Climate Change and the Indigenous People: Communicating Adaptation, Impact and Mitigation for Sustainable Sectoral Development*

Posted: September 22, 2011 in Academics, Analysis, Communication, culture, politics
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* A reflective discourse originally presented by the blogger to Dr. R. Guioguio for the requirement in a post-graduate course on Philippine Communication Environment, University of the Philippines-Diliman, 2010. Permission for reprinting is granted as long as proper citation is observed, according to the principle of creative commons’ sharing of online resources.

Climate change is a major environmental problem that represents social and economic threats to everyone in the globe. Risks have become higher as the potential danger of natural disasters looms to almost unmanageable extent – longer periods of rain, harsher storms, prolonged dry spells, extreme heat and cold temperatures, more frequent hot days and nights, flash floods, forest fires, rising sea level, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and the warming global temperature are among the many signs that “mother earth” is now ringing a sick call to all her children.

The peril resulting from climate change is no way particular to creed, wealth, faith, age, gender, race or color. It spares no one. The ecology of all things in the world suggests that every creature will experience the impact of climate change.

Climate change is a global concern, but it has impact which is specific to communities and sectoral groups. The problem is too broad to manage for a sector, yet there are enormous possibilities for a sector to contribute to its resolution; at least for their own adaptation, to mitigate climate change impact and to sustain community-base development. The indigenous are communities of people who contributed the least to the problem of climate change, but they are not spared from its impact. Economically and socially marginalized, the indigenous far greatly suffer from the impact of climate change and to international mitigation measures.

What is the potential impact of climate change to the indigenous people? What are  the existing and needed adaptation means to climate change specific to sustain survival and livelihood of the indigenous? How important is a communication framework in climate change impact mitigation for the indigenous people? These questions call for some reflective thinking.

Impact of Climate Change to the Indigenous People

Climate change has an impact in the culture, communities, resources, knowledge and the livelihood of people.  For the indigenous people contemporary climate change poses great challenges, unlike with that of the climate change that their predecessors have overcome from since prehistory. The alarming impact of climate change is now experienced by these vulnerable people at a global scale, yet scientific data warns of what is worst to come. Officially, the National Commission on Indigenous People of the Philippines (2003) reports that 110 ethnolinguistic groups are to be found in the country and they number to 8,067,100:

Subsistence of the indigenous people is much dependent on the biodiversity and their environment. These make them more vulnerable in light of the impact of climate change in their habitats and to their cultural identity relative to: being dislocated because of the disruption of subsistence; facing threats to their lives, health and properties; declining and losing biodiversity and the confronting environmental forces that damage their crops; having inadequate knowledge about issues on climate change; and being challenged by their limited economic means and the lack of skills for alternative livelihood.

Those five concerns confront the already marginalized IP groups and make them even more vulnerable to the impact of climate change. The indigenous groups comprise a relatively small size of the Philippine population, like 10% or even lesser. The NCIPP 2003 data indicates a disparity in the IP population as compared to its 1998 estimation of the IP population which was around 12 to 15 million.

The issue of climate change has been around since the 1990s. How climate change contributed to this decline of IP population and how it impacts their lives have not been examined empirically. The issues of IP sector has long been a struggle for their rights to habitat and their cultural identity (Molintas, 2004).

 “Vulnerability is the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate change and variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity” (IPCC, 2007).

The indigenous people comprise the minority of the Philippine population. Perhaps, they are the most vulnerable of all people to the impact of climate change. They belong to a culture – which social and economic subsistence are inextricably and directly linked to the natural environment. Climate change has a direct impact to the biodiversity of their lands and habitats. The Filipino IPs live in the hinterlands, hilltops, mountain tops, by the sea and lake waters and in small islands.

These structures in the ecosystem are vulnerable to climate change. Harsh storms can cause  landslides, severe drought suck up the lake water, change in global temperature affects the biodiversity and even the marine life. Where they dwell are freshwater resources, so prone to vector-borne diseases. These impacts of climate change exacerbate the vulnerability of the indigenous people because they are the inhabitants of marginal ecosystems.

The indigenous people are direct descendants of nature and they have performed so well throughout history as stewards of the environment. Their communion with nature brought them resiliency and adaptive skills. Being residents of a marginal ecosystem, they do not have access to information and education that can equip them with adequate knowledge about the issues of climate change. Economically, they rely on their crops and livestock as for those groups which have advanced their agricultural skills. For those groups which still rely on hunting, the loss of biodiversity or its decline would have impact to their food security and livelihood.

