Indigenous Groups Criticize Climate Talks

UNFCCC protestAs international climate negotiations move closer to including forests in the successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, indigenous and traditional peoples realize they have either a lot to gain or everything to lose.

If industrialized countries are allowed to purchase the carbon rights of forests, groups from the Americas, Africa, and Asia fear their ancestral lands may be taken away. They worry that the benefactors of the carbon market will be governments or wealthy landholders, and not them.

At a time when their concerns should be at the forefront of debates, the venues for indigenous peoples to express themselves have so far been limited. They are granted observer status at United Nations climate negotiations, but they do not have voting rights - leading many to demand a stronger voice in the process.

"When you don't have recognized status, you're not existent. You're not at the table," said Kanyinke Sena, the Indigenous People of Africa Coordinating Committee's Eastern Africa representative.

Forests were not considered as carbon sinks in the Kyoto Protocol, but realization that deforestation accounts for almost 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions has led to their reconsideration. Industrialized nations may be allowed to offset their emissions by paying developing nations to protect their forests, known as reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).

Several indigenous groups initially opposed REDD due to their suspicion that it would be another form of Western land-grabbing. But climate negotiators say a solution would ideally benefit the traditional stewards of the world's forests through some sort of financial compensation. As awareness grows about the potential benefits for forest peoples, some indigenous leaders are shifting towards wary support. But they still emphasize that without official land rights for indigenous peoples, REDD will likely lead to further suffering.

Indigenous representatives from across the globe have joined The Forest Dialogues - a gathering of environmentalists, business leaders, financial donors, and government officials who are forming a joint policy recommendation on REDD. Their inclusion should lead to a greater presence in the REDD debate.

"This is the first time indigenous and non-indigenous groups are meeting at this type of forum," said Parshuram Tamang, the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Tropical Forests' climate negotiations representative and a member of the Tamang ethnic group of Nepal. "This is very important for indigenous people."

The presence of indigenous groups at the dialogues' meetings has helped shape a consensus, which although it has yet to be finalized, stresses the "fundamental importance of the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples, small forest owners, and local communities."

Participation in the dialogue meetings, held last week at the World Bank, has also provided indigenous leaders with access to a network of influential forestry officials. Leaders of the Amazon Alliance, representatives of indigenous organizations and NGOs from nine South American countries, hand-delivered a letter to World Bank President Robert Zoellick that demanded the Bank "cease its exclusion of indigenous peoples and the violation of our rights." Zoellick told them that the bank will try to work on these issues.

The alliance's letter also accused the bank of ignoring indigenous people in a REDD pilot program that was launched in July with 14 tropical nations. "I am trying to show the World Bank that indigenous people are well organized," said Juan Carlos Jintiach, the alliance's executive co-director and a member of the Shuar tribe of Ecuador. "I don't want them to ever forget us. There are not just trees there; there are human begins there now."

Despite the criticisms, the presence of indigenous peoples at United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings has increased recently, according to Steve Schwartzman, co-director of the Environmental Defense Fund's international program. "More indigenous leaders are there participating as observers," he said. "There is much more discussion going on about it. Issues are slowly gaining visibility."

Also, the World Bank has held several workshops with indigenous leaders in Africa, Asia, and Latin America this year to inform them about the REDD negotiations. And the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues made climate change awareness a theme of its annual meeting in April. 

But for leaders such as Tamang, being informed is not enough. "[The U.N.] should give indigenous people specialty status... because we are affected by the decision," he said. "We are the victims of climate change and we are the impact of a solution to climate change."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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