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‘Indigenous’ and ‘local’ shouldn’t be conflated: Q&A with Indigenous leader Sara Olsvig

Indigenous Borana women farmers and their children in Ethiopia.

Indigenous Borana women farmers and their children in Ethiopia. Image by ILRI / Camille Hanotte via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • Although there wasn’t much to celebrate at the COP28 climate summit for Indigenous peoples, who were vastly outnumbered by fossil fuel lobbyists, leading advocate Sara Olsvig points to some progress made.
  • Olsvig is adamant that efforts to tackle the climate crisis must not infringe on the rights of Indigenous peoples, and that the approach to take must be centered on respect for human rights.
  • She also successfully pushed for the final text of the summit to distinguish between Indigenous peoples and local communities, saying the long-held practice of conflating the two has often been to the detriment of Indigenous groups.
  • “We have already reached the tipping points in a climate sense,” Olsvig says. “Now we are also reaching tipping points in a human rights sense. And this is a very, very worrying development for the world.”

DUBAI — It was Sara Olsvig’s love of ice that brought her to the desert of Dubai for the 2023 U.N. climate summit, COP28.

As an Inuit child growing up in a village in Disko Bay, Greenland, Olsvig would often dogsled and fish on the frozen sea and lakes, so she can tell how much has now changed: The sea ice is often wet and mushy, the air is humid or foggy, and the snow is sticky, making hunting and fishing harder.

Although Indigenous peoples’ ways of life are typically the most sustainable, they’re also often the most threatened by climate change — as well as by activities meant to mitigate its impact, such as the mining of minerals for the renewable energy transition. That’s what drives Olsvig, as chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) and a leading voice in the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus at COP28, to push for greater Indigenous participation and recognition of Indigenous rights at climate talks.

“Our inclusion in climate policymaking is so important because we have that inherently interconnected worldview on how human beings are a fully integrated part of nature,” she said. “For me [this] has been very clear. I think that just comes from my upbringing and from the culture I’m from.”

In the spring, her family would fish through holes in the ice for cod (Gadus morhua), halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) and wolffish (Anarhichas lupus). After the ice broke up, they fished from their boat for Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) and gathered crowberries and blueberries on the tundra. They hunted reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) in the fall and ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) and hare in the winter, when temperatures could drop below -35° Celsius (-31° Fahrenheit).

At COP28, Olsvig spoke at the plenary of government ministers on Dec. 9, reminding them that the Arctic, the “cooling system of the planet” she calls home, is warming four times faster than the rest of Earth. While there were 350 Indigenous participants at the conference, this was still far fewer than the record 2,400 fossil fuel lobbyists.

“If we don’t take the lead, others will, and that’s the story of our societies, especially those of us who have been through colonization,” said Olsvig, who also successfully ran for one of Greenland’s two seats in the Danish parliament. “We are on a global scene still so marginalized.”

Sara Olsvig.
“If we don’t take the lead, others will, and that’s the story of our societies, especially those of us who have been through colonization,” says Olsvig. Image courtesy of Sara Olsvig.

While many goals that Indigenous groups advocated for during the conference weren’t achieved, a few were. Olsvig successfully called for the texts agreed at COP28 to recognize Indigenous knowledge as equal to other knowledge systems and to differentiate between Indigenous peoples and local communities by removing the “and” and inserting a comma in the common phrase “Indigenous groups and local communities.”

To know more about these accomplishments and the state of Indigenous rights at the conference, Mongabay spoke with Olsvig on the sidelines of the summit. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: One of the goals of the Indigenous representation here is to replace an “and” with a comma in the text between “Indigenous groups and local communities.” How can people understand why that’s actually important?

Sara Olsvig: Well, the “and” and the commas are sort of details within a bigger package of things that the Global Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus is pushing for.

First and foremost, of course, we want Indigenous peoples to be included in the negotiations. We have unfortunately seen a decline in access to the negotiations in terms of being able to speak directly to the state parties. [And] one person can express the position of the whole caucus instead of we as peoples [representing each group], because we are also distinct and diverse as peoples, representing each of our positions. So, through that process, our positions really get filtered through a lot of filters. So, we have to be very specific to what we want to achieve at each COP.

The human rights approach has [had] one clear goal: to bring back a human rights approach to all climate policymaking from the U.N. and the UNFCCC [U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change] and the state parties, recognizing that climate change is a human rights issue, and that we must do what we can to ensure that human rights are not further violated as new mechanisms are set up.

Of course, and not least importantly, [we need to] see a clear and distinct recognition of Indigenous peoples and our rights, including the knowledge of Indigenous peoples, integrated into the text. And that it is that exact knowledge that has ensured that 80% of the world’s biodiversity is safeguarded by Indigenous peoples, although we make up less than 5% of the world’s population.

[Indigenous knowledge] includes also the spiritual relation to the nature around us and us being an integrated part of the nature. And it is intergenerational. It also carries with us our worldviews and cultures.

And when it is conflated with, for example, local knowledge, it is watered down. It’s devaluated. And the same happens also when we talk about Indigenous peoples and local communities, as if it is one group. States can use that in their implementation of these mechanisms that are decided upon at the climate conferences, and say that they consulted the local communities, when they in fact failed to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the [nearby] Indigenous peoples, in accordance with the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous people from the state of Pará, Brazil, demonstrate against the construction of the planned Belo Monte hydroelectric dam.
Indigenous people from the state of Pará, Brazil, demonstrate against the construction of the planned Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in 2011. Image by International Rivers via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: What’s an example of where the conflation between “Indigenous peoples” and “local communities” has led to real-world impacts?

