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Excerpted From: Adam Crepelle, The United States First Climate Relocation: Recognition, Relocation, and Indigenous Rights at the Isle De Jean Charles , 6 Belmont Law Review 1 (2018) (291 Footnotes) (Full Document)

In 2009, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's predicted that up to 200 million people would be forced to relocate due to climatic events by 2050. More recent estimates put the number of climate displaced persons at over a billion by the middle of the century. Even this number may be low as over 20 million people have been displaced by climatic events each year since 2008. The United States will not be spared from this issue either as approximately 40% of the United States population resides in coastal areas. Sea-level rise is expected to inundate between 272 and 427 United States communities by the year 2060. Despite the presence and magnitude of climate displacement, there are no international laws governing people who are forced to relocate due to climatic events. The United States does not have a plan to address climate relocation either.

However, the United States awarded a $48 million grant to relocate the indigenous inhabitants of the Isle de Jean Charles in 2016. The Isle de Jean Charles is an extreme example of the ravages of coastal erosion and rising sea levels. The Isle de Jean Charles had a land mass of over 22,000 acres in 1955, but today it is a mere 320 acre strip. The Island once had a population of 750 people, but erosion and climatic events have driven all but roughly 100 away. The remaining residents of the Island have been named “the United States first climate refugees.” Although the relocation of the Isle de Jean Charles community is supposed to serve as “a model for future climate change resettlements across the country,” the relocation has gotten off to a rocky start.

While this article focuses almost exclusively on the Isle de Jean Charles relocation, it hopes to be useful to other climate induced relocations. Section I begins with a discussion of the two major factors contributing to the disappearance of Louisiana's coast, the blocking of the Mississippi River and the oil industry.

In Section II, the article provides an overview of federal recognition, a short history of Louisiana's coastal tribes, and how being denied federal recognition has impacted them.

Section III compares federal Indian law with the rights of indigenous peoples under international law, along with a discussion of the numerous international indigenous human rights violations Louisiana's coastal tribes have suffered.

Then in Section IV, the article discusses the initial confusion surrounding the relocation grant.

Section V then provides a summary of Phase I of the relocation project.

Finally, Section VI explores unanswered questions relating to the grant.

[. . .]

Sadly, the Isle de Jean Charles will ultimately be lost to the sea because the United States and the oil industry have failed to respect the rights of the Island's indigenous inhabitants. Disregard for the rights of indigenous peoples has been a common theme around the globe, particularly in the extractive industry. Hopefully, the international community's recent interest in indigenous rights, as reflected in the UNDRIP, will prevent tragedies like the one affecting indigenous inhabitants of the Isle de Jean Charles from happening again.

As the Isle de Jean Charles relocation moves forwards, the process must be illuminated by the principles from the UNDRIP. This will help ensure that the rights of the Islanders are not trampled as the relocation process progresses. The state and federal officials involved in the relocation must seek the Islanders free, prior and informed consent throughout the process. Louisiana has begun to take steps to include the Islanders in the relocation's planning and must continue to do so. Furthermore, the Islanders' should have firmly secured rights to the land at the relocation site, and they should maintain their right to access land on the Isle de Jean Charles.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States must extend federal recognition to the Islanders. This is the only way the United States can comport with the UNDRIP's principle of indigenous self-determination. Although self-determination is the United States official policy towards Indian tribes, the Islanders cannot meaningfully exercise this right because they lack federal recognition. The denial of their federal recognition is absurd because the federal government concedes the tribes' citizens are Indians, acknowledges that they were discriminated against because of their Indian blood, and admits it has a treaty with the UHN. Quite simply, the broken federal recognition process has resulted in the Islanders being denied their rights as indigenous peoples.

The splintering of the UHN, resulting in the formation of the BCC, makes achieving federal recognition trickier. The division makes it more difficult for the UHN to demonstrate political unity, and the recent birth of the BCC combined with the BCC's lengthy identification as “Houma” spell trouble for the BCC in the administrative recognition process. Nevertheless, Congress can intervene and extend recognition to the Islanders. The unique situation facing the Islanders combined with the strong evidence that the BIA erred in denying the UHN federal recognition suggest legislation is the best option to resolve the Islanders recognition struggle. Injustices will continue to besiege the Islanders until they receive federal recognition.


Visiting Assistant Professor at Southern University Law Center.