- At this year’s U.N. climate conference, COP28, Indigenous delegates numbered more than 300, but were left generally disappointed with the outcomes of the event.
- The final agreement had little inclusion of Indigenous rights and excluded an Indigenous representative from sitting on the board of the newly launched loss and damage fund.
- Indigenous groups say two big climate mitigation strategies, the clean energy transition and carbon markets, should include robust protection of Indigenous rights and consent.
- Despite setbacks, Indigenous leaders say they’re working on increasing their presence and influence at the next climate conferences, including upping their numbers to 3,000 delegates, creating a large international Indigenous Commission, and taking part in the summit’s decision-making.
This year’s U.N. climate conference, COP28, featured much-improved Indigenous representation from last year’s event. Yet despite intensive lobbying by the more than 300 delegates, most Indigenous and civil society leaders were left disappointed at the end of the summit in Dubai.
“You see Indigenous leaders and Indigenous youth in every corner of the venue … Yet our rights and knowledge continue to be relegated to the sidelines in negotiations,” Sarah Hanson, a member of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC), said at a press conference.
“We are not here simply for your photo opportunities. We are rights holders under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and must be at the decision-making table,” she added, referring to the international human rights standard for Indigenous groups.
This year’s conference was especially important as countries conducted the Global Stocktake, a review of the world’s progress in reaching the 2015 Paris Agreement’s commitment to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
While nations agreed to a loss and damage fund to help the countries most impacted by climate change, as well as to transition away from fossil fuels and conserve biodiversity in line with the U.N. biodiversity framework, Indigenous delegates also see holes in the final agreement. Not only did COP28 not act with the urgency scientists say is required, they said, but Indigenous peoples and their rights were left unprotected.
A just energy transition
Despite Indigenous peoples “having the lowest carbon footprint and being among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, there was minimal emphasis on safeguards, rights and their participation as decision-makers in the final agreement,” said Joan Carling, an IIPFCC delegate and executive director of the group Indigenous Peoples Rights International.
The IIPFCC is the representative body of Indigenous peoples participating in COP conferences and aims to unite Indigenous advocacy. As negotiators at COP28 only represent member states, Indigenous delegates have to engage with and influence these negotiating teams who are the ones to take part in discussions during closed sessions.
And there were multiple fronts Indigenous delegates wanted them to tackle.
Although “Indigenous peoples fully support the just transition away from fossil fuels, the development of renewable energy cannot be business as usual,” Carling told Mongabay.
For policymakers at the conference, mitigating climate change and meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal includes a rush to transition to clean energy. Yet most of the minerals like lithium, copper, cobalt and nickel that power clean energy technologies also are also found under the ground that communities live, farm or base their livelihoods on. Recent research published in Nature Sustainability suggests that almost half of all mining operations aimed at meeting increased demand for these critical minerals are found either on or near Indigenous and communal lands.
Indigenous communities say they fear the demand for transition minerals could lead to their eviction or subject them to the adverse effects of pollution and environmental degradation involved in mining, significantly impacting their livelihoods.
While Carling said calls in the final text for a tripling of renewable energy capacity are positive, she noted the agenda remains driven by profit making rather than human rights, which the section on energy doesn’t mention.
In Africa, which hosts about a fifth of the global reserves of the minerals critical for an energy transition, civil society organizations say a real shift means ensuring communities are meaningfully consulted about decisions to mine and having the right to withhold their consent. Where extraction does occur, people should benefit from the mining boom, they said, and the minerals should only be extracted under the most rigorous international human rights and environmental standards.
In Zambia, Africa’s second-biggest copper producer, Indian mining giant Vedanta agreed to settle claims of discharging sulfuric acid and other toxic chemicals into the Kafue River that put human and environmental health at risk. In Colombia, Libero Copper, a Canadian company, has been drilling and prospecting for “green minerals” in a richly biodiverse part of the Andean-Amazon Piedmont while its mining titles were temporarily suspended.
Policymakers have also elevated carbon markets, a trading system in which carbon credits are bought and sold to offset emissions, as a climate change mitigation strategy. These credits represent patches of carbon-storing ecosystems like forests and coastal wetlands.
