An Indigenous peoples’ approach to climate justice
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An Indigenous peoples’ approach to climate justice

Deborah McGregor

Climate change has been identified as the “defining issue of our time” by many of the world’s leading experts and the diagnosis of planetary health is dire.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has concluded that goals for achieving sustainability “cannot be met by current trajectories” and UN secretary-general António Guterres has referred to humanity’s “war on nature” as “senseless and suicidal”.

The term “climate justice” has emerged to explain how those who are least responsible for climate change – the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and marginalised – tend to suffer its gravest impacts.

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

Understanding the role of Indigenous peoples in determining future climate policies does not only consist of how climate change affects their livelihoods and survival – although that is critically important.

Indigenous leadership is also necessary if climate justice is to be achieved, as is support for advancing transformative and innovative solutions that account for all life.

Exclusion is the norm

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

An International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and International Labour Organization joint report noted in 2021 that Indigenous peoples were responsible for protecting an estimated 22% of the planet’s surface and 80% of biodiversity.

Research also suggests that levels of biodiversity are equal, if not higher, in areas with a greater Indigenous presence and where Indigenous languages remain spoken.

The role played by Indigenous groups, in particular women, in environmental protection has been recognised, with UN Climate Change executive secretary Patricia Espinosa recently stating:

“Indigenous women carry the knowledge of their ancestors while also leading their communities into a resilient future. When Indigenous women engage, climate policies and actions at every level benefit from their holistic, nature-focused knowledge and leadership.”

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

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

“It is unfortunate to see that the climate science, including [the] summary for policymakers of the IPCC report, does not recognise our distinct knowledge systems/Indigenous science and the positive contribution of Indigenous peoples in climate action. The summary unveils the changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere, but fails to cite even once human rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples. This gesture is even more threatening than climate change itself, for Indigenous peoples.”

Indigenous planetary health and climate assessments

Indigenous peoples have diagnosed, assessed and offered their own solutions to a warming climate, as exemplified by Indigenous environmental and climate change declarations at international, national and local levels over the years. For example, the Kimberley Declaration of 2002 states:

“Since 1992 [when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed in Rio de Janeiro], the ecosystems of the Earth have been compounded in change. We are in crisis. We are in an accelerating spiral of climate change that will not abide by unsustainable greed.”

As climate change has intensified, so have assaults on Indigenous self-determination. This was noted in the Kari-Oca 2 declaration, which was released in parallel with the UN’s Rio +20 meeting in 2012 and ratified by more than 500 Indigenous peoples:

“Since Rio 1992, we as Indigenous peoples see that colonisation has become the very basis of the globalisation of trade and the dominant capitalist global economy. The exploitation and plunder of the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as the violations of the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples that depend on them, have intensified… Our rights to self-determination, to our own governance and 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.”

In releasing these statements, Indigenous peoples have called into question the legitimacy and applicability of global and nation-state political and legal mechanisms, as these same states and international governing bodies continue to fail Indigenous peoples around the world.

As my colleagues and I have outlined, Indigenous peoples’ assessments of the state of the world’s climate and environment, based on their own knowledge and understanding, have found the global approaches thus far to be lacking in achieving climate justice.

In response, Indigenous peoples have proposed a path forward that promotes Indigenous and human rights, as well as the rights of nature, aimed at bringing about a “just, equitable and sustainable world”.

Decolonising climate change

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, executive director of Indigenous Climate Action, has stated that “the climate crisis cannot be addressed in any meaningful way without addressing its root causes – capitalism, colonialism and extractivism”.

Indigenous climate justice frames the challenge of global warming – along with other environmental injustices – as inevitably tied to, and symptomatic of, these ongoing processes of colonialism, dispossession, violence and violations of Indigenous and human rights.

It also recognises that there are unique considerations to be taken into account specifically in relation to Indigenous peoples – including recognition of Indigenous knowledge systems and sustainable livelihoods – and that addressing these issues must be led by Indigenous peoples.

Over the years, Indigenous peoples have borne witness to transformations of the natural environment throughout periods of historical and ongoing colonialism, such as widespread deforestation and pollution of water sources. These experiences have equipped them with knowledge of how to navigate catastrophic environmental change, although these dimensions of Indigenous experience have thus far had limited impact on climate change policy.

What is required is a profoundly different set of logics to attend to the full scale of climate justice and clearly diagnose, assess and then problem-solve climate change. Such approaches already exist in the lives, experiences and knowledge of Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples prioritise responsibility to future generations in their relationships with the Earth, as well as “non-human relatives”, including the trees, fish, animals, skies and water. These are seen as possessing spirit and agency, recognising that we are made of the same elements, and thus are part of the same community.

They also recognise that nature itself, or “Mother Earth”, has rights that must be respected, and this should be recognised in government-formulated policies and legal processes. This perspective was recognised internationally in 2017 at the COP23 climate conference, in a document released by Indigenous groups titled Rights of Nature: Rights-Based Law for Systemic Change.

It stated that, “we must stop treating the Earth as a commodity”, adding that:

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

An innovative response based on Indigenous, nature-derived logics is evident in the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, generated at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia over a decade ago. It pointed to a different logic of human-nature relationships that can inform the economic, social, political and legal transformation called for by international scientific assessments of the state of the planet.

Indigenous peoples’ declarations seek in essence to “decolonise” these broader processes, an approach that involves addressing the root causes of climate change, advancing self-determination and recognising Indigenous people as partners at the decision-making table in a nation-to-nation framework. In practice, this means focusing on local climate initiatives as an expression of sovereignty and moving towards a “just transition” for communities.

Such efforts are chronicled in a recent Indigenous Environmental Network report, in collaboration with Oil Change International, which examines Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel projects and highlights the importance of land defence, and the assertion and exercise of rights and responsibilities to the Earth.

Moving forward

Indigenous climate justice advocates argue that as long as these dominant world systems fail to embrace the transformation required and offered by Indigenous peoples – including an acceptance of the rights of Mother Earth – humanity as a whole will continue to fail the planet.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) could form an integral part of any international climate change policy or initiative on the matter, particularly as it relates to Indigenous and human rights. Currently, it does not.

What is more, despite some recognition of Indigenous contributions, challenges remain to full, meaningful and equitable participation in the upcoming COP26 [ed. Now COP27] climate summit.

With the world still falling short on climate action and planetary health deteriorating, Indigenous climate leadership is essential in moving forward.


Source: Carbon Brief. Published 8 October 2021. Reproduced under Creative Commons © Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.


Deborah McGregor is associate professor and Canada research chair in Indigenous environmental justice at York University, Toronto, Canada.

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