Photo of International Forum of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change in Cancun, 2010: OXFAM
As leaders and the publics they represent negotiate the future of climate change mitigation and adaptation in Paris at the United Nation’s COP21, The Arctic Institute is publishing articles, infographics, and event videos to provide an Arctic perspective on COP21. Through seven installments, Institute experts and affiliates will explore the negotiation’s impacts on the Arctic’s peoples, communities, ecosystems, political relations, and energy systems. This is the second installment. You can find other publications in the series below:
- Quickstart to COP21
- COP21 and the Arctic: What’s at Stake?
- COP21 and the Arctic: What’s at Stake? Infographic
- COP21 and the Arctic: Adaptation, Damage, and the Work to be Done
- Closing Week One and COP21: India, the Arctic, and Reaching an Agreement
- 100 Days In: COP21 and the Arctic’s Future – An Era of Energy Transition
Gone are the days where many people are on the fence about climate change. Today, many state leaders and ordinary people not only recognize that climate change is an issue, but are attempting to negate or reverse the detrimental impact that this can and has already had on our world. The Northern Indigenous Peoples are at the forefront of the battle on climate change, both physically and emotionally. Their lives are being dramatically impacted as the ice melts, and have therefore worked hard in the past and continue to work hard to create internationally binding agreements. The upcoming UNFCCC COP21 in Paris between 30 November and 11 December 2015 will be another example of their involvement; here Indigenous Peoples will strive to achieve four goals, which will be fleshed out below, to increase their involvement and international recognition, as well as help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Looking towards the future, Indigenous Peoples will continue to work with states and other groups to help prevent what could amount to a disaster on the international level.
The North is inhabited by four million people, ten percent of which are Indigenous peoples. The Indigenous peoples of the North are most at jeopardy from climate change because not only is there a threat to their homes due to significant environmental changes, such as disappearing sea ice and thawing permafrost, but on a deeper level the harm that climate change could have on the loss of traditional ways of life. The Northern Indigenous Peoples have an intimate relationship with the land, depending on it for their subsistence hunting traditions and their capability to live and travel in the remote regions of the North. Therefore, they are facing not only the threat of melting ice and the ecological disasters that this would bring to their homes and lives, but also the potential loss of cultural practices vital to their identity, which revolve around a land filled with snow and ice.
Losing the snow and ice in the north would mean a dramatic change to the environmental landscape of the region. Not only would it lead to a noticeable shift in the types of flora and fauna that would flourish, but also a shift in the areas that would be habitable. Where some might assume that a warming of the North would make it more habitable, the opposite is in fact true for many of the people inhabiting the region. People living in the Arctic have adapted to surviving in a cold climate and thriving in predictable and stable ice and weather conditions. With warmer climates comes melting multiyear ice and the disappearance of permafrost. This threatens the ability for Indigenous Peoples to hunt and eat traditional food, due to their prey often disappearing with the receding ice and the often required relocation of villages due to unstable ground and infrastructure disruptions. There are already a plethora of examples of where Indigenous Peoples might have to adapt their diets and their traditional locations due to changing climates. For example, the movement of rodents in Alaska, could have an extensive ripple effect on larger predators. Thus potentially affecting the hunting and traditional lifestyle of the Indigenous Peoples living in Alaska. Because Indigenous Peoples are so dependent on the land and the resources provided by the land, a shift in the climate will dramatically impact their ways of life.
This means that, much like any climate conference, the upcoming UNFCCC COP21 in Paris between 30 November and 11 December 2015 is crucially important. The climate talks are poised to create, for the first time in 20 years, a binding agreement on climate change and its mitigation. For the Indigenous Peoples of the North, the issues discussed at these conferences are not simply scientific, but also human rights concerns. By maintaining a lifestyle that perpetuates climate change, we are not only threatening the circumpolar environment, but their rights as human beings– their rights to maintain a traditional lifestyle.
