Tribes displaced by the climate crisis urge action from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Biden administration.
October 28, 2022, Washington, D.C.—Today, five U.S. Indigenous communities facing forced relocation imposed by the consequences of climate change called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to honor international human rights obligations by protecting them and other vulnerable communities. Leaders from the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, and Grand Bayou Village in Louisiana, along with Alaska’s Kivalina community highlighted the U.S. government’s failure to allocate funds, technical assistance, and other resources to support their communities’ adaptation efforts to a changing climate, and denounced U.S. efforts to block remedies and reparations for victims of human rights abuses imposed climate change.
The climate crisis is making the planet unlivable, displacing communities worldwide. Rising sea levels, soil erosion, catastrophic storms, and fossil fuel extraction have altered lands occupied for generations by Indigenous peoples. In the U.S. alone, hundreds of Indigenous peoples have been forced to either relocate to new lands or scramble to find solutions that will allow them to stay in their homes. Despite being aware of these risks, the U.S. government has failed to allocate funds, technical assistance, and other resources to support the Tribes’ rights to self-determination to implement community-led adaptation efforts. Due to this insufficient action, Tribes now face the loss of sacred ancestral homelands, the destruction of sacred burial sites, and the endangerment of their cultural traditions, heritage, health, lives, and livelihoods.
“The United States government has failed to protect the individual and collective human rights of the Indigenous Tribes in Louisiana and Alaska from the climate crisis,” said Maryum Jordan, Climate Justice Attorney for EarthRights International, which supports the Tribes. “Yet the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights specifies that States should take measures to slow the negative consequences of climate change, devoting whatever resources necessary to address it. The Commission is also clear that Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. In not taking effective action on their behalf, the U.S. has violated the rights of these Tribes.”
“Prior to the hearing, we learned that this is only the fourth time in the organization’s history that the subject of climate change will be publicly presented as a complaint before the commissioners,” said Rachel Gore Freed, Vice President of Programs at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), also supporting the tribal leaders through the complaint process. “This is indicative of the gravity of this issue and just how vital it is that we call attention to it in an international forum. These tribes are making history by calling out the dismal record of both state and federal governments in respecting their right to self-determination and providing equitable solutions to this crisis.”
The Tribes call on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to:
- Facilitate interactions between them and a government delegation, including representatives from the Department of State, Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and representatives from the governments of Alaska and Louisiana.
- Recognize that climate-forced displacement is a human rights crisis and conduct an In Loco visit to their communities.
- Produce a comprehensive report or resolution on climate-forced displacement and the obligations of States to provide Indigenous and other vulnerable communities protection and mitigation from the effects of climate change.
The Tribes also urge the commission to make the following recommendations to the U.S. federal government:
- Immediately provide federal aid directly to the Tribes to rebuild and bolster the protection of their homes, ancestral lands, and traditional sites (including burial sites) from pending storms and the ongoing impacts of the climate crisis.
- Recognize the self-determination and inherent sovereignty of all of the Tribes, including those federally recognized and those who have not received federal recognition, in all relevant government policies related to addressing climate change and disaster aid.
- Grant federal recognition to the Tribal Nations in Louisiana so that these Tribes can access federal resources that will support their self-governance in light of the various climate impacts that affect them.
- Recognize the tribes’ collective rights to the land, subsistence, and cultural identities and their collective right to return to and maintain access to their ancestral homelands.
- Develop a federal relocation institutional framework that is based on human rights protections to adequately respond to the threats facing Tribal Nations, including the rapid provision of resources for adaptation efforts that protect the right to culture, health, safe drinking water, food, and adequate housing.
The Jean Charles Choctaw Nation of Louisiana are descendants of three historic Tribes who inhabited southern Louisiana and the southeastern part of what is now the United States. The Tribe was originally located on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, an area in southern Terrebonne Parish that has lost most of its land mass. Now only approximately 18 of 700 total tribal citizens live on the island, while others form a diaspora in nearby communities. Before 2021’s Hurricane Ida, approximately 80 tribal citizens lived on the Island. The Jean Charles Choctaw Nation is a state-recognized Tribe and has been seeking federal recognition since the 1990s. Since 2002, the Tribe has been actively working to implement Tribal-led resettlement to bring both island residents and the diaspora together in one place to ensure their safety and cultural survival.
The Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe (PACIT) has inhabited their traditional territory in the southernmost end of Louisiana along and around Bayou Pointe-au-Chien for generations. Several villages where Pointe-au-Chien members historically lived are no longer inhabitable due to land loss and saltwater intrusion. As a consequence, many tribal citizens have been forced to relocate to family properties further north in the current Pointe-au-Chien village, nearby communities, or beyond. PACIT is a state-recognized tribe and has been seeking federal recognition since the 1990s. Today, Pointe-au-Chien Indians continue to maintain a subsistence and agrarian livelihood – fishing and catching oysters, shrimp, and crabs and growing vegetables. Saltwater intrusion has limited the ability of tribal members to engage in large-scale agricultural practices and has made the land unusable for herding and trapping.
The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band is a Tribe of 1,098 citizens who have historically lived in and around the ancestral village of Grand Caillou/Dulac in southern Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band, as part of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees, was recognized by the state of Louisiana in 2004 and has been working to gain federal recognition since the 1990s. Like other tribal communities in southern Louisiana, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band has traditionally sustained itself through trapping, fishing, and farming in lands and waters that were historically fertile. But the diversion of the Mississippi River and other development projects, oil and gas extraction, erosion, salt-water intrusion, and the climate crisis has threatened these practices. Land loss and increasingly severe storms now put the community at frequent risk of disaster and flooding.
Grand Bayou Village, home of the Atakapa-Ishak Chawasha Tribe, is located in the southernmost part of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, south of New Orleans, and is accessible only by boat. The Atakapa-Ishak Chawasha does not have formal state or federal recognition as an Indian Tribe. In the last century, the Mississippi River levee systems, sea level rise, and destruction of wetlands caused by oil and gas exploration have caused the lands around the village to erode and subside. Saltwater intrusion has killed local forests and medicinal plants and made it impossible to carry out traditional gardening. Major storms, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, flooded the community and destroyed homes, causing many families to move elsewhere. Today, only 14 families live full-time in Grand Bayou – in homes built on 16-foot pilings. The community is routinely at risk from coastal land loss, flooding, and storms.
The Native Village of Kivalina in Alaska is a federally recognized Tribe and includes approximately 400 Inupiaq people. The community is located on a barrier reef island between the Chukchi Sea and the mouths of the Wulik and Kivalina Rivers. No roads lead to or from the community, which is only accessible by small planes or boats. Kivalina is approximately 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 1,000 miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska. Inupiaq communities have resided in this region for thousands of years. Historically, the island where Kivalina sits had been used by Inupiaq people for seasonal hunting and fishing, not permanent habitation. But the government forced the Tribe to permanently settle on the Island in the early 1900s. Reports of residents wishing to move because of the risks of erosion date back as early as 1910. To this day, the community has not been able to relocate.
The Tribes are supported by the Lowlander Center, EarthRights, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Alaska Institute for Justice, and the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Conner School of Law.
Kate Fried, EarthRights International
Mike Givens, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee