The United Nations has identified Indigenous Peoples and women as two groups most affected by environmental and climate change issues. Although Indigenous Peoples make up roughly five percent (5%) of the global population, they govern, occupy, or use nearly 22% of global land area. As such, they are critical stakeholders in global environmental governance, and in recent years, Indigenous Peoples, Traditional Peoples, and Local Communities have steadily gained access and opportunities to participate in international policy-making arenas. Despite the resources and attention dedicated to the increased presence of Indigenous Peoples in global environmental governance, there has been limited attention to the critical role they play in these venues. A new paper explores how and in what ways Indigenous Peoples, as marginalized actors in international politics, influence global environmental governance from inside international political arenas.
Through a collaborative event ethnography of the Twenty-First Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21, or more commonly known as the Paris Climate Summit), Drs. Kimberly Marion Suiseeya (Political Science), Laura Zanotti (Anthropology), and colleagues sought to make visible the critical role of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities during the 2-week long conference. Key moments and acts that took place at the meetings included contestation, resistance, and endorsement of human rights. This revealed a complex landscape of diplomacy and influence at COP21, and the team’s analysis demonstrated that Indigenous Peoples influenced the proceedings in two critical ways—first, by situating power through the politics of representation, and second, by generating new ways of talking about rights in their pursuits of justice.
Representation, simply put, is the act of making something visible. Representation shapes the dynamics that determine whose ideas gain and lose traction in governance venues. While the UNFCCC Secretariat manages the time, place, and to a certain degree the audience at the negotiating sessions, Indigenous Peoples and organizations actively created new spaces and modes of engagement at COP21 through coordinated communication between the negotiations and the civil society sectors. Different actors hosted scheduled and impromptu press conferences, used social media to respond to shifting agendas in real-time, and engaged multiple networks of allies. These movements and actions maintained Indigenous presence across the negotiations and facilitated the efforts of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change to advance a common, unified (although not uniform) Indigenous voice.
This coordination, flexibility, and opportunism challenged the power of the UNFCCC to determine their role—and these strategies also proved crucial for advancing Indigenous pursuits of justice at the conference. Halfway through COP21, Indigenous delegates began to narrow their agenda and focus on the 1.5oC goal and references to differentiated rights (e.g., gender, labor, Indigenous rights) in Article 2.2. When it seemed likely that rights would be struck out of the agreement altogether, Indigenous delegates began to advocate solely for human rights. In the end, the Paris Agreement did not include reference to human rights or Indigenous rights in Article 2. Instead, Article 2.2 called for Parties’ implementation of the Agreement to ‘reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.’ However, the final agreement’s preamble does include recognition of Indigenous rights alongside other forms of rights—a vital sign of progress and demonstration of incremental gains as a form of influence.
Recent estimates show that forests owned and controlled by Indigenous Peoples and local communities contain more than 37 billion tons of carbon—roughly 30 times more than the annual emissions of the world’s passenger vehicles. However, following the Paris Climate Agreement, few countries set targets to protect these lands in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). As the world turns to Glasgow this November for COP26, and countries submit their new NDCs, prioritizing attention to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities and their representative not only safeguards their identities, cultures, and lifeways, it delivers solutions to climate change.
Suiseeya, K.R., L. Zanotti, and K. Haapala (2021) Navigating the spaces between human rights and justice: cultivating Indigenous representation in global environmental governance. Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2020.1835869
Stevens, C., R. Winterbottom, J. Springer, and K. Reytar (2014) Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change: How Strengthening Community Forest Rights Mitigates Climate Change. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. Accessible at www.wri.org/securing-rights.