How climate change is affecting mental health in some of the Caribbean's Indigenous communities

Kasike Kalaan Nibonrix Kaiman (Chief Robert Pairman, left) and Kasikeíani KaikoTekina (Chieftainess Ronalda Pairman, R) of the Yameye Guani Taino Peoples (Jamaica Hummingbird Taino Peoples. Photo courtesy Chieftainess Pairman, used with permission. Background image via Canva Pro.

By Stefanie Lauchman, Candice Stewart, and Samuel Sukhnandan

This story was published with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.

According to the Commonwealth Fund, climate events that trigger destruction, loss, and displacement of people “can sometimes lead to an array of mental health problems, from anxiety and feelings of helplessness to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts.” These concerns and more are of great importance to Indigenous communities in Suriname, Jamaica, and Guyana.

“I am at a point where I don’t know what to do anymore,” says J.A. a Surinamese Indigenous woman who wished to remain anonymous.” First, it rains continuously and all our crops are flooded. Now, the weather is extremely dry and the ground has become infertile and yet again, our crops cannot be harvested. Then, on the other hand, the temperatures are so high that even the water in the river has dried up, something that we are not used to. I’m just tired.”

Despite her mental health struggles, the 35-year-old mother of four has built up the courage to share her story. Living with her partner and children in the village, her family's livelihood depends on traditional practices such as fishing, hunting and agriculture. This way of living, where ancestral knowledge plays a key role, is being severely tarnished by climate change. Traditional knowledge of when crops can be planted in order to guarantee a successful harvest is becoming less and less accurate because of changing climate and weather patterns. As a result, fewer crops are harvested, food security is not guaranteed, and high temperatures are causing even more distress.

Mental health issues around the climate crisis are often overlooked, even though research has indicated that the repercussions of global warming are associated with high levels of stress and poor mental health. Like other villagers, J.A. has had a rough time adapting. Multiple failed harvests and food shortages have made it difficult to provide for her family: “The situation is unbearable,” she says in a weak voice. “The stress has even begun to affect the relationship with my husband.”

The negative impacts of climate change events on mental health, especially when it comes to the relationship Indigenous communities share with the land, rings true for Kasikeíani KaikoTekina (Chieftainess Ronalda Pairman) of the Yameye Guani Taino Peoples (Jamaica Hummingbird Taino Peoples). “The essence of who we are is tied into the land,” she explains. “This includes our food, cultural and ceremonial practices. So, when a disconnection takes place due to displacement primarily caused by climate change events, our way of life, in every aspect, is impacted.”

With climate change events, therefore, everything Jamaican Tainos are used to has changed — for many reasons. “Climate change events such as hurricanes — Gilbert (1988) and Ivan (2004) — caused such irreparable damage where people lost their homes, family, and their all-round way of life,” she continues. “That triggered a disconnection through displacement and loss of our homes, our land, and our ways of doing things. Having to relocate and start over is traumatic. Not just for us as Taino people, but for anybody.”

Coastal erosion has also impacted the community, making Hellshire beach in Portmore, St. Catherine, a shadow of its former self. “We do a lot of fishing,” she explains, “but with the rising sea levels, that activity is severely impacted. As Indigenous people, many of us used to live along the coast, but not anymore. The sea has claimed the land.”

This kind of trauma, the Chieftainess adds, “essentially forces all impacted people, especially the Indigenous, to leave behind their life as they know it. It was a life in which they connected with their ancestors.” Understandably, the mental strain of having to move and build a new connection to a new space can be debilitating and contribute to “generational disconnection.”

Additional stress is often triggered by the need to adjust some of their ceremonial practices in the new spaces that they occupy — and climate change events can make it more difficult to hold on to their ancestral traditions. “When we are with our people,” she explains, “our ceremonial practices are considered normal because it’s within our space. When we are displaced, persons who are unfamiliar with our culture deem it as evil and obeah, which is frowned upon in the country. So, the first time somebody sees us dancing around what appears to them to be a stone, and singing our songs, they automatically categorise us as obeah workers. That’s far from the truth.”

According to a 2022 report, a colonial-era law criminalising Obeah and Myalism remains in effect in Jamaica. Even though the law is not typically enforced, punishments for breaking it include year-long imprisonment.

