December 6, 2005

Arctic peoples urge UN aid to protect cultures

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

MONTREAL (Reuters) - Arctic indigenous peoples said an accelerating thaw could spell disaster for their hunting cultures, and urged an international conference on Tuesday to help protect them from global warming.

"Climate change threatens to deprive us of our rights, of our rights to sustain ourselves as we have done for thousands of years," Chief Gary Harrison, international chair of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, said on behalf of indigenous groups.

"We need help now, to adapt our traditional economies and occupations to the new realities," he said in a statement to 189-nation talks in Montreal considering ways to step up a fight against a creeping rise in world temperatures.

A 2004 report by 250 experts said the Arctic region was warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, threatening to melt the sea ice in summer by 2100. It mainly blamed a build-up of heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels.

"Arctic indigenous peoples are threatened with the extinction or catastrophic decline of entire bird, fish and wildlife populations, including species of caribou, seals, and fish critical to our food security," Harrison said.

More than 30 indigenous groups comprised of about 4 million people live in the Arctic region, which includes parts of the Nordic states, Russia, Canada and Alaska.

"Changes in habitat, the loss of reindeer pasture, and migration routes for fish, wildlife, and migratory birds are the inevitable consequences of the disappearance of Arctic ice and the warming of the Arctic region," Harrison said.

Scientists say that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet because dark ground and seas, once exposed, soak up heat far more quickly than reflective snow and ice.

The statement said the threshold for "dangerous" climate change had already been passed in the Arctic. The U.N. 1992 climate convention binds countries to avoid dangerous human interference in the climate system.

The Arctic peoples asked to be considered for access to U.N. programs and funding to help mitigate the impact of climate change.

But the statement stopped short of previous calls for an amendment of the U.N. climate convention to mention the Arctic as an especially vulnerable area -- alongside deserts, small island states and mountainous regions of developing states.

Canadian official say that amending a U.N. convention would be extremely complex and take years.