From the tropics to the Arctic, Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of the climate crisis.
Investigative reporting is critical to tell their stories, delve into the causes and effects of global warming, and examine mitigation strategies.
“Western scientific evidence is now saying what our Indigenous peoples have been expressing for a long time: Life as we know it is in danger,” said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the US-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, in a 2019 Truthout article.
Indigenous communities worldwide are witnessing the impacts of warmer temperatures. They are also a part of the solution. For example, they are stewards of massive forests that sequester carbon and preserve biodiversity but are being steadily diminished.
Some of the most powerful journalism on climate change has documented how corporate interests, government corruption, and the demand for certain crops have contributed to global warming. Reporters have documented that Indigenous communities have been adversely impacted but also that they have fought to protect their communities.
There may also be a more philosophical story, with many implications.
Four Arrows, a professor of Leadership for Change at Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California, urged more attention to Indigenous peoples’ “underlying worldview that sees our interconnectedness with nature.” This is an excerpt from a 2019 article in The Nation, published after the United Nations released a report warning of the imminent extinction of up to 1 million species.
This GIJN/NAJA guide aims to describe how to do investigative journalism on the environment, particularly on climate change. We provide ideas, review criticism of the media, and provide sources for information.
Many Potential Stories
There are four very general categories of investigative journalism on climate change:
- What forces are increasing global warming?
- What are the consequences of global warming?
- What mitigation steps should be taken and what solutions are underway?
- What resistance exists to mitigating climate change?
Within these general themes there are many potential subjects. Climate change’s reach is so vast that it touches almost every newsroom beat: health, agriculture, business, politics, etc.
In many respects, scientific research drives the story. Reporters are advised to learn about the causes and effects of global warming.
“Localizing” scientific predictions makes the ramifications of climate change more real to readers. Plus, using such projections stimulates other story ideas. There is a growing number of sources for data, including maps showing rising temperatures and higher sea levels. National agencies, universities, and nongovernmental agencies are good sources of such information.
Investigating real world impacts may involve learning about what farmers, hunters, and fishermen are doing differently already, as well as what officials and experts may or may not be planning for the future.
There are also positive stories of Indigenous wisdom being applied. Monica Evans, writing in Landscape News, describes 7 Indigenous Technologies ChangingLlandscapes.
The ownership of plants and seeds continues to be a contentious issue, as described in the context of a hardy strain of Mexican maize in in an article by Martha Pskowski in Yale Environment 360. She discusses “biopiracy” — the exploitation of indigenous knowledge and biological resources without permission.
A great deal of excellent reporting is going on — more than can be described here, but it’s worth noting that not all investigative climate change stories are depressing, as seen in these articles:
Tupí: A Story of Indigenous Courage and Resolve, by Francesc Badia i Dalmases and Pablo Albarenga.
A PBS NewsHour special report: Amazon Forest Guardians Fight to Prevent
Catastrophic Tipping Point.
Kenya’s Herders Adapt to Drought with New Land Management Deals, by Naomi Larsson in Deutsche Welle.
From Himalayas to Arctic, Herders Share Knowledge to Cope with Climate, by Gloria Dickie in Ensia.
We Are Nature’s Best Guardians, Not The State, an article in Intercontinental Cry by Gabriella Rutherford, describes the struggle by the Naso peoples in Panama to create a “comarca indígena” or demarcated territory that would cover 160,000 hectares of their ancestral homeland.
Media Biases Identified
Bias in the media, commentators have pointed out, includes portraying Indigenous peoples as victims, overlooking historical context, and underplaying efforts to find solutions.
Failure to provide context is also cited as a media error. The potential high costs of adaptation for remote arctic villages gets discussed without examining the history of communities being forced into inhabiting vulnerable locations, as pointed out by Ella Belfer, James D. Ford, and Michelle Maillet in Representation of Indigenous peoples in Climate Change Reporting (2017).
Many communities are actively working on solutions, points out University of Alaska journalism professor Elizabeth Arnold in a 2018 in a 2018 critique. Also see this article, Climate Coverage Misses “Whole” Indigenous Story, by Ines Kagubar of E&E News (2018).
