winter.

The Brokpa and their yak- a dying community?
credit@ People’s Archives of Rural India

To adapt to these difficult conditions, the Brokpa community has had to abandon their traditional way of life. Earlier, the yak they bred were of pure breed. Now they have to resort to yak- cattle hybridisation. The long, warmer summers mean that the tribe have taken to moving to higher altitude- ground at the first sign of the snow melting, causing changes in their migration calendar. They have had to come up with alternate fodder for their cattle, modified their transhumant (moving the livestock between pastures, according to seasons) herding practices and adopted modern healthcare too. All these practices are slowly leading to the death of their traditional life and identity. More and more families are settling down as traders, farmers and labourers. The mounting difficulties regarding climate, their tradition and their cattle have also made the younger generation of the tribe opt for the mainstream way of life.

Nyangatom agro-pastoralists and their livelihood

Nyangatom agro-pastoralists
credit@ Wikipedia

The Nyangatom are Nilotic (People indigenous to the Nile Valley) agro-pastoralists with population spread over south-western Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Ilemi Triangle (an area of disputed land in East Africa). Ever since they inhabited the earth, the Nyangaom have depended on the river for their survival. All their activities amounting to their survival- raising their livestock, fishing, hunting, agriculture, boat making, food gathering and bee keeping- are done with the river as the centre.

A desperate dig for a water hole by the Nyangatom
credit@ ResearchGate

In a region that already receives less rainfall, droughts are increasing at an alarming rate. Climate change has been altering the country’s belg rains (short periods of rainfall from February to May) and increasing temperatures. The earlier, traditional methods of predicting the weather are no longer reliable due to climate change. The changing weather leaves their livestock and their livelihood at risks. Animals and plants perish with no water and are more prone to disease. The crop fails. The former cattle- rich pastures are dying out. Seasonal ceremonies are being wiped out.

Native fishing activities in the Maldives

Natives fishing in the Maldives
credit@ Twitter

Being surrounded by water, it comes as no surprise that the weather plays an important role in the everyday lives of the natives. Maldivian ancestors created and lived their lives according to a calendar called the nakaiy calendar. The calendar predicts the weather patterns, according to which the ancestors and their descendants carried out their fishing, travelling and farming activities.

According to the calendar, the weather on the islands has two monsoons- the Iruvai monsoon, which starts from late December and continues throughout March and the Hulhangu monsoon, which starts in April and lasts till December. While the Iruvai is usually the dry and hot season, Hulhangu is known to be wet. But the nakaiy calendar does not differentiate the monsoons by rain. By noting the direction of the wind is how natives determine the monsoons- the Iruvai brings the North- East wind while Hulhangu brings in the South- West wind.

However, due to climate change, the Maldives is one of the group of island that will be most drastically affected. Due to the geographical features like coral landscape and low- lying islands, it is continuously at risk from floods and beach erosion. Destruction of the coral reef due to human activities and the rising temperature of air and water causes an imbalance on the islands’ ecosystems. Due to carbon emissions, temperature is only likely to increase further. Moreover, extensive precipitation and increasing number of storms only add to the growing worry about the rising water levels.

The fluctuating temperature in the water and air causes significant changes to the wind direction, which in turn affects the monsoon seasons mentioned above. For the natives, it means their fishing seasons have taken a turn for the worse. Now, during good fishing seasons, fishermen return empty handed. The months during which the natives had brought in a great number of fish are now months when there is no catch at all. The nakaiy calendar is more of a riddle now than a way of life. Seasons that earlier turned the seas calm are now rough. And seasons which had formerly been rainy are now draughty. Due to the unreliability of fishing, many natives have now abandoned fishing.

The Iñupiat society and whale hunting

The Iñupiat tribe with their sled
credit@ Wikipedia

In the Alaskan Arctic, the Inupiat (Alaskan Natives) have been hunting whales for centuries. With the knowledge handed down from generation to generation, the whale has become a source of livelihood and a cultural symbol of the Inupiat tribe. The whale is central to their ceremonies and traditional rituals.

Ice breaking off, posing threats to both indigenous and animal life alike
credit@ High Country News

Now, the Arctic is said to be one of the first regions to take the heat of climate change. Melting and thawing ice have rapidly chipped away the Iñupiat’s hunting grounds. The warmer temperatures of the water threaten the whale population. Due to the changing climatic conditions, the traditional way of predicting the whales’ migration and breeding is no longer reliable for the community. Besides the loss of their livelihood, sacred, ceremonial sites known as Qalgi that connect the people spiritually to the sea have already been lost. The Iñupiat’s ties with their land and traditional life is being wiped out, just like the melting ice.

To ensure survival, the community has to travel further in search of ice and ground for whale hunting. Many have migrated to the city and now rely on modern technology.

The Sami and reindeer herding

A Sami tribesman grazing his reindeer
credit@ The New York Times

For the Indigenous Sami people, whose population is spread throughout the Arctic, the reindeer is a way of their life. This indigenous group relies on the animal for food, clothing and tools, so reindeers are reared and herded as domestic animals. In the spring time, after the young calves are born, the adult reindeer are butchered and the meat is dried and stored, lasting throughout summer. No animal is slaughtered during the summer tie, allowing them to graze and feed. However, during August, the nursing calves are used for their tender meat and skin, which provides the best material for making winter clothes. Besides being indispensable to their livelihood, some of their cultures and indigenous practices are centred on the reindeer too, shaping their festivals.

Thicker ice and no food: a herd of reindeer
credit@ Al Jazeera

However, the indigenous people’s reliability on the reindeer has left them vulnerable to climate change. Climate change has drastically threatened the reindeer population and in turn, affecting the indigenous people. Due to climate change, the winters are short and the temperatures increasingly warm, which subsequently alters the feeding patterns of the reindeer. Shrubs that the reindeer feed on keep moving northward into barren tundra regions. Untimely and increased rainfall forms an extremely thick layer of ice covering the reindeer’s most important diet- lichen and moss. The ice is so thick that even the Sami’s tools cannot penetrate it. The increasing number of blizzards only add to the issue. Moreover, warmer summers and autumns directly translates into a higher mortality rate of the younger calves. The higher temperatures are deadly for them due to their extremely thick coat and fewer sweat glands. Moreover, being migratory animals, reindeer herds migrate between their birthing grounds and winter habitats. The changing climatic conditions do not just alter the weather in these grounds, but also make it difficult for the reindeer to access these regions. Warmer weather means the ice doesn’t last long- the ice over water bodies breaks or melts, making the ground inaccessible for the animals.  The weak ice also makes it dangerous for the Sai to take their animals grazing. Finding fresh pastures further away from their homes is now essential for their animals and their own survival.

Earlier, wind farms and other infrastructures encroaching their land was what worried the Sami. Now, climate change poses a bigger threat to their livelihood and culture. Climate change has forced many of the indigenous tribes to abandon their traditional life and move to the city and adopt a modern approach for survival. If this continues, then centuries’ old indigenous culture and language could be wiped in a matter of few years.

Significance in Anthropology

From the dry, arid regions of Ethiopia to the freezing Arctic, it is the indigenous tribes that are taking the brunt of climate change. For them, combating climate change isn’t something that can be deliberated on or planned for the future. Untimely rainfalls, razor-thin ice, short winters and warmer summers has already spelled doom for many of the centuries’ old indigenous practices. The mainstream community must make use of the indigenous tribes’ knowledge of the land and natural phenomena to adopt a more sustainable way of life.

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