Overdue Invitation To Engage In International Climate Change Discourse For Indigenous Peoples

Over the last week, members of the United Nations Framework for Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) assembled to discuss the engagement of Indigenous Peoples and their knowledge in the global fight against climate change. The SBSTA’s 51st session, held in Madrid, Spain, from the 2nd to the 9th of December, discussed amongst other topics the implementation of a two-year work plan for the period of 2020-2021 as proposed by the UNFCCC’s Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) Facilitative Working Group (FWG). The FWG was established by the Conference of the Parties (COP) in December 2018 to provide a platform for knowledge sharing and best practice amongst global indigenous and local communities, enhance Indigenous Peoples and their local communities’ capacity for engagement in the UNFCCC process, facilitate the integration of traditional knowledge systems and practices into global climate action, programs and policies, and to uphold Indigenous Peoples’ right to the conservation and protection of land as guaranteed under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The COP is the supreme body of the UNFCC and is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the framework amongst the 197 nations and territories that are currently signatories to the Convention. The approval of the two-year work plan could potentially mean the adoption of Indigenous knowledge and policies by the Conference of the Parties within its environmental legislation, and the consequential enforcement of the policies throughout the convention of which the 197 signatory nations would be held accountable to. Not only would this create a significant opportunity for Indigenous groups to have an impact on global climate change policy and reduction, but it could also mean greater autonomy and recognition of culture and land title for Indigenous groups across the globe.

The FWG is comprised of fourteen representatives: half of which are representatives of international parties, and half of which are representatives from global Indigenous Peoples’ organizations. Indigenous and local representation is split up into seven representative regions, including North America, The Arctic, Central and South American and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, The Pacific, and Eastern Europe, Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia. At the FWG’s first meeting, held in Bonn, Germany, on 14th to 16th June, the fourteen representatives were invited to develop a draft two-year work plan for activities to be undertaken by the LCIPP, which was to be reviewed and finalized at their second meeting, which coincided with SBSTA’s 51st session. The final report of the two-year work plan for the period of 2020-2021 is yet to be released, however the final draft of the work plan published on UNFCCCs website outlined the following key initiatives:

  • Understanding, transmitting and safeguarding traditional indigenous knowledge and systems,
  • Collaboratively strengthening traditional knowledge-based solutions among Indigenous Peoples,
  • Removing policy obstacles that jeopardize traditional practices and ecosystems by incorporating indigenous knowledge into polices at the tribal, intertribal, regional, national, and international level,
  • Strengthening global traditional networks, knowledge sharing and decision-making capacity on the basis of the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC),
  • Engaging women, youth and knowledge holders within Indigenous and local communities in UNFCCC and climate change processes in a way that respects Indigenous knowledge, practices and contributions,
  • Devising a set of guidelines that builds the capacity of, whilst holding all parties accountable to, the adherence of the long-term global goal of the Paris Agreement
  • Including traditional knowledge-based systems in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) developed under the Paris Agreement,
  • Enhancing NDC ambition through the incorporation of indigenous knowledge in national policies, whilst developing indicators for impact assessment of climate change mitigation programmes on indigenous and non-indigenous communities,
  • Recognising the need to strengthen knowledge, technologies, practices and efforts of local and indigenous action against climate change on a local national, regional and international level, and
  • Encouraging local and Indigenous Peoples’ participation in the development of national climate policy

An in-session document from SBSTA 51 published on the United Nations Climate Change website states the SBSTA ‘welcomed the report on the first meeting of the Facilitative Working Group’, and ‘also welcomed the initial two-year work plan for the period 2020-2021 for implementing the functions of the LCIPP’.

The formation of the UNFCCC’s Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform is an important step forward in recognizing past and ongoing disregard of Indigenous Peoples’ warnings of climate change by the international community and national governments. In the lead up to their involvement in the United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) Climate Action Summit held in New York in September, the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) released a statement saying, “The commitments put forward by Indigenous Peoples were developed in response to the call for proposals for climate action from the UN Secretary-General. Indigenous Peoples have been raising concerns regarding the environment, climate and our unique rights for decades, to no avail”.

The IIPFCC was originally established after indigenous groups were excluded from the main events of the 2015 COP21 Climate Summit in Paris, where the Paris Climate Agreement was negotiated. They have been fighting for four years to gain formal recognition of Indigenous Peoples in Article 6 of the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims at promoting integrated holistic and balanced approaches that will assist governments in implementing their NDCs. Reminding key negotiators that Indigenous Peoples’ lives remain particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Ruth Miller, a member of the Dena’ina Athabascan Tribe in Alaska, reiterated specific reference to the rights of Indigenous Peoples must be included in Article 6.

“When we come here today to fight against the exclusion of our people’s recognition, our people’s power, our people’s right to self-governance in Article 6, we are saying that we matter because it is our communities that are leading the fight.”

Indigenous groups have also previously expressed frustration at the omittance of the 2007 UNDRIP from earlier texts of global climate change agreements, as well as Indigenous Peoples’ exclusion from the Millennium Development Goals. Indigenous peoples have, however, since been included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an indigenous woman from the Mbororo pastoralist community in Chad, and UN indigenous representative for Africa applauded this inclusion, however, warned that such inclusion must be maintained in all future climate action if we are to achieve the goals of the SDGs, which include a call to action on climate change in Goal 13.