This area and its formal regulation is covered in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement and was a major area of debate at last year’s COP27. It was highly anticipated that Article 6 would be operationalized at COP28, allowing for countries to achieve their new emissions reduction goals under the Paris Agreement, known as their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), using carbon markets.
However, negotiators failed to break a deadlock between opposing visions of unrestrained markets and those defending the need for safeguards and regulations. Many Indigenous delegates also expressed apprehension in the failure to win the argument in favor of regulations over the expansion of carbon markets.
“We are very concerned here,” said Kleber Karipuna, Indigenous leader of the Karipuna nation and executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB). “This debate on the carbon market is becoming a debate very much from an economic point of view … making the forest an economic asset to be traded.”
While perceptions about the carbon market are mixed within Indigenous rights and environmental groups, most agree agree that there are important improvements that need to be made in the trade to increase the integrity of its credits. High-integrity credits ensure that credits are unique, real, additional, permanent, and measurable, as well as ensure that communities, especially Indigenous peoples and local communities, benefit the most from these programs.
Some Indigenous leaders say high-integrity credits could offer a way to plug a potential $4.1 trillion gap in nature financing by 2050, as well as financially support their communities who conserve these carbon-storing ecosystems.
However, Kleber Karipuna said this remains a delicate issue as some communities have benefited from these projects while others have entered into dubious agreements without proper safeguards and lose access to resources or land. Last month, according to human rights lawyers, Indigenous Ogiek people in Kenya were evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for a carbon credit project from UAE firm Blue Carbon. The Kenyan government has not yet confirmed this allegation.
The reputation of these unregulated carbon markets, especially the voluntary carbon market where businesses are involved in the trade, have also been criticized in reports for falling short of their emission offsetting claims.
An initial draft of the COP28 agreement included a requirement for communities impacted by a carbon project to pay $5,000 to file a complaint through a grievance mechanism. While this was removed in the final agreement, Kleber Karipuna said there’s a need to ensure that any future grievance mechanism is transparent and accessible to all.
“We need to take ownership and work on the safeguards for this, so that we don’t have future problems with possible agreements and contracts that are poorly made, without proper safeguards,” he said.
At the conference, at least 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists were registered and more than 475 lobbyists were pushing for carbon capture and storage technologies. Carling and other Indigenous rights advocates believe fossil fuel lobbyists presented an enormous lobbying effort to allow oil-producing countries to avoid promises to “phase out” fossil fuels by pouring money into offsetting their emissions instead.
Promises and money
Sushil Raj, executive director of the rights and communities program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), told Mongabay that while there’s greater recognition of the link between high-integrity ecosystems, nature and the climate agenda in the final agreement of COP28, there remains too little focus on human rights and human rights-based approaches.
“They constantly reference, for instance, that we must respect, promote and consider obligations on human rights, but they don’t talk about the protections or safeguards of the rights of Indigenous peoples or local communities,” Raj said. “In many places they talk about ‘we must include their participation or encourage participation’ rather than merely talk about their role as decision-makers as part of these solutions.”
Although the differences in language and wording may seem trivial, word choice within this nonbinding international agreement makes the difference between whether a country should respect Indigenous rights or can overlook it; it’s the difference, observers say, between a promise and a suggestion.
A concrete form of decision-making that Raj said would be essential is for at least one Indigenous person to be on the loss and damage fund board, so they can play a crucial role in how the fund and its funding mechanisms are designed. Indigenous communities, many of whom live in rural or remote areas that are on the frontlines of climate change impacts, would have liked a guarantee of being at the negotiating table when these funds are handed out to member states. However, this was not achieved.
Without having a voice and decision-making ability in the room, Raj told Mongabay, they’ve seen that it can be very hard for different Indigenous groups and communities to access finance through multilateral funds.
The final board will be made up of 26 national representatives from 14 developing countries and 12 developed countries, excluding civil society and Indigenous representatives. Additionally, a country’s classification as “developing” or “developed” refers to 1992 U.N. definitions that have come under scrutiny, in part as high-income, oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia continue to be labeled as “developing.”
“In spite of the two meetings we had with the COP presidency where he said that he will integrate our demands on the loss and damage [fund,] we did not get there,” Carling said.
While Carling said it’s positive that recognition of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and local knowledge systems are included in the agreement’s section relating to adaptation, a mention is not enough.
