Christophe Ena / AP

Indigenous rights could be left out of Paris climate treaty

Native representatives say lack of acknowledgement in draft treaty could negatively impact both them and the climate

The Paris climate treaty being hammered out by nearly 200 nations risks overlooking the rights and sustainable environments of indigenous peoples, indigenous representatives at the COP21 conference said on Thursday.

Global leaders have gathered in the French capital for nearly two weeks to negotiate a global climate treaty that will determine national goals to cut carbon emissions responsible for global warming and outline a transition to renewable energy sources. 

The latest draft text of the agreement says that all parties should respect “the rights of indigenous peoples … when taking actions to address climate change.”

But that reference is bracketed, meaning it is contentious and could be removed from the text of the final agreement, according to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Tauli-Corpuz hoped the wording would not be disputed. Keeping it is significant, she said, because reference to “indigenous rights” in the final draft means subsequent decisions related to climate change adaptation and finance would have to take native rights into account.

Indigenous representatives in Paris also worried that the removal of the specific reference would put their sovereignty and rights at risk.

“They’re frequently at the source of extractive industries,” Dallas Goldtooth, campaign organizer for U.S.-based Indigenous Environment Network, said from Paris, referring to indigenous communities.

Even programs being discussed at COP21 to combat climate change, like protecting forests or promoting alternative energy sources, can negatively impact indigenous communities by infringing on their land rights, Goldtooth said.

One example, according to Goldtooth, is a “false solution” being pushed by developed nations called REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, which he and a coalition of indigenous groups from North America criticized in a press conference in Paris on Sunday. 

REDD is a carbon off-set program that the coalition argues would privatize the air using forests, agriculture and water in the global south as “sponges for industrialized nation’s pollution.” 

Goldtooth worried such programs could result in the “largest land grab in history” as forests and traditional territory of indigenous groups are appropriated as carbon sinks.

In the past, efforts at conservation have sometimes led to the displacement of indigenous groups. The indigenous Munduruku people in the Amazon successfully fought a Brazilian hydroelectric dam project on the Tapajos River that would have displaced them, even though it would have helped the country reduce emissions.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) awarded the Munduruku people the Equator Prize this year for their struggle to defend the Amazon against the mega-dam project. Brazil canceled the project last year.

“These people are part of the solution and therefore it’s essential that their rights be guaranteed,” Hans Brattskar, UNDP special adviser on indigenous issues, said in a press release. “If their rights are not consolidated, forests are placed in danger,” Brattskar said.

Tauli-Corpuz said her people, the Igorot in the Philippines, have for generations sustainably managed their forests and forests outside of their traditional territory. They have developed crop varieties that can adapt to drought, including rice and sweet potatoes, she added.

“These are examples of what we have developed that can be useful,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “I think it will be a shame not to acknowledge the contributions of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge because these are already proven ways of keeping the ecosystem in a better situation.

For many indigenous peoples, climate change must be addressed holistically with an understanding of how all of earth’s systems interact.

Colombia's Kogi people, the last remaining pre-Colombian civilization in South America, have a deep knowledge of the way earth systems interact with each other — and of the effects that result from damage to rivers, extractive industries like mining, and dams.

“Climate instability in their view is the consequence of damaging the earth. Interfering with rivers, clearing forests, mining, burning fossil fuels, and large construction projects are among the actions that do harm,” said Alan Ereira, a member of the Tairona Heritage Trust, a non-profit that promotes the Kogi’s views.

“The earth is understood to be a single living body, and serious damage to what are seen as organs and bodily processes is reflected in its overall state,” Ereira said.

The Kogi people have long said they hope to impart their knowledge to help in global efforts to combat climate change.

“If anyone wanted to create a place where scientists and indigenous people could carry out serious work together, the Kogi would want to help,” Ereira said.

Despite a qualifier in the draft text, which says the parties would use indigenous traditional knowledge "as appropriate," the fact that that knowledge was recognized at COP21 at all is a good sign, said Alberto Saldamando, legal counsel for the Indigenous Environmental Network.

"Indigenous peoples have lived in harmony with the earth for millennia. They have a great deal to contribute to a harmonious relationship with Mother Earth," Saldamando said. "Harmony and equity with the Earth appear to be unknown concepts in dominant societies. It is something that they must learn and come to terms with."

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