Native leaders say climate affecting caribou populations

ALLIANCE: Indigenous groups want to participate in global warming talks.

December 23, 2008 

POZNAN, Poland -- Chief Bill Erasmus of the Dene nation in northern Canada brought a stark warning about the climate crisis: The once abundant herds of caribou are dwindling, rivers are running lower and the ice is too thin to hunt on.

Erasmus raised his concerns recently on the sidelines of a U.N. climate conference, seeking to ensure that North America's indigenous peoples are not left out in the cold when it comes to any global warming negotiations.

Erasmus, the 54-year-old elected leader of 30,000 Natives in Canada, and representatives of other indigenous peoples met with the U.N.'s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, and have lobbied national delegations to recognize them as an "expert group" that can participate in the talks like other nongovernment organizations.

"We bring our traditional knowledge to the table that other people don't have," he said.

Nearly 11,000 national and environmental delegates from 190 countries are negotiating a treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which regulates emissions of carbon dioxide that scientists blame for global warming. The protocol expires in 2012.

The alliance of indigenous peoples include groups from the forests of Borneo to the depths of the Amazon.

De Boer said he advised the alliance to draw up a proposal and muster support among the national delegations to have their group approved by the countries involved in the talks.

"To give indigenous people and local communities a voice in these discussions is very important," said Kim Carstensen, the climate change director for WWF International.

Erasmus, from Yellow Knife in Canada's Northwest Territories about 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle, brings firsthand experience of climate change.

The caribou, or reindeer, herds are declining across North America and northern Europe, he said.

"We can't hunt because the ice is not frozen yet. Our hunters are falling through the ice, and lives are being lost," Erasmus told The Associated Press. This winter the normally dry area has been covered by thick, wet snow, further hampering hunting, he said.

Petroleum extraction from the Canadian tar sands is draining the underground water table and reducing the flow of the rivers northward, and the effects are felt hundreds of miles away, he said.

He is concerned that warmer winters will mean less luxurious fur on muskrat and beaver his people sell.

Nearly 40 years ago, he said, tribal elders noticed changes in the annual migrations of animals. The weather, which they could forecast three weeks in advance from animal behavior and the appearance of the sunsets, is now unpredictable.

Scientists have warned that conditions in the Arctic are a barometer of climate change. The region is warming faster than more temperate zones and the seas are ice-free for longer periods. The melting of the permafrost threatens to release stored methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, U.N. scientists have reported.

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