Indigenous delegates at high level opening plenary, COP21 on November 30. Andrea Carman, Executive Director, International Indian Treaty Council, second from left.

Global Climate Agreement Passes Over Issues Critical to Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus

Terri Hansen

The global Paris agreement struck by nearly 200 countries on December 12 is heralded as the first climate agreement to commit all countries to cut carbon emissions. But when it comes to key points that the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) came to Paris to negotiate, it falls far short of their goals.

Indigenous Peoples who participated in the process had pressed for inclusion of indigenous rights in the legally binding operative section of the agreement. Although the phrase “rights of Indigenous Peoples” is included in the non-binding preamble in response to consistent pressure that Indigenous Peoples had placed on state [country] negotiators during the conference, the wording agreed to “was far weaker than what we had called for,” Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council told Indian Country Today Media Network.

“The final agreement says in the preamble that states ‘should’ respect, promote and consider these rights among others in carrying out climate related activities,” Carmen said. “We recognize that even including this wording was a struggle that required strong advocacy by a group of supportive states, although other states resisted this inclusion until the end.”

On the upside, this is the first time that the rights of Indigenous Peoples have ever been included unqualified in a legally binding U.N. treaty, Carmen said.

“It is essential that the rights of Indigenous Peoples be recognized, protected and respected within a broad human rights framework,” said Frank Ettawageshik of the National Congress of American Indians’ (NCAI) reading from a statement on behalf of the IIPFCC during the COP21 Closing Plenary. “We are keenly disappointed that the parties did not see fit to accommodate this request in which we joined with a broad constituency. The parties do recognize the importance of such rights in the preamble, and we intend to insist on our rights at every turn. We are sovereign governments with international treaties and rights to land territories, and resources toward which we have a sacred duty which we intend to fulfill.”

Indigenous Peoples have protected their traditional lands, territories and resources for millennia, Ettawageshik noted. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said in a statement that violating indigenous rights has an impact on their role in mitigation. Protecting their forests, for example, sequesters carbon keeping it out of the atmosphere, and protects wildlife and biodiversity.

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Another disappointment, Ettawageshik said, was that instead of the IIPFCC-proposed global average temperature goal of no more than a 1.5 degree Celsius increase over pre-industrial temperatures, the Paris Agreement holds the increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and agrees to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

The global temperature has risen 0.85°C since 1880, which is already having severe consequences for Indigenous Peoples in some parts of the world, such as the Arctic. At a rise of two degrees, traditional indigenous livelihoods will be severely affected as people are ravaged by food shortages, extreme weather, floods and drought. The small island nations, now besieged, will drown.

“Because our lives are inextricably and intimately related to the natural world, every adverse effect on that world acutely affects our lives,” Ettawageshik said.

In closing, Ettawageshik pointed to their concerns for the recognition of, respect for, and use of their traditional knowledge, with their free, prior, and informed consent. While they appreciate that a provision appears in the operative section on adaptation that recognizes the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, he said, it should apply everywhere in the agreement and decision without the qualification “where appropriate.” 

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