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Indigenous language loss, thawing ice, protected area risks: 3 stories you may have missed

© Cristina Mittermeier

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Losing elders to COVID-19 endangers Indigenous languages 

The pandemic is killing Indigenous elders in Brazil — and their traditional knowledge may die with them. 

The story: As Indigenous elders in Brazil fall victim to COVID-19, their communities fear that Indigenous languages will be lost forever, reported Jill Langlois for National Geographic. Reports show that the coronavirus has spread through Indigenous communities in Brazil at an alarming rate, infecting more than 39,000 people and disproportionately affecting older populations. To prevent further spread, many Indigenous groups have been forced to enact their own quarantines and cancel cultural events that elders typically use to teach and preserve Indigenous languages. 

The big picture: “The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated many Indigenous groups in the Amazon, especially in Brazil,” Conservation International’s Johnson Cerda, an Indigenous Kichwa of the Ecuadorian Amazon, told Conservation News in a recent interview. “Not only are many people dying from the virus, coronavirus-related restrictions have impacted local economies, cultural practices and food security.” According to Cerda, the most effective way to help Indigenous peoples weather crises such as COVID-19 — and preserve their cultures — is to grant them formal rights to their lands: “Rather than trying to take over lands or make all of the decisions of how to protect a certain area, governments and environmental organizations must instead work with Indigenous peoples to ensure that everyone’s interests are taken into account.” 

Read more here

In the Northern Hemisphere, melting ice is increasing the risks associated with winter traditions. 

The story: According to new research, rapidly warming temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are thawing ice in the winter, leading to a sharp increase in drownings, reported Veronica Penney for The New York Times. As a result of climate change, higher temperatures in the winter are weakening the structural integrity of ice, increasing the risks associated with winter activities such as skating, ice fishing and playing hockey. To determine the extent of those risks, a group of researchers analyzed the frequency of drownings in 10 countries across the Northern Hemisphere over the past 26 years. They discovered that as temperatures have increased, so have cases of drowning.    

The big picture: “I think there’s a disconnect between climate change and the local, everyday impacts,” Sapna Sharma, the lead author of the study, told The New York Times. “If you think about climate change in winter, you’re thinking about polar bears and ice sheets, but not about these activities that are just ingrained in our culture.” To adapt to warming winters, experts agree that people must test the strength of the ice before bearing any weight on it, and develop drowning prevention plans when they are taking part in ice-related activities. 

Read more here

One of conservation’s most effective tools to protect nature could be at risk due to climate change. 

The story: A recent study found that protected areas in the subtropics and polar regions could be disproportionately affected by climate change, reported Richard Sima for Eos. The study’s authors compiled high-resolution data from 10 different climate models and applied it to 137,735 protected areas around the world, determining the impact of climate change on the temperature, rainfall, species and topography within each protected area. They discovered that protected areas in the subtropics are likely to face the steepest rise in temperatures as climate change accelerates, while protected areas in polar regions are likely to have the greatest changes in precipitation. 

The big picture: “We need to be expanding our conservational state, and this gives us the opportunity to plan [protected areas] for climate change,” Lee Hannah, a climate change biologist at Conservation International, told Eos. “We need to do that to make sure they’re effective in the future as well as right now.” In 2019, a landmark UN report revealed that nearly 1 million species face extinction due to human activities and climate change. However, a recent study led by Hannah that investigated how species move in response to climate change found that conserving just 30 percent of tropical lands could cut the global extinction risk in half.

Read more here.


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: A Kayapo man standing on a mountain top, Brazil (© Cristina Mittermeier)

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