According to the 1946 American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man as well as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Northern Indigenous peoples, as well as all Indigenous peoples have the right to, “the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.” What this means in more direct terms is that anything that impedes Arctic Indigenous peoples the right to maintaining their own culture and traditions is a violation of their rights as humans. Ms. Watt-Cloutier, who strongly believes this human aspect of the effects of climate change, not only petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) against the United States but was also asked to testify at the IACHR in 2007 about the impacts of climate change and pollution on the traditional lifestyles of the Inuit peoples. In her petition, Ms. Watt-Cloutier claimed that the level of pollution produced by the United States was a violation of the rights of Inuit people as it prevents their ability to live their lives. For her work in this field, Ms.Watt-Cloutier recently received the 2015 Right Livelihood Award, which is often termed the ‘Alternative Nobels’. These actions firmly implanted, on an international scale, the idea that human rights and climate change are intimately connected; this connection will be one of the key aspects that Indigenous Peoples have fought for in the past and will continue to fight for in the upcoming COP21 talks.
Indigenous Peoples from all around the world, including Arctic Indigenous Peoples, have tirelessly been involved in international environmental discussions, such as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and previous UNFCCC COP talks; the COP21 in Paris will be no different. Not only will there be side-events and publications, but there will also be an Indigenous Pavilion, which will create a space for Indigenous Peoples to share their views and their opinions, and maybe most importantly their cultures with world leaders. The dominant question boils down to the impact that a non-governmental actor can have in such state-dominated discussions. The Indigenous Peoples will have a fundamental role to play in the upcoming events surrounding climate change, but will state leaders be willing to listen?
There are examples in the past of states who are willing to listen, and Indigenous Peoples who have spoken loud enough to be heard. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an Arctic Indigenous Non-Governmental Actor, in the 1992 Rio+20 Conference, for example, drafted a paper calling for the use of traditional Indigenous views while forming environmental policy. Furthermore, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who was head of the Canadian branch of the ICC, is well known for her participation in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in 2001, which led to her nomination for the renowned Nobel Peace Prize. According to her book, The Right To Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet Ms. Watt-Cloutier spoke at numerous meetings and conferences for the United Nations, the Conference of the Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, the Northern Forum, the Canadian Polar Commission Conference and Canadian Senate hearings. During her involvement with the fight against POPs, she actively collaborated in international meetings, bringing the reality of Arctic climate change to the forefront of people’s minds.
In the 1999 Nairobi talks, the second meeting of an International Negotiating Committee (INC) which was dealing with the issues of POPs, Ms. Watt-Cloutier presented a statue of an Inuit mother and child to the executive director of the UN Environmental Programme; this statue became a reminder to all during the talks of the important human aspect of the fight against climate change, as well as the importance of intergenerational justice. Reminding the negotiators that what they are fighting for is not only the world today, but the world the next generation will inherit. An act which demonstrated what Indigenous Peoples strive towards during these international talks, to be a reminder of the community aspects of these discussions and not simply the long-term scientific impacts.
On a broader note, the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) helps coordinate Indigenous Peoples’ undertakings when dealing with global climate change negotiations. In the COP20 talks, which took place in Peru in December 2014, Indigenous Peoples were diligently involved. Before the talks even began, there was a meeting with over five times and 10 state representatives. This allowed for the discussion and the facilitation of communal ideas between friendly states and Indigenous Peoples. The final COP20 draft mentioned Indigenous Peoples five times, including a mention of the importance of respecting indigenous rights in a preamble dealing with creating a draft negotiation. What Northern Indigenous Peoples’ have done in this instance, and many other instances, is bond together with other Indigenous Peoples around the world, ensuring a loud, clear voice that states will have a hard time to ignore. Furthermore, during the talks in Lima, as well as the COP talks before that, Indigenous Peoples, including the ICC and the Saami Council, strove to share their cultures and livelihoods, teaching people about the importance of maintaining a traditional lifestyle. For example in the COP20 talks, the Pabellón Indígena, which is similar to this year’s Indigenous Pavilion, the Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partners (ILEP) shared a presentation on how climate adaptability strategies can benefit from local knowledge. Have these past involvements set the stage for the upcoming talks in Paris?
