Innocents in Climate Change Jam

Not many in this country would have heard of the Nenets who inhabit the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle between the Kara Sea and the Gulf of Ob. I too hadn’t until I came across a feature on them in Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society of UK. 

The 120,000 square kilometres peninsula is one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses which for a thousand years or more has been home for the Nenets. They have so far been moving around with ease in this vast bog of tundra that is dotted with lakes, using survival techniques that have changed little with time. As summer approaches they retreat to the north and descend down south as the cold weather sets in, timing it well to be able to cross the mighty Ob when it is still frozen with their herds of reindeer, whereafter the animals give birth.

They may not be able to observe this routine for long. With the rise in global temperature all this – transhumance, as it is called – is changing. Their seasonal migrations are becoming more forbidding as walking is difficult through the mud, with the sleds increasingly becoming useless. Not only the Ob is freezing about a month later and the permafrost beneath the tundra is thawing leading to collapse of soil systems and river banks, the warming is also depleting the foraging grounds for the reindeer. With the delayed arrival of the winter the Nenets and their herds have to wait for Ob to freeze. The waiting adversely affects the reindeer as they need to cross the river to give birth. The delayed winters also create food shortage. With the temperatures not hitting -50o Celsius any longer the reindeer get bothered. And, what bothers reindeers bothers the Nenets as their lives are intertwined. The future for them is vague and the days of herding for the Nenets are now apparently numbered. Already there are visible signs of serious threat to their livelihood.

Another community likewise affected equally, if not more, by climate change is the one which inhabits the Tropics in the Sunderban forests. Straddling the massive delta of Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna on the Bay of Bengal spreading across India and Bangladesh, Sunderbans are spread over an area of more than 10000 square kilometres. More than half of it has the world’s largest mangrove forests which have been declared as two different World Heritage Sites for the two countries. The forests are also home to a substantial population of the threatened Royal Bengal Tiger.

A 2007 report of the United Nations Economic & Social Council (UNESCO) said that a 45 centimetres anthropogenic rise in the sea level by the end of the current century is likely to destroy 75% of the Sunderban mangroves within the current century. However, certain inhabited islands have already disappeared having been overtaken by the sea. Among them are Lohachara and the New Moore islands. Another island, Ghoramara, has lost around half of its landmass turning more than half of the Island’s population of 12000 into climate refugees. They have all fled – some to the mainland and others elsewhere in Sunderbans. The remaining have had to give up cultivation in the fertile soil or gathering honey from the jungle and have taken to fishing. Researchers have heard the same story retold everywhere in the Sunderbans. As the sea-water comes in floods it destroys the crops, the soil takes on the sea’s salinity and renders it unproductive. Moving away and looking for a safer place is the only alternative to cope with the rising sea. Of late, such movements have, however, had to become devastatingly more frequent, stressing the once-simple rhythm of life of these poor people. 

These are illustrative instances of two communities among numerous others, basically indigenous people, which are facing hardships and misery on account of global warming. There are still others who are caught up in the measures adopted worldwide to mitigate the impact of climate change, disrupting their life that they have led for ages. For instance, in Borneo 10000 people have been uprooted from their homes to make way for dams to produce hydroelectric power. This is part of Malaysia’s efforts to contain global warming. In the process, however, the local Penan people lose their ancient homeland and their traditional way of life. Hunters and gatherers as they were, they have been forced into agriculture which they are not adept in. Unable to cope with the drastic change, they may not be able to survive separation from their native environs and traditional way of life.

Again, in Brazil the Guarani Indians are being pushed away from their ancestral lands for growing sugarcane for being converted into ethanol – a bio-fuel that has been used in Brazil for decades as a cleaner substitute for fossil oils. Brazilian President considers ethanol an effective weapon in the fight against global warming. Having banned sugarcane cultivation in the Amazon to save its pristine forests Brazil is now pushing it in its southern parts which are home to Guarani. The takeover of their lands by sugar plantations and cattle ranchers has reduced them to a state of desperation. Occupying small parcels of lands, they complain of pollution of their rivers and consequential loss of fish stocks. Guarani now are either starving or have become alcoholic with murders and suicides having risen in number.

Ironically these communities and many such others have had no role in warming of the globe and they have contributed the least, if at all, to the world’s rising levels of greenhouse gases. Indigenous people as they are called, they have generally been leading carbon-neutral lives. Most of them are innocent and are even unaware of what has hit them. There are about 370 million such people who hardly impinge on the planet’s climate as against around 350 million of the United States who are responsible for about 25% of the greenhouse gases. And yet these unfortunate people are suffering the most having serious threats posed to their life by climate change or are being made to sacrifice their traditional, simple and harmless lifestyle in a bid to cool the Earth.

Those in the developed world, which is solely responsible for the impending catastrophe, spare not a thought for these unfortunate people. The miseries of these innocents mean nothing to them. “The American way of life is not negotiable” thundered George Bush (Sr.) with considerable haughtier at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. But, he and others of his ilk can, surely, play around with the lives of the voiceless poor of the world. Having practically nothing they have to sacrifice the most while those who plunder Nature to live in the lap of luxury wouldn’t forgo one bit.

That’s the way of this world where the law of the jungle prevails – heavily weighted against the poor and the meek!   


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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