The Chieftainess recounted an incident where her neighbour did not respond well to the sound of her family’s guamo (conch shell). “Where I live, we put out a spirit plate whenever we have a meal. Whatever we eat, we share it with our ancestors. So, we have a little plate that we put our food on, and we give thanks. In the mornings, we’ll greet the sun, and we’ll give the plate to the biggest tree that we see. In that same practice, we will blow our guamo in four directions. That is where we run the risk of being incorrectly judged. We’ve had to adapt by doing it when we have a full moon and a new moon to reduce the chances of being seen and labelled,” she said.

When it comes to planting, she has also resorted to truncating the practice of giving to the plants before taking from them. Now, she sings and masks her words so that others won’t realise. “Being placed in such a situation is uncomfortable and takes us away from our real roots. We’ve had to really adapt because we are a dispersed community. Climate change events have played a major part in that.” Despite the challenges, Kasikeíani KaikoTekina is steadfast in highlighting that her community needs to be both acknowledged and properly respected as an Indigenous group.”

“It all ties back to Indigenous peoples’ rights,” she continues. “If we were properly acknowledged with policies [and] paired with proper education and sensitisation of our countrymen, the mental strain of climate change events wouldn’t be so great.” She believes that to be properly acknowledged includes the prioritisaton of tailored assistance for the displacement and protection of ceremonial practices: “Jamaica signed on to the ILO 169 (the 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention), but they are among the list of countries that have not ratified it. If they don’t ratify, it means that we don’t have rights as Indigenous people, and therefore cannot seek climate justice or any other justice for ourselves.”

The ILO 169 is the major binding international convention concerning Indigenous and tribal peoples and a forerunner of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Climate justice in the face of climate-induced mental health concerns for indigenous peoples is rooted in that convention.

Despite the inescapable trauma, KaikoTekina's community finds solace and healing in activities like their New Year and other seasonal celebrations, and in hosting and actively taking part in events that sensitise the general public through the First People’s story. “In the events that we host,” she explains, “we involve the schools as well as the public and private sector. One of our events, held annually in March, is about the protection of our rivers. This year, we spoke about climate change and giving back to Atabey (Mother Earth). That was crucial for us because of the relationship we share with the land. Instead of keeping the knowledge within our communities, we [teach] the public about how we give back [and] hold on to our traditions without persecution.”

Guyana, meanwhile, is home to 68,000 Indigenous (Amerindian) people, who are among those experiencing the diverse mental health impacts of climate change. The Amerindian Peoples’ Association (APA) of Guyana has said Indigenous leaders are grappling to find ways to sustain communities in the face of this phenomenon.

Faye Stewart, APA's policy officer, said the community's mental health challenges are a direct result of the many obstacles climate change sends their way. “The recent drought has led to spontaneous combustion and, in some cases, deliberate fires set to farmlands where crops have been destroyed. The land remains parched and the disruption of ecosystems [has] led to wild hog invasions in many communities that rely on farming.”

The APA has also received reports of fish migration because of low waterways, which severely threatens food security in those areas. Waterways have also been reported to be polluted, compromising daily consumption.

In 2021, over 36,000 households from 300 communities were adversely affected by torrential rainfall. A year later, they were still struggling to recover. Stewart said climate change may also account for the increase in malaria and dengue fever — both mosquito-borne diseases endemic to the hinterlands during the rainy season — though the APA does not possess substantive evidence to support this.

Guyanese Indigenous activist Michael McGarrell agrees that globally, Indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable to adverse mental health impacts resulting from climate change, especially as there is evidence that climatic changes are impacting Indigenous peoples’ access to an adequate quantity and quality of food. “Right now,” he says, “the drought is having a huge impact on Guyana’s First People, and in the past, floods have devastated villages, affecting their supply of food [since] most of them are engaged in subsistence farming. It is affecting their mental health and overall well-being, as well as their knowledge, spirituality, culture, and socio-economic circumstances.”

Indigenous peoples continue to call for climate action that secures the full range of their inherent rights, as affirmed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. It remains to be seen how this will be addressed at COP28.

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