Involvement in COP21
As already mentioned, during the upcoming talks in Paris there will be a forum for not only the involvement of Indigenous Peoples in discussions but also a space to educate people on their culture and heritage. From the Arctic region, both the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Saami Council will be present and representing their respective Indigenous groups. There are four goals that Indigenous People, including the Northern peoples, will be seeking to achieve during the COP21 talks: first, the acceptance of climate change as a human rights issue, second the recognition of traditional indigenous knowledge in the fight against climate change, third the full and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples, specifically women and youth, in the processes and decisions made surrounding climate change, and finally a direct access to funds dealing with climate change for Indigenous Peoples. These four goals will be achieved through discussions, presentations, working with states, and a deeper understanding of the cultural implications of climate change.
The first goal is one that has been a focal point for Arctic Indigenous Peoples; ensuring that climate change is recognized as a human rights issue. Northern Indigenous Peoples have been actively affected by climate change on a daily basis, which has obstructed their ability to traditionally live their cultural lives. Therefore disregarding climate change is a violation of their human rights– their right to live and work safely, their ability to follow the traditional lifestyles handed down to them from their ancestors. This goal is not new. As mentioned, in the past, Ms. Watt-Cloutier submitted a claim to the IACHR against the United States regarding this exact idea. The expectation for the COP21 talks will be to follow this mentality.
This goal not only lays out the concept of a potential violation of human rights but the importance of deciding on future international objectives and measures which do not impede the well-being of Indigenous Peoples. Targets set out by states in the upcoming COP21 talks should not only respect the lands and rights of Indigenous Peoples, but should not propel Indigenous Peoples further into poverty. The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program has raised questions about UN programs that hinder Indigenous ways of life in favour of sustainable practices. The REDD+ report mentions several downsides for Indigenous Peoples, including, but not limited to: a violation of customary land rights, decrease in local foods, and increased tension between Indigenous Peoples and governments. In the COP21 talks, Indigenous peoples will strive to ensure that states and intergovernmental actors such as the UN will work towards sustainable practices in a way which helps Indigenous lives and respects their heritage and lifestyle as opposed to the degradation of their lives.
Secondly, the importance of striving towards the acceptance of Traditional Knowledge to be placed next to Western scientific knowledge is a key goal. Northern Indigenous Peoples have lived and thrived in one of the most difficult climates in the world through adapting to the land and the hardships using traditional knowledge. Traditional Knowledge (TK) is different that Western scientific knowledge, in that it is often orally passed down and based on first hand observations about the environment and self-management of resources. Because Traditional Knowledge is passed down, it is cumulative, based on past generations and building on previous experiences.
There is already a history of incorporating Traditional Knowledge in international reports and documents, such as the Arctic Human Development Report, which was published in 2004. This report looked at the human development in the Arctic. This document uses both Western scientific and Indigenous Traditional Knowledge to build a picture of what development in the Arctic looks like. The benefits of using TK in these types of documents and in the broader fight against climate change is the ability to use observations that often cover a substantial amount of time and that frequently finds links between events that may seem unrelated to people who do not possess the benefit of these generations of knowledge. Another example where Traditional Knowledge and Western scientific knowledge has been successfully combined in the Arctic is the use of TK in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) in the North. Furthermore, the Arctic Council has also worked tirelessly on the acceptance and recognition of the importance of TK, they even developed a collection of practices being undertaken, “at local and regional levels showing how [Indigenous] ways of life can co-exist with modern ways to support healthy communities.”
COP21 and other climate change talks give the Western scientific community another opportunity to learn from this knowledge, using it to help create policy and further their own research in the area. States should follow the examples of companies such as BHP Diamonds Inc. who used TK at Lac de Gras in the Northwest Territories to create an EIA and produced a, “multiphased, holistic approach” in interacting and working with Indigenous Peoples. In the Indigenous Peoples’ outlining document for the COP21 talks, they recommend setting up an advisory body, which will allow indigenous experts to help design, implement, monitor, and evaluate the work of UNFCC bodies.
