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Climate change forcing indigenous peoples from their homelands

“You’re talking about communities that have been in place for generations, and live off the land and the waters, and they are seeing and experiencing the changes first and foremost,”

Climate Change Forces Northwest Natives From Their Ancestral Homes,Truth Out  March 24, 2017By Zoe Loftus-FarrenEarth Island Journal Fawn Sharp grew up in Taholah village, a small community on the Quinault Reservation nestled between the mouth of the Quinault River and the Pacific Ocean. She spent her childhood summers surrounded by water, splashing in Lake Quinault on the eastern edge of the reservation, and hiking along the local beaches near the village, scouring the rocks for starfish and other treasures. In the mornings, she was often up before the sun, out fishing with her grandparents on the river.

Decades after she left home for college, Sharp is back on the reservation, this time living near the lake, some 35 miles from her childhood home in Taholah. Now she goes by President Sharp, and leads both the Quinault Indian Nation and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

Since returning, Sharp has faced the kinds of tough issues that might have seemed outlandish, or even inconceivable, during her childhood. She’s seen the tribe’s salmon runs in sharp decline. She’s observed the rapid retreat of nearby glaciers. And she’s watched her childhood home, Taholah, endure dangerous flooding during increasingly harsh storm surges.

Given the growing threat that climate change poses to the “lower village,” as tribal members refer to the lower portion of Taholah, paired with ongoing concerns about the village’s vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis, Sharp and the Quinault leadership were forced to make an almost unthinkable decision: to leave home.

The Quinault have lived on the Olympic Peninsula for centuries, since long before the 1855 Quinault River Treaty established the Quinault Reservation and ceded vast tracts of lands to Washington State. The reservation is wedged between the towering mountains and dense temperate rainforest of Olympic National Park to the east and beaches and oceans to the west. It’s bisected by the swift Quinault River, and is home to black bear, Roosevelt elk, and bald eagles. The tribe’s ties to the land are strong. As it proudly claims on its website: “We are among the small number of Americans who can walk the same beaches, paddle the same waters, and hunt the same lands our ancestors did centuries ago.”

As is true in many Native communities around the world, the Quinault have borne witness to the marked signs of climate change over the past century. In Taholah — which is home to some 825 people — these signs are becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.

Globally, the twenty-first century has seen 16 of the hottest 17 years on record. In the Pacific Northwest, average air temperatures, which rose only 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit between 1895 and 2014, are expected to increase another 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Heavy rainfall events have increased in frequency, snowfall has decreased, and glaciers have pulled back, retreating deep into Washington’s mountains. The Anderson Glacier, for example, which historically fed the Quinault River, shrank by 90 percent between 1927 and 2009. And as overall precipitation decreases and glaciers shrink, stream flows are also declining.

Impacts extend to the coastline as well. According to moderate projections, ocean temperatures along Washington’s Pacific coast are predicted to increase by 2 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2040s. Sea level rise, influenced by a range of factors — including warming water temperatures and melting ice sheets — is difficult to predict, but NOAA’s latest report, released in January, projects that the world’s oceans will rise between one and eight feet by 2100, a significant increase above previous estimates, which will lead to more frequent and stronger high tides and storm surges.

These projections are more than just numbers for tribes in the Pacific Northwest. A November 2016 report from the 20 member tribes of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission lays out the extraordinary implications climate change has for Native communities. For these peoples, whose cultures and livelihoods developed around water and marine resources, a warmer future means declining fish runs, shrinking shellfish populations, loss of water supplies, and loss of opportunity to participate in traditional cultural activities, not to mention the disappearance of the land they have lived on for generations. As they note in the report: “Virtually all of the resources and activities that our treaties protect — fishing, gathering, and hunting — are impacted by the effects of climate change.”

Taholah has already gotten a glimpse of this warmer future and the threats it poses to tribal culture, resources, and well-being. The signs of climate change became apparent on the reservation at least a decade ago when the Quinault River’s endemic blueback salmon runs declined sharply to a fraction of their historical numbers. The shrinking population could be traced in large part to the loss of the Anderson Glacier, which resulted in lower and warmer stream flows and more sediment in the river. A lack of blueback (a type of sockeye) meant a depleted source of both food and income for the tribe.

This devastating reality spurred the tribe to take action to protect the salmon. “We undertook the first phases of the blueback restoration efforts back in 2006 and 2007 around trying to preserve our sockeye,” says Sharp. Not long after, the “Quinault Nation started to adopt various climate change polices in order to contend with a declining species that is central to our culture and identity as Quinault people.”

Shortly after that, Sharp was forced to declare multiple states of emergencies in the village because of increasingly frequent flooding of the lower portion of Taholah. One of these emergencies occurred in 2014 when waves breached the village’s three-meter-high seawall, constructed in the 1970s. The Army Corps of Engineers partnered with the tribe to help rebuild the wall later that year, but flooding concerns emerged again in 2015 and the village was partially evacuated.

As Sharp puts it, “The Quinault Nation has become the front line — ground zero if you will — in dealing with climate change.” And though the tribe had already begun considering relocation years earlier, the 2014 flood was a final straw of sorts, after which the Quinault hired a team to help manage the village’s move to higher ground.

Though Native communities have themselves done very little to contribute to the causes of climate change, worldwide they are among those impacted first and worst by global warming. They are also often uniquely positioned to recognize the early signs of changing environmental patterns and weather given their proximity to, and deep connections with, the lands they live on.

“You’re talking about communities that have been in place for generations, and live off the land and the waters, and they are seeing and experiencing the changes first and foremost,” says Julie Maldonado, an environmental studies lecturer at University of California, Santa Barbara who specializes in environmental vulnerability and displacement of Indigenous peoples. “That relationship that they have, that long-term monitoring process, and that long-term knowledge they have of a place … they can see and understand and experience what is going on.”

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Taholah isn’t the only Native community taking a proactive stance in the face of inevitable climate changes. In the Pacific Northwest alone, several other tribes are mounting relocation efforts, and many more are developing climate adaptation plans to build resiliency and prepare for rising temperatures on their reservations…….. http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/39974-losing-home

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March 27, 2017 - Posted by | climate change, indigenous issues

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