An indigenous approach to climate justice

Climate change has been identified as “defining question of our timeBy many of the world’s leading experts and the diagnosis of planetary health is disastrous.

The Intergovernmental science and policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services To concluded that the goals for achieving sustainability “cannot be achieved by current trajectories” and UN Secretary General António Guterres said referred to humanity’s “war against nature” as “senseless and suicidal”.

The term “climate justice” has emerged to explain how those least responsible for climate change – the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and marginalized – tend to suffer the most severe impacts.

There are few groups to which this applies more than indigenous peoples, who have been describe as “among the poorest of the poor and therefore the most threatened segment of the world’s population in terms of social, economic and environmental vulnerability”.

Understand the role of Indigenous populations in determining future climate policies, it is not just a question of how climate change affects their livelihoods and survival – although this is of crucial importance.

Indigenous leadership is also needed if climate justice is to be achieved, as is support for the promotion of transformative and innovative solutions that are inclusive of all life.

Exclusion is the norm

Indigenous peoples around the world, from the First Nations of Canada to the Maori of New Zealand, can – and play – an important role in climate assessment, mitigation, adaptation and governance.

a International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and International Labor Organization joint report noted in 2021 that indigenous peoples were responsible for protecting about 22% of the planet’s surface and 80% of biodiversity.

Research too suggests that biodiversity levels are equal, if not higher, in regions where the indigenous presence is greater and where indigenous languages stay spoken.

The role played by indigenous groups, especially women, in protecting the environment was recognized, with UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa recently declaring:

“Indigenous women carry the knowledge of their ancestors while leading their communities to a resilient future. When indigenous women engage, climate policies and actions at all levels benefit from their holistic, nature-focused knowledge and leadership. “

However, despite the recognition of the contributions of indigenous peoples, serious gaps remain in terms of involvement in generating climate solutions. Exclusion remains the norm.

In response to the publication of the first part of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report (IPCC), Tunga Rai, representative of the indigenous Rai people of Nepal, observed that indigenous peoples and their knowledge continue to be marginalized in such assessments. He stated:

“It is unfortunate that climate science, including [the] summary for policymakers of the IPCC report, fails to recognize our distinct indigenous knowledge / science systems and the positive contribution of indigenous peoples to climate action. The summary uncovers changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere, but fails to mention human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples once. This gesture is even more threatening than climate change itself, for indigenous peoples. “

Indigenous planetary health and climate assessments

Indigenous populations have diagnosed, evaluated and proposed their own solutions to global warming, as evidenced by indigenous statements on the environment and climate change at the international, national and local levels over the years.

For example, the Kimberley Declaration from 2002 states:

“Since 1992 [when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed in Rio de Janeiro], Earth’s ecosystems have been made worse by the change. We are in crisis. We are in an accelerated spiral of climate change that will not respect unsustainable greed. “

As climate change has intensified, attacks on Indigenous self-determination have also intensified. This was noted in the Kari-Oca 2 statement, which was issued alongside the UN statement Rio +20 meeting in 2012 and ratified by more than 500 indigenous peoples:

“Since Rio 1992, we, the indigenous peoples, have seen that colonization has become the very basis of trade globalization and the dominant capitalist world economy. The exploitation and plunder of the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as the violations of the inherent rights of the indigenous peoples who depend on them, have intensified.

“Our rights to self-determination, our own governance and our own self-determined development, our inherent rights to our lands, territories and resources are increasingly and alarmingly under attack by the collaboration of governments and transnational corporations.”

By issuing these declarations, indigenous peoples called questioning the legitimacy and applicability of global political and legal mechanisms and nation-states, as these same states and international governing bodies continue to betray indigenous peoples around the world.

Like my colleagues and I sketched, Indigenous peoples’ assessments of the state of the world’s climate and environment, based on their own knowledge and understanding, have revealed that global approaches have so far been lacking to achieve climate justice.

In response, indigenous peoples have proposed a way forward that promotes indigenous and human rights, as well as the rights of nature, aimed at creating a “just, equitable and sustainable world”.

Decolonize climate change

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, executive director of Indigenous climate action, To declared this

“The climate crisis cannot be addressed in any meaningful way without addressing its root causes – capitalism, colonialism and extractivism”.

Indigenous climate justice presents the challenge of global warming – as well as other environmental injustices – as inevitably linked and symptomatic of these continuing processes of colonialism, dispossession, violence and violations of indigenous and human rights.

It also recognizes that there are unique considerations to be taken into account specifically with respect to indigenous peoples – including the recognition of indigenous knowledge systems and sustainable livelihoods – and that addressing these issues must be pursued. by indigenous peoples.

Over the years, indigenous peoples have witnessed transformations to the natural environment during periods of historic and current colonialism, such as widespread deforestation and the pollution of water sources.

These experiences have endowed them with knowledge of how to deal with catastrophic environmental change, although these dimensions of the Indigenous experience have so far had limited impact on climate change policy.

What is needed is a profoundly different set of logics to deal with the full scale of climate justice and to clearly diagnose, assess and then solve the problems of climate change. Such approaches already exist in the lives, experiences and knowledge of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples prioritize responsibility to future generations in their relationship with the Earth, as well as “non-human parents”, including trees, fish, animals, sky and water. These are seen as possessing wit and agency, grateful that we are made of the same elements and are therefore part of the same community.

They also recognize that nature itself, or “Mother Earth,” has rights which must be respected, and this should be recognized in the policies and legal processes formulated by the government.

This perspective was recognized internationally in 2017 at COP23 climate conference, in a document published by Indigenous groups entitled Rights of Nature: A Rights-Based Law for Systemic Change. He said that “we must stop treating Earth as a commodity,” adding that:

“Recognizing the rights of nature means that human activities and development must not interfere with the ability of ecosystems to absorb their impacts, regenerate their natural capacities, thrive and evolve, and requires those responsible for destruction, including businesses and governments, are held fully accountable. “

An innovative response based on indigenous logics derived from nature is evident in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, generated at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, over ten years ago.

He underlined a different logic of human-nature relations which can illuminate the economic, social, political and legal transformation demanded by international scientific assessments of the state of the planet.

The declarations of indigenous peoples are essentially aimed at “decolonize”These broader processes, an approach that implied address the root causes of climate change, promote self-determination and recognize indigenous peoples as partners at the decision-making table in a nation-to-nation framework.

Concretely, it is a question of betting on local initiatives for the climate as an expression of sovereignty and of moving towards a “just the transition»For communities.

Such efforts are recounted in a recent Indigenous environmental network report, in collaboration with International oil change, which examines Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel projects and emphasizes the importance of land defense, as well as the assertion and exercise of rights and responsibilities to the Earth.

Moving forward

Indigenous climate justice advocates Argue that until these dominant global systems accept the transformation required and offered by indigenous peoples – including the acceptance of the rights of Mother Earth – humanity as a whole will continue to fail the planet.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) could be an integral part of any international climate change policy or initiative in this area, in particular with regard to the rights of indigenous peoples and human beings. Currently, this is not the case.

In addition, despite some recognition of indigenous contributions, challenges remain for full, meaningful and equitable participation at the upcoming COP26 climate summit.

With the world again below on climate action and deteriorating planetary health, Indigenous climate leadership is essential advancing.

Teaser photo credit: By Keith Bacongco –, CC BY 2.0,

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Estelle D. Eden

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