Sara Olsvig: Let’s take, for example, the case in Norway, where the Supreme Court has ruled that the establishment of wind turbine farms on the Sámi peoples’ land has been a clear violation of its own Constitution and a clear violation of the civil and political rights of the Sámi people. That case, the Fosen case, is very interesting because it’s happening in a developed country in Norway that has traditionally been showing a high degree of ethics and moral on human rights.

So, that is a very clear example of how a state can conduct its sort of normal decision-making procedures, having consultations with local communities, and by doing so, completely failing to upholding their promises of respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples. When we talk about green transition and we talk about climate justice, as I have been repeating also, we must think about justice for whom, and we really, really, really must make sure that this is all done based on human rights.

The term “green colonization,” which has now also become very known in a Sámi context, has also been used in an Amazonian context. If we are not very careful, and as I have also said here at the COP28, we will reach a tipping point on human rights, because there’s such a massive pressure from the world to act, and that is necessary. But we must balance that in terms of making sure that whatever actions are taken are not violating the rights of indigenous peoples.

Mongabay: There are some local communities who have lived in the same area for thousands of years who are not considered Indigenous. There are regions of the world, like Africa and Southeast Asia, where distinguishing between who is “Indigenous” or part of a “local community” is difficult. Does the term “Indigenous peoples and local communities” in the texts like here and in other environmental policy not catch everyone who falls in between these groups?

Sara Olsvig: We don’t want to remove the term “local communities.” It should, of course, stay in the text — but not conflated with Indigenous peoples. The thing is also that we as Indigenous peoples have the right of self-identification, and we fully recognize in the global caucus that there are Indigenous peoples around the world who are not recognized by their states. So, the point is here that in the caucus and with the U.N., they are recognized. And the consensus text that we have here in the Global Indigenous Caucus at this COP28 is very clear on us fully advocating for the non-conflation of local communities and Indigenous peoples, because only that way we can fully protect the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Mongabay: How is asserting those distinct rights connected to the goals of preserving nature, preserving the natural carbon sinks that are a key part of fighting climate change?

Sara Olsvig: Now that climate change is happening and the world is acting, which is good, we unfortunately then see a lot of movement from businesses, from lobbyists, from organizations, environmental organizations, from states, where they act in the name of a greater good, but when they do so, they violate Indigenous peoples’ rights.

I have some examples from Greenland where we are approached by geoengineering research groups that want to test their new engineering methods on our lands and waters, which we can see will have severe impact on our ecosystems. There’s one project where they want to pour cement down in the bottom of a fjord and put up some kind of curtains that they think might be able to hold back the cold water.

And it’s like, who knows if it’s going to work. But if it doesn’t work, it’s going to ruin the whole ecosystem of a whole area where thousands of people live off the living resources in that area. But there are also projects that we do want. The point is we just have to decide ourselves.

Participants at the Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ Conservation Congress. Image courtesy of Rights and Resources Initiative.
Participants at the Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ Conservation Congress in Namibia, Africa. Image courtesy of Rights and Resources Initiative.

Mongabay: What effects of climate change are you seeing back in Greenland that impact Indigenous rights and livelihoods?

Sara Olsvig: In the Qaanaaq area right now, the lack of access to hunting is severely impacting families, because there’s no sea ice to hunt from for seals and other animals, small whales as well. Further south the ice has also become so unstable, people have to transition into other livelihoods. In loss and damage, it’s not only about loss of economy, economic things that you can count, or make up in money. It’s also loss of cultural practices. It’s loss of language. It’s loss of knowledge. These things we very often forget.

Last year, we had a young Inuk hunter with us to the climate conference. And his message was that he has to transition into fisheries in that half part of the year, when he would traditionally have been a hunter, hunting from the ice. But because the ice is so unstable, he cannot practice the traditional hunting. So this is really, really serious and impacting us in so many ways.

Mongabay: This COP28 was held in Dubai, a petrostate. The president of the conference was an oil company CEO. There were many scandals and questionable statements made coming to the COP from the organizers. Do you believe that these COP climate conferences are working to both solve climate change and protect the rights of vulnerable groups like Indigenous peoples?

Sara Olsvig: It is clearly not. And I really believe that the world community needs to think very thoroughly about how to do these things in a way that is more efficient. And I really cherish the ambition of the COP hosts here to focus on action and that we have heard, for example, the president of the COP, Sultan Al Jaber, speak using words that are very clearly adopted from what he has heard from Indigenous peoples.

But the failure to go from there to actually put it into the texts is showing that we are up against massive, massive forces that continue to fail to act in the way that they should. So it is deeply worrying and it is, of course, a clear testament to how important it is that we all continue to work as hard as we do and even harder to make sure that we will see improvements in the years to come. We have already reached the tipping points in a climate sense. And as I’ve said, now we are also reaching tipping points in a human rights sense. And this is a very, very worrying development for the world.

Indigenous activists at the climate justice march at COP28 on December 9.
Indigenous activists at the climate justice march at COP28 on December 9. Image by Kiara Worth / UNclimatechange via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: What can you draw on from the experience of yourself or other Indigenous peoples that gives you hope?

Sara Olsvig: What really has given me hope at this COP is to see the many youth delegates who have paved their way in here, including in our own delegation, and how they have so actively engaged and so quickly, for many of them, being at COPs for the first time in their lives, taken on themselves to be the advocates, taken on themselves to be the leaders. They are the ones who are the future. So they are also the ones who own whatever we do here and who will inherit whatever we do here.


Banner image: Indigenous Borana women farmers and their children in Ethiopia. Image by ILRI / Camille Hanotte via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Little achieved for Indigenous groups at U.N. climate summit, delegates say

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