Climate impacts displace millions of people each year, with indigenous peoples being disproportionately affected. An increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as droughts, wildfires, and tropical storms are destroying habitats and livelihoods in indigenous communities, especially those which are centered around agricultural practices. Alongside intensifying weather events, the continued exploitation of land, particularly through widespread deforestation, is encroaching upon indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands, while continued sea level rise existentially threatens coastal communities. In the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, where about 900,000 people are indigenous, deforestation increased by 22% in 2021 compared to 2020. Taken together, these environmental, climate, and disaster-related impacts are reverberating off each other to drive indigenous peoples to migrate or be displaced, upending livelihoods and cultural traditions and practices.
Ensuring that indigenous peoples have the right to stay in their homes and ancestral lands is a key priority for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Indigenous territories are fundamental and intrinsic to indigenous cultures and traditions, and protecting the right to stay in these territories, both for current and future generations of indigenous peoples, is a pressing objective. If driven away from their ancestral lands, the fabric of indigenous communities can be torn apart. However, as environmental degradation, climate change, and disasters accelerate, indigenous communities may choose or be forced to move.
Communities such as the Guna on the Caribbean coast of Panama have been experiencing increasing pressures from climate change, in particular sea level rise, coastal erosion, and flooding, over the past century. Despite not wanting to leave their ancestral lands, Guna communities have been relocating during the past decade to protect their livelihoods and safety. Other recent examples of indigenous communities who have elected to relocate in response to cascading environmental threats include the Quinault Indian Nation and Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. As such, adequate support for indigenous peoples who have migrated, been displaced, or relocated, with particular attention for those who move to urban areas, is imperative to mitigate the already traumatic experience of cultural discontinuity these communities face when moving. It is evident that supporting indigenous communities and protecting the right to stay on their ancestral lands is now a matter of climate justice, for communities that have made limited or no contribution to climate change and also as a mechanism to protect invaluable ecosystems on whom indigenous communities depend and help to remain balanced and protected.
Although not uniform across all urban areas, for many indigenous peoples who have migrated or have been displaced or relocated to urban settings, existing social systems within urban regions end up providing at best inadequate coverage for indigenous communities. Developing durable solutions for indigenous peoples is vital given that urban indigenous migrants are significantly more likely to live in vulnerable situations than urban non-indigenous residents, frequently lacking proper access to important social services, including housing and food support. Further, a lack of access to intercultural health care has contributed to worsening health conditions among indigenous migrants.
However, there are some important regional differences to note. In Latin America, about half of the region's indigenous populations reside in urban areas, with indigenous urban residents in the region often having better access to essential social services and economic opportunities than their rural counterparts. For instance, in Panama, urban indigenous peoples have 3.9 times better access to these services than rural indigenous peoples. Alongside an urban-rural divide between indigenous communities, another divide exists within urban areas, where indigenous peoples live in substantially less secure and more disaster-prone settings than non-indigenous urban populations, with this latter trend holding true across the world. Latin America is expected to be severely impacted by climate change and the region could see up to 10.6 million climate-related migrants by 2050, which will have profound impacts on indigenous communities across the region.
Among urban indigenous youth migrants, societal exclusion often extends into educational institutions, where a lack of culturally appropriate education, including no instruction in the indigenous language, compounds other forms of discrimination. In addition to having lived through the potential trauma of moving in the context of climate change, environmental degradation or disasters, indigenous youth often face continued discrimination, political and economic marginalization, and human rights violations. Discriminatory systems which fail to uphold and promote indigenous identities and traditional practices are particularly visible within urban educational institutions, excluding indigenous youth from their host communities. Reversing these trends requires fully applying the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which protects the rights of all indigenous youth to education without discrimination.
Governments and municipalities have tools at their disposal to strengthen the inclusion of migrant and displaced indigenous youth in their local communities. These policies must be centered around indigenous peoples, with indigenous peoples becoming leading partners in local development initiatives. Previous research conducted by the IOM demonstrates that local integration which does not lead to assimilation but rather upholds and guarantees indigenous rights and practices can create dignified and sustainable solutions for indigenous communities.
