11 July 2024

As the world grapples with the escalating climate crisis, the spotlight is turning to indigenous communities, the holders of local seeds and traditional knowledge that offer invaluable tools to combat climate change.

Yet despite their proven sustainable practices of farming and managing natural resources, these communities face mounting threats from forced evictions and hostile policies under the guise of environmental protection.

How is climate change impacting indigenous communities?

In a remote village nestled deep within the forests of Chiang Mai, No’a’ri Thungmuangthong, an ethnic Pga K’ Ngaw woman, bears witness to the stark impacts of climate change on her community.

As a food producer for her community, she has watched as crop yields have dwindled over the past few years due to unpredictable weather patterns.

But while climate change poses significant challenges to the forest-dwellers of Chiang Mai, No’a’ri says these impacts are mild compared with the destruction faced by Thai communities on the front line of the crisis.

The northern province is blessed with rich biodiversity and healthy ecosystems that indigenous people are working hard to preserve through traditional farming practices, she explains.

“We have suffered some crop losses due to erratic weather, but this isn’t a major concern as we cultivate a variety of native plants and food crops in our rotational farms. Additionally, we can always supplement our food supply from the forest.”

The Pga K’ Ngaw and other indigenous groups have lived in the forest for centuries and learned to adapt their lifestyles to synchronize with the natural rhythms of their surroundings.

Their traditional practices, such as rotational farming and sustainable use of resources in the environment, have made them more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Threats to indigenous livelihoods and practices

“The real threat to our way of life isn’t climate change, but government policies that fail to recognize our rights,” she says. “Authorities view us as encroachers, even though we are the ones who protect the forests.”

Development projects and government conservation policies are often hostile to the perspectives and rights of indigenous groups. As a result, many communities have been forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands, hindering their traditional practices of rotational farming and foraging. These practices not only provide sustenance but also play a crucial role in maintaining the health of ecosystems.

Rotational farming: A climate-friendly solution

While the prevailing narrative portrays indigenous communities as culprits of deforestation and blames them for starting wildfires and intensifying climate change, Supot Leeja disagrees. The president of the Ethnic Community Health Promotion Association (ECHA) advocates for the recognition of rotational farming’s benefits in mitigating burdens from climate change.

“In the face of frequent disasters and extreme weather events caused by climate change, we must diversify our food crops to reduce the risk of crop failure,” Supot emphasizes.

“Rotational farming can be our solution for food security, as it preserves local seeds and agrobiodiversity.”

He explained that rotational farming aligns with the natural ecological cycle, incorporating short cropping periods followed by extended fallow periods to ensure that soil fertility and biodiversity are restored.

By carefully selecting rotational plots and cultivating a diverse variety of local plants, indigenous farmers enhance the productivity of their farmlands while minimizing impacts on the environment.

While it is true that they often use fire to clear the plots for planting, the flames tend to be closely controlled to prevent them damaging wider tracts of forest upon which the communities depend for foraging.

A study by the Northern Development Foundation revealed that rotational farming acts as a carbon sink, absorbing significantly more carbon dioxide than it emits.

Their findings indicate that a 1,590-rai (254-hectare) area of rotational farmland, while releasing 476 tons of carbon during the burning cycle, can absorb up to 17,643 tons of carbon annually.

Protect indigenous rights to protect the planet

Kritsada Boonchai, coordinator of Thai Climate Justice for All, says these examples of indigenous people’s approaches to living harmoniously with nature are seen not just in Thailand but all over the world.

They offer invaluable lessons on how to work with nature to fight climate change, he adds.

“Indigenous people are the ones who live the closest to nature. They have demonstrated high resilience to environmental changes by adapting and working with the ecosystems around them.

As the world needs healthy ecosystems to absorb carbon and mitigate global warming, over 80% of these pristine patches of forests are under the care and management of indigenous groups,” Kritsada says.

He underscores the pivotal role indigenous people play in safeguarding ecosystems, noting that over 80% of the world’s pristine forests are under their care and management.

“Indigenous communities are actively protecting nature and leading the fight against climate change,” he asserts.

But despite their contributions, indigenous communities face mounting vulnerabilities in the modern world. They are often subjected to discrimination, displacement, and deprivation of their rights.

“We are harming those who care for the environment most through capitalistic development,” Kritsada laments.

“We need to protect indigenous people and respect their rights and self-determination. We also need to empower them and help them with their mission to preserve the natural resources and ecosystems as they are vital to help the world mitigate the climate crisis.”

“We need to empower indigenous communities to continue their mission of environmental stewardship. Their knowledge and practices are indispensable in our collective fight against climate change and its impacts.”

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk