No ground to stand on: Rising seas drown indigenous homelands

St. Charles Island, La., has lost 90 percent of its land in less than a century. PHOTO: Stacy Kranitz
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Most people know that rising ocean levels are a grave threat to the future of our planet. But for many around the world, especially vulnerable indigenous people, this aspect of global warming is already bringing devastating consequences. The Arctic is expected to have ice-free summers soon, which will set off catastrophes globally.

But even now, islands and coasts are disappearing, while the communities that inhabited them are leading mass movements against the causes of climate change and for environmental recovery.

Low-lying islands and coasts vanish. In 2005, the first people on earth to be classified as “climate refugees” by the U.N. were the residents of the Pacific island of Tegua, which by now has lost most of its habitable landmass to a combination of sinking earth and rising sea. Two years later, evacuation began of the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea, which have since been reduced to virtually nothing. Soon, the entire population of the vanishing nation of Kiribati may relocate to neighboring Fiji.

Several Indian Ocean islands, and the Torres Strait Islands of Queensland, Australia, are losing land and experiencing a marked increase in flooding.

Low-lying coastal regions of continents are badly affected by rising sea levels as well. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the globe. The 2013 National Climate Assessment reported that more than 30 Alaska native villages “are in need of, or in the process of, relocating … due to the impact of climate change.”

Sea level rise, compounded by mangrove deforestation, has brought unprecedented flooding to Bangladesh. Due to the encroachment of ocean water, salt is now the only possible harvest in some areas where rice and other crops used to grow. Millions of people are being forced to migrate away from the coast, mostly into overcrowded slums of the capital city of Dhaka. During the 2017 monsoon season, a third of the country was submerged, severely affecting more than 41 million people and killing 1,300. A three-foot rise in sea level would wipe out 20 percent of Bangladesh and displace 30 million people. Scientists say this may happen by mid-century.

Indigenous climate defenders fight back. The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw people of southern Louisiana have now lost almost all of the land they called home due to rising Gulf waters. In January 2016, after relentlessly pressuring the federal government for more than 13 years, the tribe finally secured public funds for their move inland.

Meanwhile, over a thousand members of the Quinault tribe of Washington state are being permanently displaced by severe and persistent coastal flooding. As they have been hit by this, other disastrous effects of climate change, and aquatic pollution, the Quinault have waged a formidable fightback. They have worked with other tribes to urge Congress to pass the Tribal Coastal Resiliency Act, which would provide much-needed funding for relocation and environmental protection.

Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, has helped lead a powerful campaign against fossil fuels. She advocates a strategy based on the public trust doctrine, the principle that waterways and shorelines between high and low tides are publicly owned and placed under environmental protection. She argues that honoring and greatly expanding the application of this doctrine would be a key tool in advancing the global shift toward cleaner energy, thus mitigating future climate change.

“The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) threatens the water supply of Standing Rock Sioux ancestral lands as well as compounding global warming. The famous battle against it drew massive public solidarity and active collaboration from a wide range of activists and organizations, including the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women.” The months-long standoff at Standing Rock was a poignant demonstration of the awesome power of collaboration between indigenous and non-indigenous people in fearless mass protest against the fossil fuel industry, even in the face of violent state repression.

The Arctic contains about 20 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves. In the interest of unbridled profit, President Trump has lifted long-standing restrictions and opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, despite the extreme environmental consequences.

The indigenous people of the Arctic, who have been struggling for years against drilling of their land, are urgently stepping up their fight. Bernadette Demientieff, a leader of the Gwich’in people, who have hunting rights in the refuge, boldly declared: “We will rise up and protect the Arctic Refuge … We will not stop. We will not waiver. We will continue to protect our way of life, as we always have. Our identity is non-negotiable and our human rights inalienable.”

The same kind of audacious determination has driven other indigenous peoples of North America to achieve important victories. In 2016, the Lummi and other tribes of the Salish Sea (the Puget Sound and connected waterways to the north) successfully halted what would have been the largest coal-shipping terminal in North America at Cherry Point, Wash. Just three weeks later, eight First Nations groups in British Columbia — in conjunction with several environmental organizations and labor unions — struck down a dangerous oil pipeline project that would have run through their land.

The Puyallup Tribe is resolutely fighting a Liquid Natural Gas plant located at the Port of Tacoma, Wash., next to their reservation. Much of the gas would come from environmentally toxic hydraulic fracturing.

Struggling to save Earth. Although a permanent solution will always be elusive as long as the profit system reigns, we can and must take effective action now. First of all, those who are currently impacted by climate change urgently need aid. Rich countries must provide assistance to affected communities both at home and abroad, and must open their borders to climate refugees.

As those who stand to lose the most, indigenous people are naturally the foremost leaders of the global environmental defense movement, but they should never have to act alone. It has been proven time and time again that robust solidarity and collaboration between indigenous people, environmental groups, radical activists, and labor unions is the most powerful weapon. A meaningful campaign against fossil fuels can be developed and maintained if we focus on working together. Until we can sink the capitalist system for good, this is our way forward!

Sam Rubin studied Human Geography at U.C. Berkeley. Send feedback to

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