For Effective Climate Change Action, Indigenous Voices Must Be Heard

Around this time every year, dozens of indigenous leaders leave their often-remote homelands  around the globe and travel — sometimes thousands of miles — in order to attend an important meeting.

women in Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area, Guyana

A Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) team member meets with local women from the Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area in southern Guyana in 2006. CI has worked in partnership with, trained and learned from indigenous peoples for more than 25 years. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

This meeting is the U.N. climate change negotiations, a global meeting where governments, NGOs, indigenous peoples and local communities discuss issues related to climate change and make decisions that will impact how the global community responds to climate change-related threats.

Decisions made — or not made — in this forum are already having huge impacts on indigenous communities. However, the bigger the role they have in the process, the better off we all may be.

In these negotiations — the latest round of which are currently underway in Lima, Peru — it is indigenous peoples and local communities who often have the least voice in final decisions and yet are often the most heavily impacted by climate change. This is doubly unsettling because in many countries, indigenous peoples are the ones who disproportionately maintain, manage and secure the forests that can help lessen the impacts of climate change and protect the biodiversity that can help adapt to it.

At CI, we are working to ensure that indigenous peoples’ rights are respected, and that they themselves are the driver behind the decisions that impact their lives, livelihoods and lands.

Our work with all communities is founded upon CI’s rights-based approach to conservation, and our work with indigenous peoples in particular is based upon the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). When respected, FPIC ensures that companies, governments and NGOs engage with indigenous peoples in a fully participatory manner; that their rights, needs and desires are being met; and that they have the right to say yes or no to projects that will impact them.

CI is supporting FPIC in a number of ways, including:

1.     Aiding Research

The Indigenous Leaders Conservation Fellowship is creating opportunities for indigenous peoples to find solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss through traditional knowledge while at the same time providing a platform for these solutions to be heard at the international level.

Two of CI’s previous fellows, Hindu Oumarou Ibrahim and Zenon Gomel Apaza, are currently in Lima at the U.N. meeting. Both work with their communities to use traditional knowledge to adapt to climate change impacts, specifically related to changing water patterns and drought. Having a place to share these valuable contributions with government decision-makers is vital to ensuring that indigenous perspectives are incorporated into international decisions.

2.     Directly Supporting Communities

In Bolivia, CI is working with indigenous peoples and other local communities in the picturesque Salar de Uyuni region to ensure that the principles of FPIC are followed and that the communities’ rights are respected by a local mining company. When extractive industries leave a region, communities are often left without jobs that they had depended on. This project is ensuring that the traditional livelihoods communities depend upon and want to continue, such as quinoa farming and the sale of vicuña fiber, are not only maintained, but enhanced for increased profitability. Additionally, new economic benefits such as ecotourism are being developed.

3.     Sharing Information

Every year before the U.N. climate negotiations, CI organizes and/or participates in a meeting with indigenous representatives to prepare them to fully engage in the discussions. CI staff provide up-to-date information on the opinions of different countries and overviews of complex negotiation topics.

These prep meetings are essential for indigenous peoples to fully participate in the negotiations, because information and a comprehensive understanding of what is being discussed is essential to full participation.

Additionally, indigenous participation ensures that the decisions being made at the international level are not made in a vacuum — governments hear what they have to say and incorporate their needs and desires into final decisions. Once negotiations are completed, indigenous representatives also bring this information back to their communities.

CI has worked in partnership with, trained and learned from indigenous peoples for more than 25 years. Respecting their rights, including the right to FPIC, is fundamental to CI’s work and positive conservation outcomes. With their depth of knowledge and experience, indigenous peoples have a great deal to contribute to a global plan of action to fight climate change. If they are willing to share their knowledge with the rest of the world, we should be willing to listen.

Adrienne McKeehan is the advisor on rights and conservation in CI’s Policy Center for Environment and Peace. This blog is the second in our series on CI’s rights-based approach to conservation; read the first post. For more information about the history of indigenous peoples’ rights, see the recent blog written by CI board member and U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.

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