Indigenous People Ignored At COP21

Mis-represented and mis-recognized, they are forced to fight their fight alone

After the hoopla has subsided over the Paris Climate Conference or COP21 just two months ago in December 2015 and in the middle of the strictest security measures due to the horrible terrorist attacks in the city, the news on how climate change is affecting all life in the planet continues to point to the urgency of concrete measures by the more than 190 countries officially present at the event as well as the international organizations, civil society organizations and the private sector.

One of the most important outcomes of the conference is the agreed legal instrument known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that will only come into force and be legally binding for all countries once 55 countries ratify it and they will be able to do this as of April 2016 when the authentic text of the convention is translated and copies sent out to all countries in the official UN languages. The main instruments that will implement the agreed points of the convention at the national level are the national climate action plans that should include clear commitments turned into legislation, measures and policies with the corresponding budgets that will actually reduce the vulnerability of human life and all other life forms on our planet.

However, Indigenous Peoples—who own, occupy or manage up to 65 percent of the Earth’s land surface—have been largely excluded from being acknowledged as the rightful owners according to new research. This means that the UNFCCC will not advance one of the most persistent human rights violation with respect to land and resources originally owned and managed by indigenous peoples. The recent challenge in the US regarding alleged rights of cattle ranchers on Federal Land is a case in point as the indigenous groups of that area had claims on the land as sacred for a much longer period and with a signed agreement with the US government.

It is not a coincidence that the UNFCCC explicitly mentions the rights of indigenous peoples in several articles of the Convention and that under the Non-Party Stakeholders section (only States can be party to the convention) it recognizes “the need to strengthen knowledge, technologies, practices and efforts of local communities and indigenous peoples related to addressing and responding to climate change, and establishes a platform for the exchange of experiences and sharing of best practices on mitigation and adaptation in a holistic and integrated manner.”

Unfortunately, there are no news about how this platform will work nor how the knowledge emanating from it will revert on the indigenous communities, in other words how they will be compensated just as with any other knowledge product on the market today, or even further how their knowledge and practices actually reduce carbon emissions and their financial stake in the carbon emissions market.

Furthermore, in the Annex of the Convention it is stated that “Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate.”

Indeed, indigenous lands and resources are, in many instances, the last territories acting as lungs and bio reserves for the planet, and are under constant threat of being exploited in non-sustainable manners by private or public-private enterprise interests, or directly affected by climate change.

The recent news on the situation of Indigenous Peoples in Finland with a new bill on how the forest resources are to be managed and that excluded the Sami Parliament and the local governments of the Sami people show the lack of sensitivity or perhaps other hidden interests now that the polar caps are melting.

According to the UNFCCC the role and rights of indigenous peoples and their knowledge needs to be recognised or acknowledged, but this is a very weak entry point for indigenous communities that more often than not continue to claim or be in constant struggle to protect their original lands.

As the previously referred report by the Rights and Resources Initiative states: “Lack of ownership rights may undermine incentives to invest in long-term improvements such as reforestation and limit the ability of communities to establish and maintain natural resource-based enterprises.”

Furthermore, according to UNESCOFor over 350 million indigenous peoples, climate change impacts are expected to be early and severe due to their location in high risk environments. This includes nomadic pastoralists living along desert margins, horticulturalists and fishers in small and low-lying islands, farmers and pastoralists in high-altitudinal zones and hunters and herders across the Arctic”.

UNDP further states that for those more than 350 million indigenous peoples, living in some 90 countries, poverty is rife (constituting around 15 %of the world’s poor, and one third of the 900 million people living in extreme poverty in rural areas).

UNDP also points out that although indigenous peoples live in some of the world’s most resource rich areas their own forms of conservation and resource management have been historically undervalued. “Too often development projects and programmes undertaken near to and within their lands result in degradations to the environments upon which their physical and cultural survival depends, violate their human rights, and exclude them from equitable benefits.”

The international and binding legislation on the rights of indigenous peoples, including their rights to land and resources obligates State parties to these instruments to consult with the indigenous peoples’ representatives any legislative, policy or measure that might directly or indirectly affect their way of life or their lands. These instruments have been the product of indigenous people’s activism and struggle.

Nevertheless, these consultations are not yet a common practice in many of the 90 countries where indigenous peoples reside. It is also clear that indigenous peoples’ knowledge and actual contribution to ameliorating climate change are not being adequately acknowledged in real terms.

The small window of opportunity that the UNFCCC offers will have to be taken up by the indigenous peoples’ organizations themselves and be played out in spite of the weak wording on rights and amplifying their role as knowledge and cultural reserves for humanity.

Indigenous People Ignored At COP21
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EnvironmentHuman Rights
Elizabeth Villagómez

Elizabeth Villagomez, independent researcher and consultant, has been the Adviser for Economic Empowerment of Women UN Regional Office for the Americas and the Caribbean and was the first economic adviser at the institution in 2001 as part of UNIFEM. She holds a PhD in Economics. Her professional activity has developed in teaching and applied research in economics with a focus on gender issues. She has worked in Eastern and South East Europe, Middle East, Central Asia, South-east Asia, and the Pacific Islands for various UN agencies and other European and international organizations.
    2 Comments on this post.
  • Vi Vi
    12 February 2016 at 4:33 pm
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    great piece! more awareness need to be raised about this!

  • Elizabeth Villagomez
    19 March 2016 at 12:46 am
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