COP23 Proved That Indigenous Peoples Still Don’t Have a Real Voice in Climate Negotiations

While the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus was given a seat at the climate negotiations table, this role was largely symbolic.

Kate Aronoff November 21, 2017

A member of Brazil's amazonian Tuxa tribe took part in a protest with Indigenous leaders from Latin America, Indonesia and Africa, known as 'The Guardians of the Forest', in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate on November 1, 2017. The demonstrators were on their way to the COP23 UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

For the most part, Indige­nous rights were not includ­ed in the oper­a­tive text of the Paris cli­mate agree­ment. Most lan­guage about the rights of First Nations peo­ples were housed in its pre­am­ble, and what did make it into the main body of the agree­ment was an acknowl­edge­ment of the impor­tance of Indige­nous knowl­edge. Although exact­ly what that means — and who will decide what that means — remains to be seen.

“Overall, there’s a lot of frustration with the Indigenous peoples here about the lack of action and ambition, and feeling that Indigenous peoples are some of the most vulnerable populations out there, from the Arctic to regions where people are experiencing drought conditions."

We are not at the table in a man­ner equal to oth­er nation states,” Tom Gold­tooth tells In These Times. He’s exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work and a vet­er­an of UN cli­mate talks. He was at COP23, which con­clud­ed at the end of last week in Bonn, Germany.

We are still seen as civ­il soci­ety groups, but with­in the space of the Indige­nous Peo­ples’ Cau­cus, we do our best to hold those coun­tries that have sig­nif­i­cant amounts or real­ly any amount of Indige­nous peo­ple account­able for the impact on Native [peo­ple] with­in their lands,” he says. What we are fight­ing for is full and active par­tic­i­pa­tion in any nego­ti­a­tion that impacts Indige­nous people.”

Tom Gold­tooth says there is no real guide on how to do that with­in the Unit­ed Nations Frame­work Con­ven­tions on Cli­mate Change (UNFC­CC).

This year’s UN cli­mate talks were a mixed bag for Indige­nous peo­ple from around the world. Hav­ing met at least dai­ly through the two-week dura­tion of the talks, the Indige­nous Peo­ples’ Cau­cus — drawn from sev­en dif­fer­ent regions in every cor­ner of the globe — won a seat at the table in the UNFC­CC process­es. How­ev­er, that rep­re­sen­ta­tive has no deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er, not tech­ni­cal­ly rep­re­sent­ing a par­ty at COP23.

This gave Indige­nous nego­tia­tors present at COP23 a two-fold task: ensure their right to par­tic­i­pate in UNFC­CC pro­ceed­ings and ensure their con­cerns actu­al­ly get discussed.

The results were spotty.

The final lan­guage that came out of Bonn states that par­ties to UN cli­mate talks will con­sid­er their respec­tive oblig­a­tions on the rights of Indige­nous peo­ples and local com­mu­ni­ties.” This is much weak­er lan­guage than many had hoped for, and far short of full recog­ni­tion of Native peo­ples’ rights in the UNFC­CC process.

This deci­sion only allows us to par­tic­i­pate in oper­a­tional­iz­ing the Indige­nous People’s Plat­form, some­time in the future, at the next UNFC­CC COP 24,” said Alber­to Sal­daman­do, Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Network’s legal coun­sel at COP23 and a trib­al and human rights lawyer. Notwith­stand­ing what has been report­ed, we are not nego­ti­at­ing or deci­sion mak­ing. The plat­form will only rec­om­mend [that].”

Arti­cle 7 of the Paris Agree­ment says that, Par­ties acknowl­edge that adap­ta­tion action should fol­low a coun­try-dri­ven, gen­der-respon­sive, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry and ful­ly trans­par­ent approach…” This includes, among oth­er things, knowl­edge of Indige­nous peo­ples and local knowl­edge sys­tems, with a view to inte­grat­ing adap­ta­tion into rel­e­vant socioe­co­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies and actions, where appropriate.”

Dal­las Gold­tooth, mem­ber of the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work and the Indige­nous Peo­ples’ Cau­cus (and Tom Goldtooth’s son), says the inclu­sion of this lan­guage is oppor­tu­ni­ty to hold states account­able as they devel­op their plans to address cli­mate change. How­ev­er, he also raised con­cerns about seri­ous bar­ri­ers to Indige­nous nations’ inclu­sion in the Paris process.