“That’s extractivism,” Carling said. “It’s like, ‘OK, we need your knowledge, but we don’t want to protect your rights. We can still kick you out of your land or we can sell your carbon without your knowledge.’”
According to Pamela McElwee, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) nexus assessment, the $1 billion in pledges for the new loss and damage fund is also “totally inadequate for the size of the problem.”
There’s always generally a problem with trying to ensure adequate amounts of funding within the international environmental conferences, she told Mongabay, whether it’s the loss and damage fund to help vulnerable countries, or direct funds for communities that conserve forests and vital ecosystems that store emissions.
Kleber Karipuna told Mongabay that securing direct funding for Indigenous peoples and local communities, which is a constant challenge, is one of the main agenda items for the global Indigenous movement.
At the COP26 conference in Glasgow in 2021, a $1.7 billion pledge was made to support Indigenous peoples and local communities’ land rights. However, while a recent report found that 48% of the financing was distributed, findings also show that only 2.1% of the funding went directly to Indigenous peoples and local communities.
“We know that the science shows very clearly that biodiversity is better conserved on land managed by Indigenous peoples,” McElwee said. “So, let’s give them the funding directly and stop delaying. That’s a position that they’ve had for a long time and it just never seems to move in the direction it needs to move.”
Although there’s a need to figure out how to scale funding to Indigenous groups, and while payments for ecosystem services show evidence of being able to raise money for climate mitigation projects, McElwee said she doubts voluntary carbon and biodiversity credit markets will keep pace with change.
“Whether we’re talking about the loss and damage fund or we’re talking about adaptation funding or carbon markets, we have to recognize all of those additional benefits that we get from nature that aren’t able to be monetarily valued,” she said. “And I think we lose sight of those sometimes … a whole-of-nature approach would be ideal. But what we end up getting is little slices of things here and there.”
Optimism for the future
At the next climate conference, COP29, to be held in Azerbaijan, the establishment of a new momentous climate finance goal, known as the New Collective Quantified Goal on Climate Finance, will be at the top of the agenda. It will replace the existing commitment where developed countries pledged to provide $100 billion annually to developing nations.
At this conference, Carling said, Indigenous leaders will push for the creation of an interface that integrates the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, another U.N. platform of Indigenous peoples, into COP decision-making.
And in two years from now, at COP30 in Brazil, countries will need to present new national climate plans that cover their entire economy and greenhouse gas emissions in a way that’s fully aligned with the 1.5°C limit.
Indigenous rights have historically been excluded from these national climate plans. According to a recent study, only 14% of the countries analyzed consulted with Indigenous people in developing their plans, and only 5% mention Indigenous rights.
But Kleber Karipuna of APIB said he remains upbeat. He said COP30, in his home country, will provide an opportunity for the inclusion of Indigenous rights. He said Brazil is planning for more than 3,000 Indigenous delegates to attend the event, while the government has also indicated it will include demarcations of new Indigenous territories as part of its new climate plan.
According to APIB, the global Indigenous movement is aiming to “boost the debate on payments for environmental services” at this conference.
This year, Sonia Guajajara, Brazil’s minister for Indigenous peoples, who led the country’s COP delegation, also announced the creation of an international Indigenous Commission within the U.N. made up of several Indigenous bodies.
“From now on, from COP28 to COP30, we need to assess the extent to which these agreements … are going to become a reality in practice, so that we can visualize the progress that is necessary and important to combat the climate crisis, to guarantee the rights of peoples and to guarantee the titling of territories,” Kleber Karipuna said.
Banner image: Attendees from Brazil pose during the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 5, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Image by COP28 / Mahmoud Khaled via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed).
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here:
Owen, J. R., Kemp, D., Lechner, A. M., Harris, J., Zhang, R., & Lèbre, É. (2022). Energy transition minerals and their intersection with land-connected peoples. Nature Sustainability, 6(2), 203-211. doi:10.1038/s41893-022-00994-6
Nitah, S. (2021). Indigenous peoples proven to sustain biodiversity and address climate change: Now it’s time to recognize and support this leadership. One Earth, 4(7), 907-909. doi:10.1016/j.oneear.2021.06.015
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