“Indigenous journalists and media counter this systematic bias often by reporting on what isn’t covered (or covered well, or covered consistently) by other media,” according to Candis Callison, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and a member of the Tahltan Nation.
“But also — and this is a crucial difference — they do so by turning to Indigenous people as experts on their lives and their histories” Callison continued. “Recognizing Indigenous communities’ concerns, knowledge, and priorities as adaptation planning for climate change takes shape has benefits for everyone.”
Ideas for Investigations
The potential for investigative journalism on the climate crisis is receiving increased attention.
Some articles are listed below which explore the possibilities. They are taken from a larger collection of materials published by GIJN, Climate Crisis: Ideas for Investigative Journalists.
Climate Change: Investigating the Story of the Century, written by Jim Fahn, Executive Director of the Earth Journalism Network at Internews, describes 10 promising investigative paths that journalists can explore to dig up climate change stories (2019):
- As the main driver of greenhouse gas emissions, the coal, oil, and gas industries are the most obvious targets for investigative reports.
- There are many other industries that are ripe for more in-depth reporting, including transportation, agriculture, forestry, and cement-making.
- Investigative journalists should be watching how vested interests are influencing government policies and what those policies are. “So, is your government trying to prevent climate change, or actually making it worse?”
- “Journalists need to keep track not only of what goes on in their own countries, but also what their governments are doing abroad.”
- Examine efforts to enforce regulations and monitor compliance.
- Monitor the offsets designed to counter those emissions.
- Do a better job of reporting on climate change impacts.
- Investigate activist groups working on climate issues, their goals, and where they get their financial support.
- Investigate the solutions put forth to prevent and adapt to climate change.
- Examine the vast task ahead of adapting and responding to climate change.
The 2019 article The Media Are Complacent While the World Burns is subtitled, “But there’s a brand-new playbook for journalists fighting for a 1.5 degrees Celsius world.” It was written by Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, and Kyle Pope, the editor-in-chief and publisher of The Columbia Journalism Review.
Their messages include:
- Don’t blame the audience, and listen to the kids.
- Establish a diverse climate desk, but don’t silo climate coverage.
- Learn the science.
- Don’t internalize the spin.
- Lose the Washington-centric perspective.
- Help the heartland.
- Cover the solutions.
- Don’t be afraid to point fingers.
Emily Holden offers a number of suggestions in this Guardian article, The Media is Failing on Climate Change – Here’s How They Can Do Better Ahead of 2020:
- Pay attention to the small but growing numbers of conservatives who care about climate change.
- Bring up climate, even when the candidates don’t.
- Cover climate as a local news story.
- Focus on solutions.
- Choose words carefully.
The 2019 Columbia Journalism Review article The Climate Crisis is a Story for Every Beat by Rosalind Donald, a Columbia Journalism School doctoral candidate, discusses integration of climate change coverage throughout the newsroom.
She says climate change stories can be found on many beats including health, infrastructure, politics, the connections between climate change and migration, national security, sports, and food and agriculture.
Also see an article about her 2019 speech on the same topic: 8 Newsroom Beats You Didn’t Know Covered Climate Change.
- Understand the science.
- Think more about how humans can manage climate change – not stop it.
- Include the correct context.
- Tell the human story.
- Use research to challenge leaders.
- Acknowledge partisan divides.
A 2018 Journalist’s Resource article, Covering Climate Change: What Reporters Get Wrong and How to Get it Right, is based on an interview with US journalist Elizabeth Arnold. Part of her message: Don’t just focus on impact and threat; also highlight what people are doing to address it.
Increasingly, collaborative efforts are emerging to cover climate change. Here’s an article by the Pulitzer Center describing a project regarding reporting on rainforests. See resulting stories at the Pulitzer Center website.
Conflict over Conservation
Conflicts between those seeking to conserve wildlife and Indigenous peoples sometimes occur. These clashes have been covered by investigative reporters.
