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COP23 finally provides a platform for indigenous people on climate talks
Bonn, Germany

COP23 finally provides a platform for indigenous people on climate talks

BONN (IDN) – Patricia Gualinga has been coming to the UN climate change conferences for several years. She usually receives 2-3 minutes on a panel of a side event on indigenous issues during which she tells about the struggles of her community – the Kichwas of Ecuador.

The struggles are, typically, of surviving in an environment where water is fast depleting, air is polluted, land is taken away and tribe members are evicted from their homes – all in the name of development. Sarayaku – where Gualinga comes from – is an Amazonian province in which the degradation is often caused by large oil explorers.

“We have protested oil exploration in Sarayaku and have been successful in stopping the oil explorers,” she said on the side lines of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference – officially known as COP23 – which ended in Bonn in the early hours of November 18.

“We did it because the oil explorers were destroying the forest where we have our homes, where we find our food and water. Oil is not development for us, the protection of the forest is. But, we are not people who blindly protest. We have solutions. We have a proposal called 'Living Forest' which is a roadmap to achieving sustainable development indigenous land. But we need opportunities to talk about it here (at conferences like the UN Climate conference).

However, as COP 23 concluded, indigenous activists like Gualinga had good reason to smile: for the first time, in a landmark deal, the parties agreed to create a platform for indigenous peoples to actively participate in UN climate talks.

The platform, which was first proposed at COP 21 in Paris, will both strengthen the voice of populations that are often persecuted in their countries and recognise their leading role as the guardians of the forest.

“The overall purpose of the platform will be to strengthen the knowledge, technologies, practices and efforts of local communities and indigenous peoples related to addressing and responding to climate change”, said the agreement, approved by the plenary on November 15 – also celebrated as Africa day at the conference.

Indigenous people’s role in conservation

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, who care for 22 percent of the earth’s surface, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including “an estimated 80 percent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity”. They are also custodians of over 20% of tropical forest carbon.

The IPCC has recognised that the world has much to learn with and from local communities and indigenous peoples, the knowledge and practices of which constitute   a “major resource for adapting to climate change”. Naturally, indigenous people are often seen as a strong buffer against deforestation, which is a driver of climate change.

According to Edwin Vasquez – general coordinator of Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA), the umbrella organisation of the indigenous organisations of the Amazon Basin – studies, including a recent one by COICA, have shown the forests managed by indigenous people have less deforestation than those managed by the government and other agencies.

“We have done a case study in the Yaguas National Park [in the Peruvian Amazon]. We found that wherever the forest land is managed by local indigenous communities, deforestation has stopped to over 85 percent. Compared with this, in the forest managed by other agencies that the government chose, there is still large scale deforestation,” Vasquez reported.

However, despite their strong role in conserving, indigenous people are widely discriminated against and their human rights are often violated with physical threats, attacks and numerous litigations filed against them. They also have no direct access to funds as they have not been integral to the climate action dialogues.

As a result, groups like COICA are struggling to look for alternative funding sources to generate the money the indigenous people require to conserve the forests.

“The government asks the indigenous people to manage forests, but does not give them the money they need. So now, we are starting to work on financial sustainability,” said Vasquez.

The new platform

According to a UNFCCC document, the platform came “through decision 1/CP.21 paragraph 135, with a mandate to facilitate the integration of indigenous and local knowledge systems as well as the engagement of Indigenous peoples and local communities related to climate change action, programmes and policies.”

The original proposal, submitted by the Indigenous Caucus – the group working with UNFCCC on indigenous peoples’ issues – was to:

  1. Provide a platform for documenting and sharing of experiences and best practices.
  2. Build capacities of indigenous peoples and local communities to help enable their engagement in UNFCCC and other relevant processes including the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
  3. Integrate diverse knowledge systems and practices and innovations, besides engagement of indigenous peoples in all climate related actions, programmes and policies.

However, at COP23, countries agreed only the UNFCCC traditional knowledge platform for engagement of local communities and indigenous Peoples. The rights of indigenous peoples have not been fully recognised in the final platform document of COP 23 and so the burden of implementation falls on local communities and indigenous peoples.

While calling the new agreement a sign of progress, experts also say that it may be a long time until total inclusion of indigenous peoples in UNFCCC decisions and actions happens.

“Unfortunately, the parties with the largest indigenous people did not talk as much as they should have,” said Sebastian Duyck, a human rights lawyer at the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Geneva. “The document that they have accepted only ‘recalls’ the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in its preamble. Also, the platform does not necessarily protect forests or rights. So, yes, some progress has been made, but the real operationalising will not start till the next COP in Poland.”

Smaller countries lead the fight

Both Duyck and indigenous activists agree that the definitive progress in indigenous issues was possible because of Fiji – an island nation with a large population of indigenous people. As COP23 in Bonn started, Fiji – which held the presidency this year – passionately worked to make indigenous peoples and their rights central to the negotiations.

“Having Fiji as the president has been very helpful,” said Duyck. “It opened up the doors for many to come and talk about the issue at the COP. Hopefully, we will see some more progress in Poland.”

He added, however, that for the indigenous issues to be more integral to the climate actions, countries must have more direct references to this in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). “We have analysed the NDCs of several countries and found that only about 5-6 NDCs have direct reference to the indigenous issues and their rights. We need a change in that.”

Summarising the progress, Fernanda Carvalho, Global Climate Policy Lead at WWF International said: “At COP23, countries agreed on the objectives and functions of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform marking an important step towards their full involvement in climate discussions and action. The decision took into account the principles that have been identified as fundamental by indigenous peoples: full and effective participation – equal status and self-selection of indigenous peoples representatives.”

Cavalho agreed that having an indigenous issues champion like Fiji helped: “This was a priority for the Fiji COP Presidency and, as WWF, we welcome this legacy and would like to see it reflected in the NDCs of more countries.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 November 2017]