Climate impacts like sea level rise are swallowing land in places like Plaquemines Parish, La.Sea level rise is swallowing land in places like Plaquemines Parish, La., and several Indigenous tribes have appealed to the UN for help in recognizing climate as a human rights issue. Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
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By Karen Savage

The U.S. government is violating the human rights of indigenous people by failing to protect them from climate change, according to a complaint filed to the United Nations last week by tribes in Louisiana and Alaska.

The complaint was filed by the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians of Louisiana, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe and the Atakapa-Ishak Chawasha Tribe of the Grand Bayou Indian Village, whose tribal lands are located in south Louisiana, along with the Native Village of Kivalina in Alaska. All say they are facing displacement due to climate change.

“The United States government has the most stringent obligation to protect the lives of Indigenous tribal citizens in Louisiana and Alaska from climate-induced and human-driven ecological change which threatens the civil, economic, social and cultural rights fundamental to the inherent dignity of tribal citizens as individuals and also collectively as tribal nations,” the tribes said in the complaint.

They are asking the U.N.’s special rapporteurs to find that climate-forced displacement is a human rights crisis. They want the rapporteurs to formally ask federal and state governments to protect their members.

“We have been advocating for many, many, many years. This is not an action that we took lightly,” said Shirell Parfait-Dardar, chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw.

“We saw no other choice, we can’t sit around and wait anymore, it’s past that point and we reached a point of urgency,” Parfait said.

Asking State Governments to Step In

The tribes want the rapporteurs to issue a series of recommendations, including asking the state of Louisiana to hold oil and gas companies liable for coastal damage. They want the companies forced to reduce future harm and to provide compensation for damage already done.

While individual parishes have filed suits aimed at holding companies accountable for damage to the state’s coastal wetlands, those suits do not specifically address climate damages, nor did a similar suit filed in 2013 by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E), a levee board that oversees flood control. That suit, filed in state court against nearly 200 oil and gas companies, was moved to federal court, where it was eventually dismissed.

The tribes are also asking the rapporteurs to recommend state governments allocate funding for tribal-led relocation for the Alaska Native Village of Kivalina and for the south Louisiana community of Isle de Jean Charles.

Kivalina, located north of the Arctic Circle in northwest Alaska, and Isle de Jean Charles are two of the U.S. communities most vulnerable to sea level rise. 

Residents of Isle de Jean Charles were granted a $48.3 million federal grant  to relocate in 2016, but opted out, saying the state of Louisiana refused to implement the tribe’s plan as originally described in the grant application.

Efforts to relocate Kivalina, which could be under water within the next decade, have been ongoing for years, but have repeatedly failed. The tribe filed a liability lawsuit against several fossil fuel companies in 2008, seeking to hold them accountable for damage their products have done to the climate, but the case was dismissed in 2012.

Climate Impacts Are Already Threatening Communities

Today, tribes in coastal Louisiana are dealing with increased flooding, rising sea levels and the grim realization that their land could soon be permanently underwater.

Parfait-Dardar said her community in Dulac, La., could suffer that fate in as little as 20 years. Dulac now experiences flooding even without major storms. 

“When we get a good south-south easterly wind, my community will be underwater for days. It traps some of our elderly people in their houses, because the water can be as much as knee high,” Parfait-Dardar said, adding that the water is contaminated and not safe to walk through, particularly for those with weakened immune systems.

“That limits them from getting to the grocery store, getting to the pharmacy just getting out enjoying their yard,” Parfait said.

The flooding also threatens her community’s food supply.

“We can no longer keep small livestock such as chickens and things that we used to keep, we can’t plant gardens directly in the ground. Heck, we can’t even plant raised-bed gardens in some areas because the waters are just too much,” Parfait-Dardar said. “So it’s not just the loss of our homelands, the loss of our culture, our identity, but our health is also declining.”

Food supplies are also threatened in Kivalina, where rising ocean and river temperatures have caused declining populations of bearded seals, fish and marine animals. 

“We have not caught the bearded seal for two years due to lack of solid ice formation,” Millie Hawley, Kivalina’s tribal administrator said in the complaint. “Soft, thin ice that doesn’t support the bodies of the bearded seal nor the hunters necessary to hunt the seal as practiced in the last century. The bearded seal was a daily nutritional source of food for the community of Kivalina for time immemorial.”

“All the marine mammals we gather to feed our families for the winter are lacking and our childbearing women suffer the most due to low iron in their blood,” Hawley said, adding that tribal members have been forced to rely on food that is flown in, which is expensive and less nutritious.

Federal Support Is Crucial

The tribes are asking the rapporteurs to recommend that the federal government obtain tribal consent for all adaptation measures affecting their lands, allocate funding to address increased sea level rise, ensure sacred and cultural sites are protected and grant the Louisiana tribes federal recognition to make them eligible for federal resources to help mitigate climate impacts.

Parfait said the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, like the other Louisiana tribes, has been trying for years to obtain federal recognition, a process made more difficult because many tribal members have already moved inland to escape storms and coastal flooding.  

In addition to funding, federal recognition would require that the tribe’s input be considered in decision-making.

“While we’ve been invited to some of the tables for discussion, it’s not mandatory that they invite us and it’s not mandatory that they listen to what we have to say, or even take into consideration what they’re going to do in our community without our input. They can still do whatever they want to and it’s one of the reasons is because we do not have federal recognition,” Parfait-Dardar said.

The difference between flood protection in her community and in other better-represented communities is apparent, she said.

“They have protections, you can see that those communities, those areas are being cared for, there’s improvements being made—and you come down into our communities, which are predominantly Indigenous and tribal, and there’s nothing being done. We just don’t have the protections that other communities have that are not Indigenous,” Parfait-Dardar said, adding that the tribes filed the complaint on behalf of their communities, as well as other coastal communities that remain unprotected from climate change.

Parfait-Dardar puts the blame squarely on the government for both its failure to protect coastal tribes from climate change and for engaging in actions that put them more at risk. 

“They have a responsibility to our people as citizens of the United States, as residents of the state and this parish and we want to see them give us the assistance that we need to be able to help our people, to be able to make sure that we can save our people, save our culture, save our identity,” Parfait Dardar said.

“Climate change is real. You can deny it all you want, but it’s very visible and it’s getting worse every day—we have to take action.”

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