by Virginia Raffaeli
Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of the climate crisis. Not only are Indigenous communities among those most impacted by climate change since, for instance, many of them live in low-lying coastal areas, but they also represent a large number of victims amongst environmental human rights defenders [1, 2].
Despite the fact that knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples are crucial for natural resource management, these systems have long been ignored in international fora for climate change adaptation and mitigation [3, 4]. The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) thus presented the opportunity to address: the lack of inclusion of Indigenous communities in climate discourse; their specific needs in terms of adaptation and mitigation programmes, and the role of knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples.
Lack of Inclusion at COP26
As mentioned in ClimaTalk’s article on gender at COP26, COP and other international climate processes lack inclusivity. Although there are circa 350 million indigenous peoples across the world, indigenous communities are systematically disregarded when discussing climate change at the international level, as demonstrated by the fact that as of 2017 only 8.5% of admitted observer NGOs have been from Latin America and the Caribbean, 9.3% from African states and 14.4% from Asian states [5, 6]. COP26 was no exception.
Prior to COP26 the President Alok Sharma stated that it would be “the most inclusive COP ever” . However, it became evident that this would not be the case before the negotiations even commenced. About two-thirds of civil society organisations that usually attend COP could not reach Glasgow due to a combination of visa and accreditation issues, as well as vaccine and changing travel requirements linked to COVID-19 . Representatives of Indigenous communities and the Global South were the most impacted by these initial challenges, compounded by the fact that a large number of delegates were denied entry to negotiation rooms [8, 9].
The lack of inclusion at COP26 became so apparent that on 4th November 2021 David Boyd (UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment) and Marcos Orellana (UN Special Rapporteur on Hazardous Substances and Human Rights) signed a letter to Alok Sharma and Patricia Espinosa (Executive Director of the UNFCCC) denouncing severe participation issues at COP26, particularly in the case of Indigenous peoples, and calling for immediate steps to be taken to remedy them . Unfortunately, by then, most of the harm was already done.
Financial Pledges and Land Ownership
Indigenous peoples are increasingly recognised as being the best guardians of forests and biodiversity, with 50% less deforestation taking place in lands under indigenous control than elsewhere; yet they rarely have secure rights to their lands [11, 12]. Although national and regional laws must change to ensure the recognition of indigenous tenure and land rights, an important step was taken on 2nd November 2021 at COP26, through the adoption of the COP26 Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC) Forest Tenure Joint Donor Statement .
In the IPLC, states (including the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and the US, and private entities such as the Bezos Earth Fund) made an initial, collective pledge of $1.7 billion of financing, from 2021 to 2025. The commitment is aimed at supporting Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ forest tenure rights, as well as promoting greater recognition for their role as guardians of forests and nature . Specifically, over the next four years, the money will support IPLC’s capacity to govern themselves collectively, while also contributing to mapping and registration projects, national land ownership reform and the resolution of conflict over territories .
The pledge at COP26 follows an emphasis on Indigenous voices and their self-governance at the International Union for Conservation of Nature Conference in Marseille in September 2021, which for the first time saw the inclusion of Indigenous peoples as full members with their own voting rights, rather than as generic civil society members .
Although the IPLC is an important step for acknowledging the importance of Indigenous peoples in protecting nature and biodiversity, it is uncertain whether the money will actually be managed directly by Indigenous peoples themselves [15, 16]. There is the risk, instead, that the money will be redirected towards more traditional solutions, potentially undermining the effectiveness of the pledge itself . Similarly, as Beverly Longid (Global Coordinator of International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation) warned, the pledge should also not be mistakenly labelled as a “nature-based solution” .
Indigenous Knowledge and Nature Based Solutions
Importantly, the IPLC Forest Tenure Joint Donor Statement mentions both the importance of Indigenous knowledge and nature-based solutions . Although both topics are central to the role played by Indigenous peoples in the fight against the climate crisis, COP26 saw no commitments on these issues .
Indigenous knowledge and nature are intrinsically intertwined, and this cannot be forgotten when discussing so-called “nature-based solutions” (NbS) . These are defined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits” . Although a NbS project would seem to embrace this symbiotic relationship between Indigenous peoples and nature at first glance, it may not do so in practice .
Currently, there are significant discussions as to whether all NbSs respect the rights, land tenure, knowledge, and culture of Indigenous peoples . Recent years have seen numerous instances in which the adoption of NbSs has not only violated the principle of free, prior and informed consent, but which has also led to further dispossessions of Indigenous lands. Such dispossessions has triggered food insecurity, as well as deforestation aimed at enabling the cultivation of monocultures with higher carbon storage; thereby further harming biodiversity [20, 19].
If NbSs are to be utilised effectively, they must respect the unique rights and needs of IPLCs, with a view to giving these groups the tools to become strong actors and not victims in the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, in this regard COP26 really represents a missed opportunity to establish clear rules and principles regarding the use of NbSs and the role of Indigenous peoples.
Despite the fact that both nature and Indigenous peoples were central to many of the COP26 discussions and statements, the Glasgow Climate Pact did not address NbSs at all . Similarly, it only briefly mentioned Indigenous peoples’ rights and knowledge..
Although progress has certainly been made over the last few decades, issues of concern for Indigenous peoples are still being disregarded, and Indigenous voices are still being marginalised, not only at COP but also in the media . For this reason, Indigenous communities are increasingly taking the matter into their own hands. During COP26, for instance, they were responsible for some of the most significant of the Glasgow climate marches .
Featured Image Courtesy of the UNFCCC Flickr Page
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