When it comes to indigenous youth, migration must be a choice and facilitated in a manner that ensures that they can continue to live on their ancestral lands. When remaining on their traditional lands is no longer an option due to climate change, environmental degradation, or disasters and young indigenous peoples move, relocate, or are displaced to other regions, their successful integration into host communities requires applying a holistic strategy which is built around cultural and societal frameworks, including promoting a positive self-identity. Reducing discrimination and exclusion and promoting language services and indigenous traditions and practices are instrumental in achieving this aim. Crafting such holistic approaches requires incorporating social well-being, alongside existing economic indicators, into government policies related to indigenous peoples.
Three imperatives which local authorities can employ to create sustainable solutions for indigenous youth include:
Leverage Indigenous Knowledge and Traditions
Authorities should promote the teaching and practice of indigenous traditions within educational systems to leverage the sustainable opportunities of indigenous knowledge. These traditions, such as prescribing forest burns to prevent wildfires, can have important opportunities for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Promoting the acquisition and usage of these traditions can occur through “Flexischool” programs, which have been implemented in countries such as Australia, whereby school curricula adapt to meet student needs. In addition, promoting the practice of indigenous traditions will reinforce indigenous identities, easing the integration process of indigenous youth in host communities.
Promote Education in Indigenous Languages
Authorities should allow for accessible education in indigenous languages, either as a complement or substitute to existing school curricula. Providing bilingual education in the indigenous language is critical. Language gaps exacerbate discrimination and lead to exclusion of indigenous migrants, while inherently facilitating the loss of indigenous languages, and thereby indigenous identities. Further, providing language support in the indigenous language, such as through translation or homework assistance, can ensure that indigenous youth are not left behind on meeting educational targets. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes, increasing the agency of migrants provides greater benefits for both their sending and receiving communities, and providing language support is critical in empowering the agency of young indigenous peoples. Partnerships with indigenous organizations can help local authorities provide this language support in schools.
Elevate Indigenous Youth Community Groups
Finally, authorities should elevate indigenous youth community groups which operate in urban areas with indigenous migration, displacement or relocation, allowing these groups to guide local responses to ensure that these actions are best adapted to the cultural needs of a particular indigenous group. Empowering these groups within local decision-making structures helps reduce gaps between local administrators and indigenous practices. This is especially important in contexts where existing social services are not well-prepared to support indigenous migrants, especially indigenous youth migrants. Alongside promoting their inclusion, these groups must be provided with adequate resources to operate. As with providing language coverage, partnerships can help local authorities provide indigenous youth community groups with the resources they require. Prior examples of youth-targeted partnerships include UNICEF's initiative together with the Indigenous Council of Roraima, which created a Cultural Center for youth for the Ta'rau Paru indigenous community at the Brazilian border with Venezuela.
To conclude, global efforts are being made to strengthen indigenous inclusion in policymaking forums and to place indigenous peoples at the center of the response to climate change. Yet policymakers and local decision-makers must significantly strengthen their inclusion of indigenous peoples who have migrated, been displaced or relocated due to climate-related impacts. An important component of this engagement must come through improving the inclusion of urban indigenous youth. Through crafting holistic policies centered around indigenous traditions, indigenous language instruction, and indigenous youth community groups, local authorities can develop durable integration solutions for indigenous youth who are unable to return to their original lands. As climate change accelerates and impacts human mobility and decisions by indigenous peoples whether to stay in their place of origin, the need for these solutions becomes ever-more critical.
International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Paraguayan Indigenous Institute (INDI) Project “Strengthening the Capacities of the Government of Paraguay to Address the Mobility of Indigenous Communities in the Context of Climate Change, Environmental Degradation, and Deforestation”
The impact of climate displacement on the right to education
Adaptive governance and institutional strategies for climate-induced community relocations in Alaska
About the author:
Christian is an intern with the IOM Migration, Environment, Climate Change and Risk Reduction Division since June 2022, supporting the team with policy, research and communications. He is completing a Master of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, focusing his studies on international cooperation. Christian holds a Master's degree in European Politics from Columbia University. Previously, he interned with the Executive Office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and worked as a teacher in Sweden.
This blog was developed under the supervision of Manuel Marques Pereira, Head of the IOM Migration, Environment, Climate Change and Risk Reduction Division (MECR); and with inputs from Iulia Duca, IOM MECR Programme Support Officer; Alice Baillat, IOM MECR Thematic Specialist; and Pablo Escribano IOM MECC Regional Thematic Specialist for the Americas.