Imple­men­ta­tion of the Arti­cle 7 text falls offi­cial­ly to the Sub­sidiary Body for Sci­en­tif­ic and Tech­no­log­i­cal Advice, or SBS­TA, which con­venes both at annu­al Con­fer­ence of Par­ty gath­er­ings and at inter­ces­sion­al meet­ings, which hap­pen between year­ly cli­mate talks. Imple­ment­ing the agreement’s spe­cif­ic lan­guage around Indige­nous knowl­edge, though, has effec­tive­ly been up to the Indige­nous Peo­ples’ Cau­cus, which meets under the SBS­TA umbrella.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, the cau­cus has only been able to meet unof­fi­cial­ly with offi­cial par­ties — like nation-states — to make their voice heard. The inclu­sion of lan­guage around Indige­nous knowl­edge in the Paris agree­ment opened a win­dow to change that.

And since the agreement’s pas­sage, the cau­cus has met reg­u­lar­ly to dis­cuss what more for­mal rep­re­sen­ta­tion on this point might look like. Last week, the cau­cus passed an incre­men­tal mile­stone in hav­ing its par­tic­i­pa­tion for­mal­ly rec­og­nized. The cau­cus also pressed the SBS­TA to rec­om­mend the Indige­nous Peo­ples’ Plat­form to the full con­fer­ence of par­ties — out­lin­ing a num­ber of ways that Indige­nous knowl­edge should be incor­po­rat­ed into decid­ing the Paris agreement’s implementation.

Nav­i­gat­ing the legalese to get this far has been tire­less work for mem­bers of the Indige­nous Peo­ples’ Cau­cus. Each day of the talks, they met in the morn­ing in trilin­gual meet­ings (Eng­lish, Span­ish and French) that were fol­lowed in the after­noon by indi­vid­ual meet­ings among each of the sev­en regions rep­re­sent­ed in the caucus.

Though Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties at COP are diverse — com­ing from every cor­ner of the globe and a range of dif­fer­ent social and eco­nom­ic con­texts — the nature of UN nego­ti­a­tions means that each region must agree to a com­mon, col­lec­tive plat­form. The Indige­nous Peo­ples Plat­form that’s emerged from these meet­ings is intend­ed to be a blue­print for how to oper­a­tional­ize the con­sid­er­a­tion of Indige­nous knowledge.

Some of the loud­est voic­es for strength­en­ing Indige­nous rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Paris agree­ment process were from Ecuador and Bolivia, two nations with large Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions and with for­mal Indige­nous rep­re­sen­ta­tion in their del­e­ga­tions to inter­na­tion­al cli­mate talks. 

Indige­nous peo­ple get lumped togeth­er as one peo­ple or one voice,” says Michael Charles, a del­e­gate with the U.S.-based youth group Sus­tai­nUS that par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Indige­nous Peo­ples’ Cau­cus. We all have dif­fer­ent cul­ture and prac­tices, so it is dif­fer­ent voices.” 

Charles says he was also frus­trat­ed that all the ener­gy that went into ensur­ing basic rep­re­sen­ta­tion meant less time for Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties at COP23 to push for­ward pol­i­cy concerns.

There is also a myr­i­ad of inter­nal divi­sions among Native groups in the Unit­ed States. None of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Unit­ed States who are part of the Indige­nous Peo­ples’ Cau­cus are elect­ed trib­al lead­er­ship. And while some trib­al gov­ern­ments have come out strong­ly against extrac­tion on Native lands, oth­ers have close ties to the extrac­tive industry.

Over­all, there’s a lot of frus­tra­tion with the Indige­nous peo­ples here about the lack of action and ambi­tion, and feel­ing that Indige­nous peo­ples are some of the most vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions out there, from the Arc­tic to regions where peo­ple are expe­ri­enc­ing drought con­di­tions,” Tom Gold­tooth tells In These Times. If the envi­ron­ment is chang­ing and weath­er events are com­ing about that have neg­a­tive impacts on our habi­tat, that effects our treaty rights.”

In con­sul­ta­tion with spir­i­tu­al lead­ers, we’ve been told of prophe­cies when trees start dying from the top down and that there would be melt­ing of glac­i­ers and changes in the cir­cle of life,” Tom Gold­tooth adds. That’s com­ing about now. That’s already here. There’s going to be a time for all peo­ple to come togeth­er to make a deci­sion about what we’re going to do to save moth­er earth as we know her. That’s where we’re at.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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