Climate Negotiators “Respect” Human Rights Concerns

CONFENIA indigenous Copenhagen, Denmark - A draft United Nations climate treaty includes a reference to indigenous peoples' rights as part of an avoided deforestation plan, representing a first effort to grant indigenous communities legal protection through international environmental law. 

Negotiations remain unfinished, but the treaty text appears likely to include recognition of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration, adopted in 2007, maintains that indigenous peoples must express their "free, prior, and informed consent" for any biodiversity conservation program to proceed within their territory.

Advocates for indigenous people said that although the 2007 declaration is referenced, however, the current draft climate treaty does not offer true equal protections.

"It's not a victory, but it's something," said Juan Carlos Jintiach, a Shuar native from Ecuador who represents the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) at international meetings. "People recognize us. It's better than nothing."

International negotiators are likely to target the 15-20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions released from forest loss as part of a political agreement forged toward the end of the Copenhagen climate summit. The program, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), would provide financial incentives to tropical countries that improve carbon sequestration in their forests.

Six nations threw their support behind the program on Wednesday, offering a total of $3.5 billion to help developing nations prepare for REDD requirements.

"We regard this as an initial investment to build the capacity in these countries and to undertake efforts to slow deforestation," said U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at an event on Wednesday. "If we are serious about climate change we have to be serious about our forests."

Indigenous representatives have traveled to Copenhagen concerned that REDD programs, without proper legal protections, would displace indigenous communities from forested lands and coerce them into unfair contracts.

Simone Lorena travelled from the Kuna territory of Panama, where the United Nations and World Bank are helping to develop a REDD program. The Kuna General Congress received $69,000 to develop training workshops that explained REDD initiatives to the Kuna population, but the government submitted its final REDD plan to the World Bank without the Kuna's approval, Lorena said.

"We're sure REDD will create conflicts in forests because it wasn't a transparent direct consultation with indigenous people," Lorena said. "There was a lot of manipulation."

The current negotiation text "notes" that the U.N. has adopted the indigenous peoples' declaration and recommends that indigenous knowledge and rights "should" be respected. Advocates for indigenous peoples had hoped the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the broader international climate agreement that is currently being amended under the new treaty, would set a legal precedent that indigenous peoples could potentially cite in the event of rights violations.

"'Should' is much, much weaker than ‘parties shall,'" said Nathaniel Dyer, a policy advisor for Rainforest Foundation UK. "It's important because this is what lawyers will pore over when the violations occur."

The four countries that voted against the 2007 U.N. declaration - Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States - opposed the inclusion of similar language in the UNFCCC agreement, according to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

"We wanted it to be stronger. This is what the United States can live with," said Tauli-Corpuz, a Kankana-ey Igorot native from the Philippines who negotiated for the declaration's inclusion in the UNFCCC text. "We wanted respect for indigenous people as contained in the declaration, but of course, the U.S. didn't like it because the U.S. ruled against it and didn't feel obliged to implement it."

Australia, New Zealand, and the United States declined to comment on the ongoing negotiation text. The Canadian delegation, in an e-mail response, emphasized the importance of "appropriate consultative processes that support the fair and equitable balancing of interests" when working alongside indigenous communities.

"Free, prior, and informed consent is not the only, nor is it necessarily the most effective way, to ensure that the interests of indigenous peoples are accommodated," the statement said.

Nations that advocated for the U.N. declaration language included Bolivia, Columbia, Paraguay, the Philippines, and Venezuela, Tauli-Corpuz said.

The chair of REDD negotiations, Dean Tony La Vina of the Manila-based Ateneo School of Government, said on Sunday that legal "safeguards" - protections for biodiversity and transparency, as well as indigenous peoples' rights - would be addressed when ministers and heads of state work through the negotiation text during the rest of this week.

"I'm pretty confident we can work on those safeguards. REDD will not succeed if you don't respect the rights of indigenous peoples, if you don't maintain biodiversity, and if you don't ensure proper governance," La Vina said.

He added, however, that indigenous peoples' rights have largely been removed from the negotiation agenda in Copenhagen and were instead addressed in previous sessions. "We haven't had a debate on indigenous peoples in this session," he said.

Various voluntary standards are under development to ensure that national governments include safeguard protections in REDD programs. The REDD+ Social and Environmental Standards, a partnership between aid group CARE International and the Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA), has guided national REDD efforts in Ecuador.

"This is a very serious and genuine attempt to address the concerns that brings you all here," said Phil Franks, a CARE coordinator, in an address to indigenous representatives at a side event to the Copenhagen summit. "Communities should be involved fully in the [REDD] funding mechanism to make an attempt at knowing where those resources are going to go."

National or international forums may also be formed to allow communities or individuals abused as part of a REDD program to raise their concerns, said Nils Hermann Ranum, head of policy at Rainforest Foundation Norway.

"A complaint mechanism can be a possibility that helps countries adhere [to international guidelines], and it offers insurance for donors or buyers that it would not be their legal responsibility," Ranum said.

Following the summit, Jintiach said, indigenous peoples organizations will focus on educating their communities about REDD policies.

"How we implement on the ground, it's our responsibility as indigenous peoples' organizations," he said. "The world is coming. We have to do our part."

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

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