The Indigenous Population in Mexico Contributes the Least to Greenhouse Gas Emissions but They Are the Most Affected by Climate Change

In Mexico, the census of indigenous people is carried out through surveys in which each person, according to their criteria, identifies themselves or not as indigenous. In 2022, there were 23.2 million indigenous people in Mexico, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). This population belongs to 68 groups (contrary to what happens in other Latin American countries, where there is usually only one majority group) although only approximately 45 % speak an indigenous language. In addition, 2 % of the population consider themselves Afro-descendant.

The Tarahumaras (Chihuahua, Sonora and Durango) and Huichols (Sierra Madre of Jalisco) are present in the north of Mexico. In the center of the country, we find the Mazahuas (especially in Michoacán and the State of Mexico), Otomíes, Purépechas, and Nahuatl speakers (who constitute the largest population, 22.4 %). In the south, there are Tlapanecos, Mixtecos, Mixes and Zapotecs (mainly from Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas) and the Mayas in Yucatan. The states with the largest number of indigenous inhabitants are Oaxaca (14.4 %), Chiapas (14.2 %), Veracruz (9.2 %), the State of Mexico (both native-born and arrived through migration) (9.1 %), Puebla (9.1 %), Yucatan (8.8 %), Guerrero (5.7 %) and Hidalgo (5 %).

Discrimination towards indigenous people is high, especially towards women. In the first place, it is noteworthy that, although almost all indigenous children finish primary education, the percentage of indigenous people with middle-higher and higher education is very low (less than 33% on average). Only 60.5 % of the adult indigenous population is economically active, primarily men. More than 75 % of indigenous women do not participate in paid economic activities. The indigenous unemployment rate is 35 %, equaling more than 6 million people. There is also a great labor informality in this community. Poverty is greater in rural areas, with less social security coverage, which is why there is a lot of migration to the cities. The sectors where most indigenous people work are agriculture (30 %), commerce, transport, hospitality, manufacturing and construction.

Indigenous people and climate change

Indigenous peoples, based on the worldviews of each ethnic group, keep a special relationship with nature. They mostly maintain ways of life based on the exploitation and care of natural resources; they live in fragile ecosystems with great biodiversities, such as tropical and subtropical regions, or mountains; and practice an environmentally sustainable economy. Therefore, the indigenous worldview is based (since long before this term became fashionable) on sustainable development, with a biocentric vision whereby the use of ecosystem resources should not exceed their recovery capacity.

For this reason, indigenous peoples are the most important agents of biodiversity conservation. The rural way of life of the majority of the indigenous population means that they are the ones that contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions but are among the most affected by climate change. This causes many of them to migrate to urban areas and to lose their way of life and ancestral knowledge, such as the active preservation of plants collected by them, as many varieties of domesticated crops.

Some indigenous people consider that they are not being included enough in the conversations and actions against climate change and that the most important thing to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity is to preserve the integrity of their territories. According to the International Labor Organization, indigenous people are victims of climate change, especially due to deforestation, loss of their habitat, and changes in land use towards monocultures. The consequences are less able to predict when to plant and harvest, how to predict animal migration for hunting, greater droughts and floods that affect their crops, with the consequent deprivation of their livelihoods, which has forced them to migrate to cities (approximately 50% of the indigenous population is urban) and to change their way of life, and become climate refugees.

However, they are also great climate change agents. The efforts they have made are based on transforming their territories so that they are more resilient to changes, and in environmental education to try to make the rest of the population aware of the need to maintain a harmonious and balanced relationship with the land. The idea that the land is privately owned or an economic resource does not enter their worldview.

The current government has acted in favor of the rights of indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples, with the creation of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples of Mexico (INPI), and this results in the conservation of their territories. The Special Program for Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Peoples 2021-2024 includes as a priority objective “to promote actions for the development of capacities that allow strengthening and adaptation of indigenous people to adverse effects related to climate change, with the help of sustainable economic projects with a gender perspective”, as well as others aims related to sustainable development and maintenance of traditional crops.

However, the Government has also carried out actions contrary to these intentions, such as the construction of the Mayan Train, which is being carried out without the participation of the indigenous populations that will be affected by this mega-construction. Indigenous efforts would be more effective if their projects were a priority, and the problem is that different areas of government promote conflicting projects on climate change.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Mexico Country Manager Pablo David Necoechea Porras


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