Empowering and Learning from Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change

Recent years have seen many islands and other coastal areas begin to disappear because of rising sea levels, flooding, or erosion related to anthropogenic climate change. Last week, the news was that the Alaskan village of Kivalina is likely to be inundated within ten years from rising sea levels, forcing its 400 Inuit inhabitants to look for another place to live.

Anthropogenic climate change affects all forms of lives globally, but the related suffering of indigenous peoples is a reoccurring theme. The injustice of this phenomenon is reflected in three areas.

First, indigenous peoples bear a disproportionate share of the impacts despite their scant contribution to the causes. Their livelihoods are largely based on subsistence hunting, fishing, or gathering. Nevertheless, because they tend to live in areas particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, their low carbon footprint does not help them in a global context, where more destructive practices are present.

Second, indigenous peoples have a close relationship with their environment, which is sometimes seen as a source of business opportunities given the high biodiversity, dense vegetation, fertile land, and the like. Such environments are susceptible to irreversible changes caused by irresponsible practices such as plantation development, large-scale logging, and overfishing by outsiders. When irrevocable losses occur, resilience to climate change impacts is further reduced. Third, many adaptation and mitigation measures, such as dam-building and biofuels promotion, have serious consequences for indigenous peoples.

Many indigenous peoples are climigrants—that is, they must leave their homes because of the impacts of climate change. Many others are facing the same situation. Climigrants are not sufficiently protected under current international refugee law, human rights law, humanitarian law, or environmental law and are also likely to be involved in conflicts in their new locations. They are thus rather vulnerable. Vulnerability may be even higher for indigenous peoples, given that their rights to land are generally governed by a customary tenure system—characterized by collective ownership and undocumented traditional occupation and use—that may not always be recognized by all states. Thus they may not be able to get the same access to new land. Moreover, because it is connected to the old habitat, their identity comes under threat when the connection is lost.

Indigenous peoples’ lack of influence is reflected in terms of both their protection from the impacts of climate change and their power to guide climate-related decision-making. Regarding the protection, proposals have been made for legal instruments targeted at climigrants, such as the Protocol on Recognition, Protection and Resettlement of Climate Refugees proposed by the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research.

A plethora of instruments also recognize indigenous rights, most notably the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Nonetheless, currently no international or domestic law protects indigenous peoples from the destruction of their lands or livelihoods resulting from climate change. Some initiatives undertaken in this regard include small island states, fearful of losing their national sovereignty, turning to fora such as the International Court of Justice to seek their right to protection. In addition, at the Climate Change Conference in 2011, the alliance of Pacific Small Island Developing States called for legally binding mitigation commitments for non-Kyoto parties, in order to complement the Kyoto Protocol.

Regarding indigenous peoples’ power, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development emphasizes the vital role indigenous peoples have in environmental management and development on the basis of their knowledge and traditional practices, and that states should recognize and support their identity, culture, and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development. Twenty-one years on, however, indigenous peoples still lack influence in climate-related decision-making, such as the UNFCCC negotiations. Because they do not have such influence, opportunities are missed: indigenous peoples have pertinent local knowledge, potentially cost-effective solutions, and relevant historical records that could be instrumental for combatting climate change, not to mention a legitimate voice. For example, the Luo community in the Lake Victoria basin anticipates disasters and adapts farming practices accordingly by monitoring indicators such as animal behavior and atmospheric changes. Indigenous peoples’ ability to predict natural hazards could help local authorities issue early warnings to increase public preparedness and save lives.

Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year’s theme is “Indigenous Peoples Building Alliances: Honoring Treaties, Agreements and Other Constructive Arrangements.” Recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands and resources, which are threatened by climate change, is an important part of honoring the treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements. States could do so by providing indigenous peoples the opportunity to formulate plans, giving them the chance to say yes or no to any pre-formulated plan through free, prior, and informed consent, and accommodating any special interest they might have on the basis of their collective identities.

To close with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message for the day, “We must ensure the participation of indigenous peoples—women and men—in decision-making at all levels. This includes discussions on accelerating action towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals and defining the post-2015 development agenda.” Indigenous peoples should be entitled to the same rights other citizens enjoy. Similarly, indigenous peoples’ knowledge should not be viewed as inferior to mainstream science.

If knowledge is power, then indigenous peoples need to join decision-making in a transparent, inclusive, and participatory manner, endowed with the power to determine not just the process but also the outcome. Only then can relationships be improved between indigenous peoples and states, optimal results be achieved in devising genuine solutions for climate change, and solutions be properly implemented.

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