When world leaders announced a historic climate deal in Paris after years of negotiations, many participants and observers touted it as a triumph marking the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era.
But the agreement has come under withering criticism from various quarters, including indigenous representatives who attended the Paris meeting (known as COP 21) in large numbers to bring attention to issues of sovereignty and land rights, among other issues.
“Indigenous peoples are important stakeholders at COP 21 because they are at the forefront of climate change,” said Kristen Walker Painemilla, senior vice president of Conservation International’s (CI) Policy Center for Environment and Peace.
A recent study estimates that up to 65% of the world’s land is owned, managed or occupied by the approximately 370 million people who identify as indigenous. Given that many of these people are directly dependent on forests, coral reefs and other ecosystems for survival, they have been among the first and hardest hit by its impacts.
From melting sea ice affecting the Inuit hunting season in Canada to severe droughts reducing pastureland for Maasai cattle in East Africa, climate change is already endangering indigenous cultural practices, livelihoods and lives. “These communities are seeing changes every day regarding their access to water, their ability to produce crops and manage their lands,” Walker Painemilla said.
In addition, the tropical forests currently owned and managed by indigenous peoples have great potential to help mitigate climate change through REDD+ — short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation — and similar initiatives that pay communities to keep their forests standing.
Important text cut from final agreement
While most countries supported including specific mentions of indigenous peoples in the Paris Agreement’s final text — with especially strong support coming from countries including Canada, the Philippines and Mexico — there was considerable disagreement about where in the text the phrase “indigenous rights” should appear.
“Some countries were concerned that if ‘indigenous rights’ were referenced in the binding agreement, it would constitute a legal liability,” said Johnson Cerda, an indigenous Kichwa from the Ecuadorian Amazon who leads CI’s work with the Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, a global initiative of which CI is the executing agency. “In the final agreement, the phrase only appeared in the preamble, which is aspirational and doesn’t hold parties accountable for any particular commitments.”
Early versions of the agreement also included language supporting land tenure of indigenous peoples, but the mention was removed from the final version. “This omission makes it less certain that they will be adequately considered as negotiators work out the details of the agreement in the coming years,” Cerda said.
Many indigenous leaders and activists expressed frustration at what they viewed as inadequate recognition of the threats that climate change poses to indigenous communities as well as the communities’ potential to help the world fight and adapt to its impacts. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a former member of CI’s board of directors, said in a statement: “Failure to protect indigenous peoples’ rights in a final agreement will fuel destruction of the forests and other ecosystems managed since time immemorial by indigenous peoples.”
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But there were signs of progress too. Compared with previous U.N. climate meetings, indigenous peoples were more visible than ever in Paris, from protesting by kayak in the Seine River to hosting events within the negotiation venues.
One of these people is Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a Chadian woman who was a CI Indigenous Fellow in 2011 and was recently listed as one of Vogue’s 13 “climate warriors.” As co-chairperson of the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change, the official body representing indigenous peoples within the U.N. climate talks, Ibrahim was vocal about the potential role that indigenous peoples could play in preventing deforestation and land degradation.
But one of the most pressing needs is funding. The Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (DGM) is providing US$ 80 million to help indigenous peoples and local communities in 14 countries protect their forests. At COP 21, Cerda worked with DGM members to hold events and raise their profile within the negotiations.
“Since the Paris Agreement declined to commit to specific funding to help indigenous peoples combat climate change, the DGM is currently one of the only instruments through which they can receive financial support to improve the management of their territories and address climate change,” Walker Painemilla said.
Indigenous people’s knowledge could help not only themselves but others fight and adapt to its impacts locally, Cerda explained.
“Indigenous cultures have evolved over many centuries of interaction with the Earth, which has fostered a heightened awareness of its rhythms and offerings,” he said. “A failure by the global community to properly acknowledge this wealth of knowledge and the insight it could provide in adapting to climate change would be a real lost opportunity for all of us.”
Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.