The challenges of climate change are nothing old, that even science which claims to possess the knowledge of nature is baffled by the perplexing magnitude and potential impact of this environmental problem. It has become evident that climate change brought enormous concerns both to the contemporary postmodern world and to the indigenous people. The threats of economic development are becoming more evident in the changes in the world’s climate, leaving the IPs in more danger.

Climate Change Adaptation and Impact Mitigation

Like any group of people, the indigenous are trying to adapt to the impact of climate of change. The way the indigenous adapts to immediate environmental changes based on their culture, traditions and community decisions. To go on with their lives, adaptation is basic in this situation. Some IPs deal with the situation as a community, but others resort to push through with their individual choices by abandoning their culture.

Migration and relocation – There are direct links to connect the migration issues of several indigenous groups in the Philippines to social order and economic situations. Theoretically, in an environment where there is economic sufficiency and social order, people continue to thrive. Livelihood that relies on farming, fishing or hunting is affected by climate change which results to decline in crops, livestock and catches. Hence, it becomes an adaptation option for IPs to migrate or relocate to other areas.

Fajardo (2007) pointed to the loss of livelihood and mining development projects as some of the issues that push IPs to migrate or relocate, and described this diaspora to cause further impact on IPs’ affect. The movement of one community to other locations is a sign of migration and relocation. After the Pinatubo eruption, the Aetas of Zambales have decided to settle in other communities.  However, IP members sometime resort to individual disenfranchisement or abandonment of their community.

Individualism and abandonment – Fajardo (2007) reported on the individual members of IPs forced by poverty to abandon their natural habitation, either as a family or as an individual as they relocate to other places in or outside the country. Since they settle in isolated marginal ecosystems, those community members who are not able to sustain their basic needs in their environment are left to take the option of moving out and integrating to urban areas.

Sporadically, some members of the indigenous community roam the streets of urban cities as beggars and mendicants. Whether their presence in these places is syndicated or not, it can still be understood, that the decision for them to abandon their community for some amount of money was still individual decision. Government efforts in the guise of development had displaced the indigenous from their own land (Molintas, 2004). Given this condition, some indigenous people have no other option but to abandon their culture in exchange for some amount, while others relocate and persist.

Resourcefulness to find alternative livelihood – The indigenous people, dwelling in the rainforest, are more often hunters and gatherers. However, the impact of climate change to the biodiversity of the forest would have an effect on their food subsistence. Most of these hunting and gathering forest people have gradually adapted to an agricultural economy and are becoming semi-sedintary (Macchi, 2008).

Resourcefulness is a must to find an alternative livelihood for their survival and subsistence. Change in climatic conditions allowed for some indigenous to adapt new or alternative techniques (Salick & Byg, 2007). With limited resources, i.e. food catch, crops and hunts, some indigenous resort to making crafts or gathering items from their natural environment to be sold in nearest market.

Traditional wisdom – The traditional knowledge of the indigenous people about the diversity of species, their habitats, behaviors, and their traditional ways of managing and protecting natural resources allow them to have a sustainable relationship with the environment upon which we all ultimately depend for our welfare and survival (Carino, n.d). Their exceptional culture demonstrates the harmonious relationship of the Ivatan people with their environment as a means of surviving and coping with these various ecological stresses (Uy & Shaw, 2000).

Indigenous knowledge about climate change is not parallel to what science has inquired about. There are cases that the indigenous people attribute the changes in climate to something else, like the “wind,” or to modernity and development, or a supernatural force because the land has been violated. This reflects the need for correcting misconceptions about climate change.

Resiliency and concession – in times of crises some IPs obtain food and other necessities from external sources (Salick & Byg, 2007). In this way, the IPs demonstrate resiliency by modes exchange with non-IPs. They do this by trading their surplus products, handicrafts, forest products, wage labor and other goods.   “Indigenous peoples of the Philippines have preserved many of their own customary practices, traditions and livelihood and resource systems, showing great resilience against centuries of foreign domination and their exposures to lowland and market influences” (Rebuelta-Teh, 2004, p.87).

The Ivatans of the Batanes province are an illustration of indigenous resiliency, over harsh weather conditions, by applying traditional knowledge in their architectural landscape and in the sensitivity to weather patterns. The adaptation of the indigenous people does not mean to be all best practices that can help in mitigating the impact of climate change.

The rate of growth in net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a critical issue in the Philippines, and therefore managing the country’s natural resources wisely to protect their supply and quality and to maintain their diversity is critical for sustained economic growth (USAID, 2008). Since, they are marginalized economically and live in a marginal ecosystem, pressed with land rights issues; they are thinly focused on fulfilling their role as stewards of the environment. Somehow, their mindset is too politicized to pay attention to the issue of climate change, while they crumble to find food.

