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Native Peoples Out in Cold at Warming Meet

by Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS - Global efforts to combat climate change will lead nowhere as long as the indigenous peoples' representatives have no say in discussions to lay out future plans, say activists who are attending the international conference on climate change being held in the Polish city of Poznan this week.

An environmentalist from Oxfam protests in front of the buildings where the UN climate change conference is being held in Poznan December 4, 2008. Oxfam is demanding global action by rich countries to combat climate change. Activists note that most development projects in the forests are actually aimed at stealing the resources of indigenous peoples for commercial gains rather than helping them sustain their resources and environmental preservation. (REUTERS/Kacper Pempel) "Indigenous peoples have for centuries adapted to changing environments and would be able to contribute substantially to adaptation strategies the U.N. is trying to include in a new climate change treaty," said Mark Lattimer of the London-based Minority Rights Group International (MRG).

Ahead of the conference on climate change, which started Monday, MRG researchers released a new study concluding that a new climate change deal would be "seriously compromised" if governments continued to shut out the voices of those most affected by global warming.

According to the U.N., about 8,000 delegates from around the world are participating in the Poznan conference, which will last until Dec. 12. The meeting is likely to decide what more could be done to fight climate change and how to fund it. Last week, officials at the U.N. described the meeting as "a milestone on the road to success", for the negotiation process launched at the past conferences.

But indigenous rights activists seem highly sceptical about such claims. "The U.N. process is flawed as communities that have first-hand experience of dealing with climate change are not allowed to participate," said Lattimer. "It is incomprehensible how governments agree targets without the input of those who face the impacts of climate change."

The Poznan conference is expected to set targets on carbon emissions from deforestation, but leaders of the indigenous communities that live in the forests complain they are not being genuinely consulted in discussions on future plans and strategies.

"We are suffering the worst impacts of climate change without having contributed to its creation," Ben Powless, an indigenous rights activist from Canada, told IPS in an email from Poland, where he is watching the proceeding from the sidelines of the conference.

In his view, the official strategies and schemes for mitigation are nothing but "false solutions to the problem".

"They threaten our rights and our very existence," he said, noting that numerous mitigation and land conversion projects for agro-fuel implemented by governments and the private sector are carried out "without the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples."

Activists like Lattimer and Powless note that most development projects in the forests are actually aimed at stealing the resources of indigenous peoples for commercial gains rather than helping them sustain their resources and environmental preservation. In recent years, numerous studies have shown that most of the world's 370 million indigenous peoples live in ecologically diverse areas and that they rely heavily on natural resources.

But due to climate change, they are losing their sources of livelihood. "There has been a lot of attention paid to the damage climate change is doing to the environment and the loss of certain plant or animal species, but we aren't sufficiently recognising the impact on people," said Farah Mihlar, who wrote the MRG report.

The indigenous representatives say the so-called "'scientific' mitigation and adaptation solutions, methodologies and technologies being discussed by the policymakers do not reflect their vision and ancestral knowledge."

"[They] violate or threaten our human rights," said Ben Powless. "We may also need to discuss at some point of time the ecological debt that especially industrialised countries have with [us]. Consultations with us often only take the form of simply informing our communities."

The MRG research shows that indigenous peoples throughout the world are often among the poorest and most marginalised communities and are most likely to face discrimination when climate-driven disasters occur.

"There are entire communities that could be lost," Mihlar added in a statement. "Cultures, traditions, and languages could be wiped off the Earth."

At the climate change conference held in Bali, Indonesia last December, indigenous rights activists held a series of demonstrations against their exclusion from the official talks.

Among them, many had come from the communities living in the tropical forests of the world. At the conference, they expressed grave concerns about plans by governments and international financial institutions to control forest degradation. At the conference, they particularly expressed their worries about the World Bank's Carbon Partnership Facility, which is likely to provide large-scale incentives for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

The tropical and subtropical forest, the subject of the Facility, is home to 160 million indigenous people who are seen by many scientists as custodians and managers of forest biodiversity.

"While the Facility can be a good thing, we are very apprehensive of how this will work," said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chairperson of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, "because of our negative historical and present experiences with similar initiatives."

The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognises native groups' right to control their lands and resources, including forests, but many governments and corporations continue to abuse the rights of forest communities.

"We remain in a very vulnerable situation," said Tauli-Corpuz, "because most states do not recognise our rights to these forests and resources found therein."

Last year, a report released by an international advocacy group raised similar concerns about the role of governments and corporations. In its report, London-based Survival International named and shamed countries where the violations of tribal peoples' rights are most egregious, including Botswana, Brazil, New Zealand, Malaysia, Paraguay, Peru, and the United States.

In contrast to the U.N. negotiation process on climate change issues, indigenous communities enjoy a relatively greater role in discussions on preserving biodiversity. The secretariat of the U.N. treaty on biodiversity has established a working group to ensure this. MRG said it gathered a series of testimonies from the world's indigenous leaders in which they express "deep frustration" at their exclusion from the negotiations on climate change.

In a statement, the group called for the U.N. to establish a mechanism, similar to that of the treaty on biological diversity, so that indigenous communities can have their voices heard at the international level. The indigenous representatives attending the Poznan conference say they want the U.N. to engage all the indigenous communities affected by climate change in the negotiation process to advance an agenda on mitigation efforts.

"We are rights-holders in the discussions, not stakeholders," said Powless. "We demand full participation in the implementation of all areas of work concerning climate change and forests."

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