“For over a century, conservation has resulted in cultural destruction and large-scale displacements of tribal people from their ancestral lands,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
A 2019 UN report concluded, “Nature managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities is under increasing pressure but is generally declining less rapidly than in other lands.”
In India, millions of Indigenous people known as Adivasi are in danger of being evicted for allegedly illegal encroachment on protected areas, jeopardizing efforts to protect wildlife and forests. See an August 2019 story in Scroll.in.
In Peru, the community of Nuevo Lamas successfully challenged the legality of existing land titling procedures in Peru and the failure of the Peruvian government to consult with Indigenous peoples, as described by the NGO Forest Peoples Programme.
There has been plenty of reporting on these conflicts, including some investigative work. Mongabay did a series of stories under the heading of Indigenous Peoples and Conservation.
Other reporting has examined conflict resulting from efforts to protect wildlife made by some conservation groups and governments.
The World Wildlife Federation’s role has been critically evaluated in reporting by the US news site BuzzFeed and by Zembla, the Netherlands’ main investigative TV series. Guards employed by WWF to prevent poaching have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and killing people living near wildlife parks in Asia and Africa.
In Uganda, government officials have used force to prevent families from living in a wildlife reserve that is ancestral land, as documented by Liam Taylor in the publication Place.
These can be complex issues. The role that Indigenous peoples play in conserving and safeguarding local biodiversity and the challenges of governing common lands deserve greater attention.
(See more on land issues in this guide’s chapter on land ownership.)
Sources for Information
There are many places with excellent information on climate change. GIJN’s resource Climate Crisis: Ideas for Investigative Journalists includes many options, but below are sources focused on climate change and Indigenous peoples.
Websites – Multilateral Bodies
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the UN body assessing the science related to climate change. An IPCC report released in August 2019, Climate Change and Land, recognizes that securing land rights is a critical solution to the climate crisis. Also see a statement by Indigenous groups from 42 countries.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): Indigenous people are a recognized observer constituency under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). See a joint submission from the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs on the role of Indigenous people. Indigenous Peoples and Traditional Knowledge in the Context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – 2019 Update by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) lists all of the references to Indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge adopted by the UNFCCC bodies.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is the intergovernmental body that assesses the state of biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides to society, in response to requests from decisionmakers.
UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Tauli-Corpuz praised a section in the recent IPCC report on “Indigenous and Local Knowledge” as “the first of its kind to recognize that traditional Indigenous knowledge is vital to saving the world’s biodiversity — and consequently, to humanity’s future.”
UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs is a web page with a summary of environmental issues affecting Indigenous peoples and links to international reports. In April 2019, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard from many speakers on “Indigenous Peoples’ Traditional Knowledge: Generation, Transmission, and Protection,” according to a UN summary.
Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development (IPMG) represents Indigenous peoples at many international negotiations. A description elaborates, “Although the focus of the IPMG is on global engagements relating to sustainable development, it endeavors to generate all forms of solidarity support and assistance for indigenous peoples at the national level in relation to sustainable development.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Hazardous Substances: In 2019, this UN special rapporteur announced plans to prepare a 2020 report to the UN General Assembly examining the consequences of Indigenous people being exposed to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances. He issued an extensive questionnaire, pledging to share the input.
Websites — International Groups
The International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) was established in 2008 as the caucus for Indigenous Peoples participating in the UNFCCC processes.
Forest Peoples Programme is an NGO that works on land rights and drawing connections with climate change. It has produced reports such as the one cited above and Challenges and Opportunities in the Adoption of Community Forestry by Local communities and Indigenous Peoples in the Republic of Congo.
Climate Change Monitoring and Information Network (CCMIN) was established by Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact and partner organizations as a channel for information dissemination and exchange at the local, national, and regional levels on climate change issues relating to Indigenous people.
Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica) contains information concerning the Amazon and links to member organizations. (In Spanish.)
Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB) (Sobre la Alianza Mesoamericana de Pueblos y Bosques) is an organization facilitating the coordination and exchange of territorial authorities that administer or influence major forested areas of Mesoamerica. (In Spanish.)
