Statement by IOM on Indigenous People Day – 9 August 2018

Published Date: 
Thursday, August 16, 2018
Mariam Traore Chazalnoel

Indigenous People Day – 9 August 2018

United Nations – New York

International Organization for Migration (IOM) – Mariam Traore Chazalnoel

Migration and climate change are both defining issues of our times and it is now widely acknowledged that environmental degradation and climate change affect the migration patterns of millions of people each year.

Indigenous people and communities are also concerned by these challenges as climate impacts affect their daily lives worldwide. Indigenous communities rely almost exclusively on their land and their resilience to adverse climate impacts can be severely compromised. My organization, the International Organization for Migration, sees first hand some of the migration challenges faced by indigenous people in the field in the context of climate change. For instance:

In some small island States or in Alaska, indigenous people are facing such enormous challenges due to sea level rise and coastal erosion that they need to plan for the relocation of entire communities further inland.

In the Amazon, habitat loss due to wildfires or deforestation might restrict access of indigenous communities to their ancestral land and make it impossible to continue traditional livelihood and hunting practices. This can also potentially lead to migration as people search for alternatives.

In many parts of the world, changing rain patterns and droughts destroy crops and reduce the availability of food, water and plants - including those used for traditional medical purposes or for house building. Land degradation threatens traditional means of livelihood and drive some members of indigenous communities to migrate within and outside their borders in search of other opportunities.

One striking example can be found in the desert of Guajira, the northernmost part of Colombia, where problems linked to severe water scarcity constitute the main trigger for migration in the region. Indigenous Wayuu communities suffer from drought and many of their young people have migrated to Venezuela to ensure their survival. Returning after a migration experience can be dangerous, even deadly, as conflict erupts around indigenous lands that became occupied by others.  Interviewed by the IOM, indigenous people expressed their commitment to ancestral heritage and say, in their own words:

For us, the territory is our home – it means everything for us. This 2 years of drought, up to 4 years in some cases, prevents us doing what we did before (…) We do not want to leave our territory (…) and the migration of the young people would not happen if there was water. (…) This is the territory that our ancestors left us, this is our home and we do not want to leave it”

These examples illustrate that migration resulting from lack of access to land and natural resources can create impoverishment along with the loss of community assets and livelihoods.  Also important to remember is that forced migration can also have a profound psychological impact for indigenous people, as they risk being disconnected from their land, traditional knowledge, cultural heritage and social networks.   This migration might also increase the vulnerabilities of indigenous people and communities, especially when they move to unfamiliar urban environments. In the city, very often language and cultural barriers can expose indigenous people to exploitation and discrimination and impede their access to the job market.

However, it is critical to remember that indigenous people and communities can also be actors in the fight against climate change and that indigenous knowledge and leadership should be respected, acknowledged and leveraged. For instance, in Vanuatu, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) supported the government to develop a draft displacement policy. The policy includes “traditional knowledge, culture and documentation” as a key strategic area to take into account in the context of displacement. One of the guiding principles of the policy is to draw on the wealth of traditional knowledge about the local environment when planning climate adaptation initiatives. This example highlights that indigenous people can – and should be given the opportunity, to be agents of change. 

Madam Chair,

We need to give visibility to issues of climate change, migration and indigenous people at the global policy level. The recent finalization of the text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the migration work conducted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are great examples of global policy initiatives seeking to comprehensively address climate migration issues. However, concerns specific to indigenous communities remain too little visible and this needs to change. In that respect, IOM welcomes the possibility to work closely with the Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Peoples.

We also need to increase our understanding of how climate change and environmental degradation impact the migration of indigenous people in different parts of the world. We need to think of what the potential solutions could be. The only way to do is to speak with indigenous people and communities, listen to their stories, build on their wealth of traditional knowledge and experience and ensure that they fully participate to the development of appropriate responses.

Only then will migration be a choice and not a necessity for these communities.

Thank you.