“As Indigenous peoples, we have all this conflict between communities and the land. All the [SDG] goals are important because it’s going to lead us to a better life. But it cannot be effective if it cannot take into account the need of indigenous peoples. The design that we want to have- so those goals have to respect our needs, our rights, and our participation through all the process to achieve the seventeen goals. Otherwise, we can arrive very soon in 2030, then we can see the result. So, we play a big role to achieve the SDGs, but we need to have our place, and our voice to be here, and our participation, to be in all the process from the beginning.”

According to the UN, Indigenous Peoples account for about five per cent of the world’s population, yet habitat and care for nearly 22 per cent of the Earth’s land, and are estimated to protect 80 per cent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity.

Indigenous Peoples have been living sustainably off the land for millennia, using the knowledge passed down through generations to live symbiotically with the environment around them. They are equipped with unique and comprehensive traditional knowledge systems that continue to showcase expertise in understanding and caring for the environment, recognizing changes in weather patterns and building resilient strategies to deal with such changes. Such skills and knowledge pit them at the forefront of understanding, monitoring, and mitigating climate change impacts. As stated by the IIPFCC in their presentation to the UNSG Climate Action Summit, “The continued degradation of Indigenous Peoples’ lands, territories, resources, and biocultural diversity causes and compounds the impacts of climate change and reduces our adaptive capacity. If efforts continue to support our rights to lands, territories, and resources, we can increase the amount of carbon captured by 100tC/ha to 625 tC/ha, scale-up agroecosystems for sustainable food production, and restore harmony with nature and all life forms. Clearly, Indigenous Peoples are uniquely positioned to lead transformative change in the face of a climate emergency”.

A 2012 microproject in the Solomon Islands in Melanesia funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development Indigenous Peoples’ Assistance Facility, used the recording and revision of the Indigenous Peoples of Guadalcanal’s knowledge to develop early warning systems for natural disasters, thereby enhancing conventional techniques of disaster risk reduction and coping mechanisms for the effects of climate change. Disaster preparedness mechanisms developed by the Guadalcanal included re-vegetation of coastal foreshores with native species to cope with sea-level rise, pre-cyclone and flooding preparation for homes by reinforcing houses with reeds and branches and placing restrictions on land clearing to prevent landslides. Coping strategies implemented by the Guadalcanal included the diversification of crops, including wild species that cope better with drought conditions, to cope with food shortages, and the collection and cooking of matured crops or fruits from trees in underground oven pits to preserve them for times of food scarcity. In Australia, the Arabana people of the Kati Thanda Lake Eyre region launched their own climate adaptation strategy for climate change in 2012. The strategy involved getting back to living on country to keep in touch with the land and notice the effects of climate change, the establishment of ranger land management centres that also provide education for younger generations, tourism initiatives that allow people to learn knowledge of the land, fire burning to manage vegetation, the installation of nurseries to revegetate the land, restocking fauna and native wildlife, and including Indigenous representation and Native Title in future adaptation policy.

While the notions put forward by the LCIPP FWG’s two-year work plan aim to promote further initiatives such as the ones undertook by the Guadalcanal and the Arabana people, potential barriers to its effectiveness exist.

Assuming the two-year work plan is adopted by the Conference of the Parties and incorporated within the Convention of which the 197 signatory nations and territories are bound to; due to the nature of international law, countries’ adoption of the policies within the two-year work plan would not legally be enforceable. The Conference of the Parties have the power to demand a report of progress from nations operating under the framework and make an assessment as to the overall effects of the measures taken pursuant to the Convention, however, action by signatory nations is largely taken on a voluntary basis. While the adoption of the two-year work plan within the Convention would be a great achievement, there is no way of guaranteeing global adherence to Indigenous policies put forward within the work plan. The notion of awarding Indigenous Peoples greater control over state territory and policies reopens the debate of self-determination and land-title for Indigenous groups. These are measures that states have historically been hesitant to concede, and makes the position of the two-year work plan in international law even more precarious as it calls for greater authority on each of these issues.

Furthermore, now that Indigenous knowledge is in demand given the current climate crisis, Indigenous Peoples must not be exploited for their information, and recognition of their historical struggle to arrive at such a place must not be ignored. The international community and world governments must recognize the struggle Indigenous Peoples have faced to not only be heard in discussions surrounding the environment and climate but the cultural and social implications that the ignorance of such voices has had on Indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples have long been calling for the recognition of their culture, self-determination and custodianship over their lands, however, have often come up against the demise of the fossil-fuel-based industrialized global economy. In offering their traditional knowledge systems and practices in the fight against climate change, it must not be viewed as something that can now conveniently be used to serve the rest of the globe, but instead be regarded as something that has been ignored for too long.

The UN and signatory nations must find a way to effectively navigate these issue that allows for the respectful transfer of information, ensures Indigenous contributions will be administered and provides for the self-governance of Indigenous Peoples that has long been sought and ignored.

Katherine Everest