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Addressing Climate Change and Human Rights Through Indigenous Empowerment

Written by Sally Irwin, The Freedom Hub

Max Böttinger

The impacts of climate change have reduced resiliency of communities in the Pacific while natural disasters have increased. Heightened poverty and displacement have left the people more vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. Indigenous knowledge should be utilised to protect the environment and ensure human rights.

“The Pacific Islands are facing devastating impacts of climate change including increasing droughts and water scarcity, coastal flooding and erosion, changes in rainfall that affect ecosystems and food production, and adverse impacts to human health” - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Climate change affects everyone, but the impact on the Pacific Region will be stark, in particularl exacerbating the prevalence of contemporary forms of slavery. The Pacific Islands are particularly impacted by climate change due to the salinization of freshwater and arable land, as well as exposure to storm surges and extreme events. This leads to failing crops, destruction of animal habitats, and a disruption to marine life.

The increase in natural disasters compromises the islanders’ ability to process or access food, shelter and clean water. These factors lead to poverty and the displacement of people, causing them to be vulnerable to traffickers, smugglers, deceptive recruiters, and exploitative employers.

“New research has revealed alarming evidence of modern slavery in Australia, New Zealand, and their Pacific Island neighbours, fuelled by widespread poverty, migration, and the abuse of cultural practices. These vulnerabilities are likely to increase as climate change exacerbates poverty and migration.” Walkfree’s research has found that commercial sexual exploitation of children and forced labour are persistent problems throughout the region. With one in four Pacific Islanders living below the national poverty line, it is essential that governments prioritise the impacts of climate change, indigenous rights, and economic development.

With bushfires and floods increasing in Australia, the knowledge and thousands of years of land management Indigenous peoples have is being recognised. In recent years, there has been support for the idea of “culture-based economies” in Australia, which strive for economic development underpinned by human rights, traditional sustainable practice, and indigenous-drive industry. Some projects based on this concept have already been successful in improving the economic opportunities in indigenous communities while providing essential environmental services in the national interest, such as mitigating wild-fire risk or reducing carbon emissions.

Governments must prioritise building partnerships with indigenous communities to ensure their interests and expertise are represented in policymaking. It is essential that governments and climate policy makers support community efforts and local non-governmental organisations to build resilient communities and develop adaptation strategies that are rooted in traditional knowledge.

“Climate change will not only occur in the ocean, frequent hurricanes, sea rise and extreme weather; nevertheless, it will also happen in families, households, communities, our culture and our tradition. Climate change will become an incentive to push people to be as extreme and lack of consideration as modern slavery. We have to address these two issues (climate change and modern slavery) in the Pacific as both are man-made mandates. Furthermore, I believe that few aspects of our culture demand more awareness and be mindful that it doesn't violate others' rights.” Mr. Curtis Leonard Tuihalangingie, High Commission of Tonga in Australia

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