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Indigenous People Demand Voice in Climate Talks

Haider Rizvi

At the banquet on the first evening of the 2008 World Summit of Indigenous Cultures in Taipei. (flickr photo by davidreid)

UNITED NATIONS - Calls for greater participation of
the world's indigenous leaders are on the rise as another round of
talks on global climate change opens in the Polish city of Poznan next

is incomprehensible how governments believe they can discuss the
effects of climate change and agree targets without the input of those
who already face [its] impacts," said Mark Lattimer of the London-based
Minority Rights Group International (MRG).

In a study released last week, MRG researchers warned that a new
climate change agreement would be "seriously compromised" if
policymakers continued to shut out the voices of those most affected by
global warming.

More than 8,000 delegates from around the world are expected to
participate in the meeting at Poznan. The two-week meeting is supposed
to hammer out further international commitments to fight climate
change, including climate-related financial assistance for developing

UN officials hope the meeting will prove to be a "milestone on the
road to success" for the negotiation process launched at past
conferences, because it is tasked with setting the agenda for next
year's final talks on a climate change treaty.

But in Lattimer's view, the UN process is deeply flawed, because it
does not allow the communities that have first-hand experience of
dealing with climate change to participate in the negotiations.

For one, official delegates in Poznan are expected to set targets on
carbon emissions from deforestation, but forest-dwelling communities
who are mostly indigenous people may not be included in those

According to MRG's new report, the impact of climate change hits
indigenous communities hardest because they live in ecologically
diverse areas and their livelihoods are dependent on the environment.

To cite some examples of climate change impact on indigenous
communities, the report refers to unprecedented levels of ice-melt in
the Arctic region, droughts in east Africa, and a rapid fall in crop
yields in Vietnam.

Minorities, according to the report, are often among the poorest and
most marginalized communities and are most likely to face
discrimination when disasters occur during climate changes.

"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 recognizing its impact on people,"
said Farah Mihlar, the report's author.

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

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
worries about plans by governments and international financial
institutions to control forest degradation.

At the conference, they particularly expressed their concerns about
the World Bank's Carbon Partnership Facility, which is likely to
provide large-scale incentives for reducing emissions from
deforestation and forest degradation.

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 on
how this will work," said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chairperson of the UN
Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, "because of our negative
historical and present experiences with similar initiatives."

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes
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 recognize 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.

The report entitled, "The Terrible Ten: Key Abusers of Tribal
Peoples' Rights in 2007," said tribal people in West Papua were
suffering abuses at the hands of the Indonesian army and that their
native lands were often exploited by the government and foreign

In Botswana, Bushmen were forcibly prevented from returning to their
homes in the country's diamond-producing area, despite a court ruling
that declared their 2002 eviction "unlawful and unconstitutional."

According to Survival, Guarani Indians in Paraguay continued to lose
their lands as a result of violence perpetrated by cattle ranchers. A
number of natives were killed and raped as well.

In the Peru-Brazil border region, which is home to half of the world's about 100 still uncontacted tribes, indigenous populations faced land grabs by oil companies and loggers backed by the government.

And similar cases also took place in other indigenous territories
across the world. The UN Permanent Forum's Tauli-Corpuz demanded that
governments and corporations obtain the "free and prior" consent of
indigenous peoples before taking any initiative on forest protections.

"I imagine that donors and the private sector would not like to put
their resources in high-risk projects which will not genuinely involve
indigenous and other forest-dwellers," she said. "If there is an
acceptance of the Facility, indigenous peoples must have a
representation in [its] governance."

In contrast to the UN negotiation process on climate change issues,
indigenous communities enjoy relatively participation in international
discussions on preserving biodiversity. The secretariat of the UN
treaty on biodiversity has established a working group to ensure for

Meanwhile, MRG has 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 United Nations to set up a
mechanism, similar to that of the treaty on biological diversity, so
that indigenous communities could be able to have their voices heard at
the international level.

"Indigenous peoples have for centuries adapted to changing
environments and would be able to contribute substantially to
adaptation strategies the UN is trying to include in a new climate
change treaty," said Lattimer.


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