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Tina Casey headshot

Indigenous Peoples Press for a Seat at the Climate Action Table

In the global effort to prevent catastrophic climate change, the rights and roles of Indigenous peoples are finally getting the attention they deserve.
By Tina Casey
Indigenous Peoples

In the global effort to prevent catastrophic climate change, the rights and roles of Indigenous peoples are finally getting the attention they deserve. Corporate leaders on climate action can assist by listening to Indigenous voices and acting to help protect both land rights and human rights.

Indigenous voices needed at the climate action table

The impact of air pollution on urban areas can easily grab media attention, but that is just one, downstream effect of human activity leading to climate change. Far from the media spotlight, fossil energy operations alter landscapes and devastate natural habitats, often with a catastrophic effect on indigenous communities and the land they occupy. Other types of mining operations and disruptive agricultural practices have  similar impacts.

Now that biodiversity and habitat preservation are becoming part of the mainstream thinking on climate change, it seems obvious that supporting Indigenous land stewardship is an effective, and urgently needed, tool in the climate action toolkit. However, that has not always been the case, and much work still remains to be done.

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In 1995, for example, the first in a long series of United Nations climate COPs (for “Conference of the Parties”) took place, but it occurred without any input from Indigenous peoples. The formal recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations as a COP constituency finally occurred in 2001, but the new status was virtually meaningless. Indigenous voices were absent from the Kyoto Protocol, which went into force in 2005, and from the 2010 Cancun Agreements.

Indigenous peoples did eke out a place in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, but they only appeared in the non-binding sections. An earlier iteration included passages on Indigenous land rights, but those were left out of the final cut.

COP26 could be different

The 26th COP in the ongoing series will take place in Glasgow, Scotland from October 31 to November 12. As in past practice, Indigenous peoples have planned an awareness-raising series of educational and cultural events at COP26 under the banner of the organization If Not Us Then Who?.

This time around, Indigenous leaders have raised the bar on public awareness with an assist from the social change organization Burness.

Burness is leveraging its media experience to call attention to representatives from Indigenous peoples from tropical regions, who will stage a series of public events during COP26. The list includes Sonia Guajajara of the organization National Indigenous Mobilization in Brazil, Joseph Itongwa of Indigenous Mobilization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Levi Sucre, a Costa Rican Indigenous leader who represents an alliance of communities in Central America. Indigenous peoples from other regions in Latin America will also participate, along with leaders representing communities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

In support of this effort, Burness is also helping to raise awareness about the growing, evidence-based consensus on the role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in ecosystem conservation, and consequently on global food security, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity protection.

Burness also points out that pathogen spillover has been linked to habitat loss and encroachment, which is another area in which Indigenous and local land stewardship can play a crucial role.

The Indigenous peoples events planned for COP26 will have input from global organizations including IPCC, the IPBES, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The series will also draw on experts from the World Resources Institute, the Rights and Resources Initiative, the Forest and Farm Facility at the Food and Agriculture Organization, Prisma Foundation, the grant making organization Tenure Facility.

Burness also cites researchers with the International Institute for Environment and Development, Rainforest Foundation Norway, and the Rights and Resources Institute.

The many ways to engage with Indigenous peoples

Corporate support for biodiversity conservation is growing, and the Indigenous peoples movement provides sustainability planners with a network and knowledge base for effective action.

In addition to partnering directly with Indigenous organizations, corporate leaders can tap into legacy organizations like Ford Foundation and Nature Conservancy, which have begun to focus their resources on Indigenous and community-based land stewardship.

“[Indigenous] communities collectively manage at least one-quarter of the worlds lands17 percent of all forest carbon, and vast stretches of freshwater and marine habitats. Their stewardship and management often achieve greater conservation results and sustain more biodiversity than government protected areas,” Nature Conservancy points out.

Corporate leaders should also pay closer attention to simple, nature-based climate solutions like planting millions of trees. In concept, large-scale tree programs can serve as an effective carbon sequestration and recycling strategy. However, without careful planning they can easily run into conflict with local communities and Indigenous land rights.

In support of a more sustainable and equitable approach to biodiversity conservation, during COP26 Indigenous leaders plan to call attention to a native oak forest restoration project in Scotland, spearheaded by a group of local residents.

Scotland and tropical rain forests may seem worlds apart, but the U.K. is in fact a living demonstration of the impact that deforestation and habitat loss can have across on industrialized Western economies as well as Indigenous communities.

Among conservationists, Scotland is known as “one of the most deforested lands in the world,” with 99 percent of its forests lost to human activity over centuries of timber harvesting, sheep grazing and other commercial uses. Scotland’s long history of land privilege and exploitation has also been linked to the destruction of forests for private sport.

In recent years the reforestation movement in Scotland has gathered steam. An alliance with Indigenous leaders could provide conservationists in Scotland and elsewhere with a fresh burst of energy, adding more impact to biodiversity issues during CO26 — and challenging corporate leaders help lobby for change, as well.

Image credit: Dulcey Lima via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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