The third goal will be the acceptance of Indigenous Peoples as members who have a right to be at the negotiating table. Although Indigenous Peoples have many opportunities to present and argue their perspectives, they are still dependent on states to further perpetuate their point of view. The Arctic Council itself is an example of this, as well as climate change talks in the past, where the ultimate decisions are made only by states. The Arctic Council is an interesting example, however, of the involvement of Indigenous Peoples because it has set precedent in including Indigenous Peoples are Permanent Participants. Being a Permanent Participant allows groups such as the Aleut International Association or the Saami Council to participate in discussions and sit at the negotiation table, a table based on consensus and engagement. The Arctic Council has also strived for a better understanding of TK and an empowerment of Indigenous Peoples in the North. However, Indigenous Peoples still do not have voting rights in the Arctic Council. Therefore Indigenous Peoples during COP21 will strive to further their involvement and consultation allowing for a deeper bond and a greater ability to influence the decisions of the world.
The final goal is ensuring that Indigenous Peoples have direct access to climate finance, including the Green Climate fund (GCF). Indigenous Peoples want to be recognized as active observers, as opposed to normal observers, within the Board of the GCF which will give them a different status than simply a non-governmental organization. This would allow Indigenous Peoples to be actively involved in discussions and give them the ability to directly intervene on issues prevalent to their concerns. This final goal ties the previous three together, by allowing Indigenous Peoples active observer status, this would not only be a recognition of the human aspect of climate change, but also an acceptance of Indigenous Peoples at the negotiation table and would allow Traditional Knowledge to permeate some of the projects supported by the GCF.
The Indigenous Pavilion will be the main method that will allow for the success of these goals. The Pavilion will have several events, which will facilitate dialogue between Indigenous Peoples and state representatives. These include: a two-day conference entitled Resilience in a time of Uncertainty: Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change, which will speak not only to the current impacts that indigenous communities are facing, including impacts in the North, but will also address mitigation techniques that meld indigenous and western scientific knowledge; meetings with states participating in the COP21 talks; and a two-day special event titled Sustainable Innovation Forum, which will involve interactive discussion panels with business leaders, NGOs, and governments.
Furthermore, the Arctic Council, which represents not only the eight Arctic states but also several Indigenous Permanent Participants, such as the Gwich’in Council International and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, will be making a statement in Paris. The United States, who has recently taken over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, will make this statement on behalf of the entire Council. This statement shows that it is not only the discussions happening during the 12 days of COP21 that are important, but also the continual conversations that states are having with Indigenous Peoples. There is a continuous push for climate change in the world, and Indigenous Peoples are and should be actively involved in these discussions.
The COP21 talks in Paris will not be the end of the fight against climate change. They are simply one more step in the battle. After COP21 ends, Indigenous Peoples and states alike will have to continue discussions, negotiations, and the building of partnerships. A successful COP21 will help Arctic Indigenous Peoples receive the recognition for future discussions, the ability to share their Traditional Knowledge with leaders and decision-makers, and the ability to share in future decision-making processes. After COP21, Arctic Indigenous Peoples will continue their advocacy, including their involvement in the Arctic Council as Permanent Participants. And although there is more optimism surrounding the talks in Paris, especially compared to the 2009 Copenhagen talks, there is still the realistic fact that an agreement in Paris will not be the end climate change. There will be more work to do, both for states, and Indigenous Peoples around the world. Ideally Indigenous Peoples, specifically Arctic Indigenous Peoples will be accepted and sought after for their knowledge of the impacts that climate change can have on not only the environments, but also on a community.
The fight will continue, and the four goals set out, will have to be pursued and advocated for continuously and in multiple fora. Indigenous Peoples will work together as a whole, as well as in their own regional groups, to ensure that their human rights are respected, and that the international world does not only accept this, but strives to ensure that these rights are protected as all human rights should be. The Arctic Indigenous Peoples, specifically, will continue to attempt to stop the melting ice, the changing climate, and the impacts that these will have on their livelihood. For them, as well as other Indigenous Peoples, these climate change talks, as well as the next 10-15 years will be fundamentally important to ensure their cultural survival.