Climate Change Communication

“While Climate change is a threat to humanity as a whole, the report indicates that it is the poor – a constituency with no responsibility for the ecological debt that the world is running up – who face the most immediate and most severe human costs in climate change” Malayang (2008).

In his view, Manalang  may not represent the academe nor the university where he is the president. This opinion is highly political. Yet it is true, it does not encourage communitarian effort to mitigate the impact of climate change. Instead, such views prevent public participation, reducing the issue of climate change as a political struggle and a diplomatic feat.

This is the very same view that leaders or representatives of IP organizations declare, voicing out that the IPs have not left footprints that adversely affected climate change, yet they suffer from international pressures to reforest their lands with trees not even endemic to their environment. They say that the development f renewable energy resources and planting crops that can be used for making bio-diesel displace them from their land. Such views are critical to a communitarian effort on climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Science and the public do not speak the same language about climate change. This knowledge or information gap is a result of the differences between the ways scientist and non-scientist inquire and communicate about environmental problems. Chalecki believes that “If impact assessments were more closely related to issues of public interest, the links between individual behavior and global changes in the environment might become more apparent, and public frustration over environmental issues might be transformed into environmentally responsible actions(2000, A2-15). In this concern, communication has a role to bridge the gap in knowledge, to translate scientific information into useful knowledge, and to reach the public who will act on the problem.

Human-induced climate change is a product of the cumulative impacts of billions of people going about their daily lives; and the challenges that go by this point to the scale of the issue requiring unprecedented cooperation, while there may be a sense of helplessness for the individuals faced with other important and competing issues (Andrey & Mortsch, 2000). Communicating the climate change issue requires the imparting of information to fulfill three expectations: 1) to raise awareness; 2) to confer understanding; and 3) to motivate action (CCCC, 2000). Communication is essential to facilitate the delivery of climate change communication, reinforce adaptation skills and address mitigation issues.

Climate change communication must be sector-specific, yet still focusing on three key concepts – impact, adaptation and mitigation. It is audience-centered, so it must be contextualized within cultural boundaries of a community or sector. It is not ambitious and it cannot stop global warming. It is neither a panacea to prevailing environmental problems. It has a pivotal role to turn things around particularly in the aspect of correcting wrong perceptions, changing attitudes, creating public awareness, processing knowledge, transforming behavior, developing skills, integrating technology and instituting new practices. It is a vital social action to coordinate individuals and group into cooperative eco-sensitive actions.

Communication Framework to Address the Challenges of Climate Change and Development

Figure 1  illustrates a framework for communicating climate change to the indigenous. It considers a cultural framework in organizing an active network of community members by using the available indigenous cost-efficient resources, integrating knowledge-management strategies, skills development and technology integration. The framework emphasizes social justice in helping IPs adapt and mitigate the impact of climate change while integrating it with a community and sectoral development perspectives.



Andrey, J., & Mortsch, L. (2000). Communicating About Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities, WP 1-11. In Climate Change Communication Conference. Proceedings of an international conference. June 22-24, 2000. Ontario, Canada.

Chalecky, E. (2000).  Same Planet, Different Worlds: The Climate Change Information Gap. A2 15-22. In Climate Change Communication
Conference. Proceedings of an international conference. June 22-24, 2000. Ontario, Canada.

Climate Change Communication Conference (2000). Message from the organizing committee. In Climate Change Communication Conference. Proceedings of an international conference. June 22-24, 2000. Ontario, Canada.

Fajardo, R. (July 25, 2007) Still strangers in their own land. Posted in I-report Alien Nation. Retrieved on February 28, 2010 from

Macchi, M. (2008). Indigenous and traditional peoples and climate change. Issues paper. IUCN.

Malayang, B.S. III. (2008) Quoted in Mitigation and Adaptation recommended to address effects of climate change on human development. Retrieved on March 4, 2010 from

Molintas, J.M. (2004). The Philippine indigenous peoples’ struggle for land and life: Challenging legal texts. Arizona Journal of International & Comparative Law 21(1), 269-306.

National Commission on Indigenous People (2003). IP group profiles. Retrieved on March 1, 2010 from

Rebuelta-Teh, A. (2004). Philippines: Governance and local empowerment in the environment and natural resources sector. Background papers, pp. 85- 92.

Salick, J. & Byg, A. (2007). Indigenous peoples and climate change. Oxford: Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

USAID-Philippines (May, 2008). Global climate change.

Uy, R. & Shaw, R. (2000). Shaped by the winds and typhoon: The indigenous knowledge of the Ivatans, in Batanes Island,
In Indigenous Knowledge for Disaster Risk Reduction: Good practices and lessons learned from experiences in Asia-Pacific Region,  pp.59-62. UN-International Strategy Disaster Reduction.

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