Indigenous women: most vulnerable to climate change but key agents of change

One of the key issues raised at the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Peoples (UNPFII), 18-29 May 2009, New York City, concerns the neglected role of indigenous women in climate change negotiations. The two week session brought together almost 2000 representatives of indigenous groups, UN agencies, governments and other experts.

Tuareg girl, Niger

Water, food and health
"Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including food security”, said Gonzalo Oviedo, IUCN Senior Social Policy Advisor. Indigenous women are most often subsistence producers and heavily reliant on the quality and quantity of natural resources. Drawing on results from many local studies, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the UNPFII, pointed out: “The burden on indigenous women has increased tremendously because of climate change. The burden on indigenous women and children is much heavier because of the need to seek water sources far away from their homes and provide support and health care to the increasing numbers of sick family members”.

Due to climate change, there is a great rise in vector and waterborne diseases such as malaria and dengue, even on high mountains where it has never appeared before. Increased temperatures also lead to heat strokes and decrease the abilities of fisher folks to stay long out on the water. A case study from Coron Island, Philippines, showed that the rise in sea temperature together with pollution and destruction of coral reefs has lowered daily fish catch from 30 kilograms a few years back to 5 kg today. Many forest peoples also report that they are affected by the decline of non timber forest products such as wild food crops, nuts, and products from honey bees.

Unprecedented floods along coastal areas affect the soil fertility as they make the soils salty and sandy and in some cases even drown lifestock, destroy infrastructure and disturb socio-cultural activities.

Social fabric
Phrang Roy, raised in a hill tribe of north India and expert of the Christensen Fund, an IUCN member, pointed out how climate change also affects their social life and traditional knowledge: “As the women need to walk much longer distances to get water, they have less time than before to sit down, relax, and transmit their traditional knowledge to younger generations. Not just planting seasons but also periods for cultural ceremonies and traditions are profoundly disturbed by climate change. The increased time for household chores furthermore often keeps girls away from school.

Among the many impact on indigenous peoples in the Arctic, Patricia Cochran, Chair, Inuit Circumpolar Council mentioned that chemical pollutants such as DDT and toxaphene from activities elsewhere are found in specifically high concentration in the air, water and food chain in the Arctic. “Concentration of such chemicals is for example eight times higher in indigenous women’s breast milk in the Arctic compared to the women in New York City. And the inuit suffer from the highest lung cancer rates in the world.”

Results from the African region also showed that women are particularly affected. "Drought and conflicts are closely related and make women have to run away”, stated an African participant. They then have to leave their traditional livelihood systems, often lose their identities, and become victims of violation. There are  reports that pastoralist girls were already traded at an age of as young as 8 in order to replace lifestock loss from drought.

Indigenous women leading in adaptation strategies
However, most of the indigenous peoples have been creative and developed sophisticated strategies to adapt. Indigenous women are crucial biodiversity managers, traditional custodians of seeds and experiment with a diversity of seeds, keep sophisticated water management systems and agricultural technology in order to adapt to the changing conditions. “Many of their systems remain unnoticed, unseen, unreported”, says Phrang Roy.

Multiple discrimination
Though indigenous women are main caregivers, water and food providers, they have as yet the least access to land, education, health facilities, disaster relief services, infrastructure development and credit assistance. Many of them suffer from multiple discrimination. Govind Kelkar from UNIFEM says: “Most indigenous women are excluded on three levels: as indigenous peoples, as women within indigenous peoples, and as women”. This is felt in their role in the indigenous society, in the subjugation of indigenous peoples, and in the labour market. Climate change adds to their already disadvantaged and marginalized situation and is in many cases the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Addressing the need
The issues of traditional livelihoods, indigenous peoples and especially indigenous women have been neglected in the entire climate change debate. Annelie Fincke from the IUCN Social Policy Unit points out: “Their perspectives and rights must be included in issues like access to land, natural resources, conflict resolution, food security, etc. in order to help reduce their vulnerability to climate change.” The need is especially urgent to strengthen indigenous women and to improve their consideration, participation and voice from project level to international climate change negotiations.

Lorena Aguilar, Senior Gender Advisor of IUCN emphasises “The capacity of women, particularly of indigenous women, to participate in biodiversity and climate change decision-making must be increased as well as valued”.

IUCN responding to challenge
IUCN has several initiatives paying special attention to indigenous women. Specific capacity building workshops and advocacy within the negotiations of the Convention on Biological Diversity resulted in an official gender action plan with indigenous women being key actors. A series of national workshops throughout the Central American region allowed participants to identify women’s needs. In June 2009, a specific workshop on indigenous women and climate change will be held in Honduras

In the climate change negotiations before the upcoming Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2009 in Copenhagen, IUCN aims to include gender considerations related to climate change and support for gender equality within the UNFCCC, including an ecosystem-based adaptation approach which supports indigenous peoples. This also aims at strengthening their rights, specifically with regard to proposed mechanisms for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).

For more information, please contact:

Annelie Fincke, IUCN Social Policy, email
Gonzalo Oviedo, IUCN Senior Social Policy Advisor, email 

Work area: 
Climate Change
Social Policy
Social Policy
Climate Change
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