Websites — United States
This is only a sampling of resources; there are more. Some of these sites contain links to regional organizations and tribes:
The Fourth National Climate Assessment (2018) is presented by the US Global Change Research Program, and Chapter 15: Tribes And Indigenous Peoples is authored by Kyle Whyte, a professor at Michigan State University.
Whyte’s report contains many potential story leads. For the purposes of this guide, it makes one key conclusion: “Climate change threatens Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and economies, including agriculture, hunting and gathering, fishing, forestry, energy, recreation, and tourism enterprises.” See reference section.
Tribal Climate Change Guide from the University of Oregon includes collections organized by topic, such as tribal profiles, fact sheets, and climate planning tools, as well as an extensive list of climate change scientists.
Indigenous Climate Change & Climate Justice. This website by Kyle Whyte of Michigan State University contains “Teaching Materials & Advanced Bibliography.”
Climate Impact Resources is a website by the University of Washington College of the Environment. Among other things, see the section called Tribal Vulnerability Assessment Resources. There’s a Tribal Climate Technical Support Desk — search “Indigenous.”
The Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University hosts a website with many resources on climate change, including a collection of videos. A newsletter is also available.
Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) is “an alliance of Indigenous peoples whose mission it is to protect the sacredness of Earth Mother from contamination and exploitation by strengthening, maintaining, and respecting Indigenous teachings and natural laws.”
U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit: Tribal Nations. Besides a broad overview of the effects of climate change on Indigenous populations, this site includes useful materials such as “Climate Explorer” — a free, web-based mapping and graphing tool providing decision-relevant climate data for every county in the contiguous US.
There are also case studies on community efforts to build resilience. In 2014, the Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup developed Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives.
The Northeast Indigenous Climate Resilience Network (NICRN) seeks to convene Indigenous peoples to identify threats to Indigenous self-determination and ways of life, and to formulate adaptation and mitigation strategies, dialogues, and educational programs that build Indigenous capacity to address climate-related issues. Materials include a page on climate change literature.
Indian Law Resources Related to Environment & Climate Change comes from the National Indian Law Library (US focus).
The Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals: This website includes good background information, links, and regional profiles.
The Yurok Tribe Environmental Program (YTEP): This Northern California tribe is conducting its own climate change monitoring, according to a 2019 presentation. Monitoring mussels for toxins is an example of one of their projects.
Here are some recent reports on climate change and Indigenous peoples.
A Global Baseline of Carbon Storage in Collective Lands, a 2018 report by the NGO Rights and Resources, finds that in the 64 countries studied, some 1.9 billion hectares of land is “designated for or owned by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC).”
Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Protect 5 Times More Carbon than Previously Thought, according to this blog post.
In 2019, Minority Rights published Minority and Indigenous Trends 2019, a 176-page report focused on climate change, with thematic chapters and international case studies. Also, search “climate change” for new stories.
Environmental Science & Policy published a study in 2019 suggesting that Indigenous-managed lands may play a critical role in helping species survive, as described in this Intercontinental Cry article.
The journal Nature Sustainability published a study in 2018 saying that greater collaborations involving Indigenous peoples “would yield significant benefits for conservation of ecologically valuable landscapes, ecosystems, and genes for future generations.” Collaborative partnerships “are the future, however difficult they may be to develop,” one of the study’s authors, Zsolt Molnár, an ethnoecologist with the Centre for Ecological Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, was quoted as saying in an article in The Planetary Press. But such partnerships require information symmetry, balanced power relations, reciprocal respect, and trust and patience, he added.
Improving Justice and Avoiding Colonization in Managing Climate Change Related Disasters: A Case Study of Alaska Native Villages, by E. Barrett Ristroph. This 2019 article in the American Indian Law Journal explores the idea that “providing assistance with disasters and climate change adaptation while ignoring the legacy of colonialism may also perpetuate colonialism through Western interventions that do not serve the long-term needs of indigenous communities.”