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Indigenous groups helped to fend off climate-change health risks

By Martin Leggett - 02 Jun 2011 14:0:0 GMT
Indigenous groups helped to fend off climate-change health risks

Climate change is very much here and now, for those peoples around the world intimately connected with the natural world. Whether it's the Innuit of the Canadian Arctic, the Shipibo and Shawi of Peru's Amazonian rain-forest, or the Batwa Pygmies of Uganda - all depend for their survival on the known patterns of the seasons, and the ebb and flow of life through an environment they are an intrinsic part of. But a warming globe is shifting those patterns, and so threatening these indigenous peoples - unless they adapt.

And such adaptation is what a new health research project, Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC), is hoping to help achieve. Funded by the International Development Research Council (IDRC) - in a $2.5-million grant announced today - it aims to assist the indigenous groups of Canada, Peru and Uganda. Not by talking solutions to them, but by listening to their climate change problems, and helping them to overcome them.

That is a sensible enough approach, as the experts of how climate change is affecting marginalized communities, such as these, are the people themselves. But it makes a refreshing change from the top-down approach, often taken by western-funded research bodies. The project has already listened to local concerns as part of a pilot project.

From that, three specific goals form the starting point for climate change adaptation. In Uganda, there is a plan to for the planting of medicinal herbs, which are being threatened in their natural habitat by climate change and mining. In Canada, the Innuit have plans for capturing their extensive traditional health expertise on the web; whereas the Peruvian Shipibo and Shawi aim to enhance their agricultural training, so as to secure more stable food supply from local resources.

There are also common concerns uniting these disparate groups. Water and food security is, not surprisingly, a big concern. In all 3 locations, the physical changes in the environment - such as melting sea-ice and drying forests - is endangering the viability of traditional means of subsistence. And all of the indigenous groups are worried about increasing health risks, especially for the elderly and children, that are already apparent.

For example, in Peru, a more erratic climate produce unheard of cold temperatures, which resulted in the spread of pneumonia in peoples unable to cope with temperatures below 10°C. The Batwa have suffered from malaria for the first time, as disease-carrying mosquitoes spread to their areas. The project aims to try and find ways of teasing out the best of western and traditional medicinal approaches in dealing with these new health challenges.

In many ways the project can be seen to be at the front-line of dealing with climate change. Whilst the developed world continues with an endless 'debate and emit' cycle - safe in the knowledge they are rich enough to adapt to changes as they come - marginalized communities such as these are suffering. Hopefully this project will help give indigenous peoples the tools they need to deal with problems that they had no hand in creating.

(Top Image Credit: Doublearc, via Wikipedia. Caption: Batwa women with traditional pots. Taken in Burundi, in the village of Kiganda in the province of Muramvya in July 2007. Women are watching a community event, but not involved.)