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Indigenous peoples affected by climate change, climate talks

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Emily Gertz is a freelance journalist, editor, and blogger covering the environment, technology, science, and sustainability. She reported on the Copenhagen climate talks on behalf of Oxfam America.

Indigenous leaders at the Copenhagen talks remain guardedly optimistic that the human rights of their peoples will be recognized in an international climate agreement.

They’re just not particularly upbeat that it will happen here.

“Human rights should be an integral part of any climate response: the right to life, adequate housing, food, an adequate standard of health,” said John Henriksen, a Saami of Norway and human rights legal expert.

Along with these rights, Henriksen said, indigenous peoples have internationally recognized rights to live according to their traditional cultures and practices, and need to have these rights acknowledged as well in any international climate agreement.

Henriksen spoke to a packed room on Wednesday, as part of a panel representing indigenous peoples of Kenya, Peru, the South Pacific, the Arctic and other regions.

John Henriksen. Photo by Emily Gertz.
John Henriksen, a Saami of Norway and human rights legal expert. Photo by Emily Gertz.

The speakers charged that their communities are not consistently included in the deliberations toward a new international climate treaty, even though they are already being affected by the impacts of climate change.

Many of these communities still rely heavily on the world’s remaining forests for their subsistence and livelihoods.

Some of these same forests capture and store massive amounts of carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere; how to place a value on that ecological service is a key pont of contention at the climate talks.

Another divisive issue at the talks is how much financial support the industrialized nations (which are historically responsible for most of the excess greenhouse gases in the atmospere) will provide for developing nations to adapt to changing climactic conditions.

It’s not yet clear how or if indigenous peoples will be included in programs and projects funded by these monies.

“These decisions are made without the participation of those who are mostly affected,” said Joseph Ole Simel, a Masai, and coordinator of the African Regional Indigenous Caucus. “Indigenous peoples…need consultation. They need recognition of their contributions.”

Tarcila Rivera Zea, a Quechuan activist from Peru and director of the indigenous rights group Chirapaq, stressed that a “human rights approach” needs to become integral to any future climate treaty, and that

Tarcila Rivera Zea, a Quechuan activist from Peru and director of the indigenous rights group Chirapaq. Photo by Emily Gertz.
Tarcila Rivera Zea, a Quechuan activist from Peru and director of the indigenous rights group Chirapaq. Photo by Emily Gertz.

indigenous peoples must be included in decision-making around global warming.

Climate change is already taking a toll on indigenous women in Peru, said Zea. who described women and girls bearing the brunt of hunger brought on by food shortages. Medicinal plants that they have depended upon are disappearing, as well — and the transfer of traditional medicinal knowledge between generations may vanish with them.

Indigenous women should be integral to decision-making around food security, efforts to slow or adapt to climate change, and plans to relocate communities, Zea stressed.

“We demand that states, the ones who have the great responsibility of making climate change, take into account indigenous women,” said Zea.

Very little of the existing United Nations declaration on the human rights of indigenous peoples is likely to make it into the “son of Kyoto” climate treaty — as least as drafted during the Copenhagen talks — said Patricia Cochran after the session ended.

cochran1
Patricia Cochran, an Inupiaq and director of the Alaska Native Science Commission.

Cochran, an Inupiaq, is director of the Alaska Native Science Commission. She chaired the Indigenous Peoples Summit on Climate Change last April, and recently finished a term as chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

“We came with higher expectations,” she said. “But reality has shown us, yet again, that the things we hoped for will probably not come out of this particular meeting.”

“This is a process for us,” said Cochran, striking a hopeful note. “We see this as just another step in the long road we have ahead of us,” she said, noting that indigenous representatives attended this year’s preliminary climate treaty talks in Bangkok, Barcelona, and Bonn.

Cochran believes that if they can “enlighten” industrial nations such as the United States and Canada to support indigenous rights in the climate negotiations, then they will become part of whatever formal treaty emerges from the current process.

Still, it’s not just about this agreement, says Cochran. Indigenous leaders are working on other kinds of alliances with organizations, national government, and with each other to deal with global warming.

“Indigenous people are very independent,” she said. “We recognize our abilities and responsibilities.”

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