Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Ethnic minorities suffer most from climate change, says new report

As the eyes of the world are on Burma and the true scale of the most devastating cyclone to hit Asia for 15 years trickles out through the military junta's reporting restrictions (latest: 22,000 dead, 40,000 missing, one million homeless, US aid offers refused - and a 48-hour warning from Indian meteorologists ignored) now seems as good a time as any to ask the question: who really pays the price for climate change and increasingly frequent and severe weather-related disasters?

It's long been well-argued that it's those in the developing world, and the poorest in those societies, that suffer most, but according to a new report it is as likely to be ethnicity as much as poverty that's the relevant factor. Climate Change and Minorities, a study by the excellent Minority Rights Group International, shows that it is in fact minority and indigenous groups that have been worst affected by changing weather patterns.

Looking at a range of diverse examples including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, melting Arctic ice in northern Scandinavia and deforestation in Columbia and Indonesia (driven primarily by the environmentally and socially catastrophic rush to bio-fuels production to fuel thirsty car engines in Europe and the US as oil hits $121 a barrel), the briefing paper is, remarkably, the first ever produced in English to even look at the issue.

It found that disadvantage and discrimination against minorities is rife throughout both immediate disaster relief programmes and during planning at local, national and international levels for coping with current and future impacts of climate change.

Further, it reports that ethnic minority populations tend to live in the places that are worst affected by climate change,that official and unofficial discrimination against them makes it harder for them to cope with its most devastating impacts and influence political debate over how to deal with it, and that in most cases when a disaster strikes help and relief reach them last.

It's too soon to tell who has paid the heaviest price for the Burma cyclone, but I wouldn't bet against it being the hill tribes and minority communities across the region.

It really is about time that Western governments wake up to the fact that climate change isn't just an environmental, or even a developmental, issue - but that tackling it is about respecting fundamental human rights, social justice and the principles of anti-discrimination.

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