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Know the West

What's next for indigenous people facing climate disruption?


Terri Hansen, a correspondent for Indian Country Today, attended the Copenhagen climate talks. She followed the story of how of indigenous rights, including those of American Indian tribes, were left out of the COP-15 talks, and filed this report for the HCN Grange blog.

Indigenous peoples face big climate problems but had little say at the Copenhagen climate talks, something that Patricia Cochran, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council said, "epitomizes climate injustice."

Early on during the conference, Indigenous Peoples' Day on Dec. 12, organized by Tebtebba: Indigenous Peoples' International Centre for Policy Research and Education drew many wearing the colorful costumes of their homeland to the Denmark National Museum in downtown Copenhagen, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The museum highlighted indigenous voices with short films from Life Mosaic Films, REDD: A New Animal in the Forest, and Conversations with the Earth that showed dramatic footage of disruptions to indigenous lands from climate change. The COP15 Indigenous Voices on Climate Change' film festival depicted climate change in communities from Ethiopia to the Arctic.

 Tebtebba's Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an Igorot from the Philippines and chair of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues announced that indigenous peoples had achieved a small victory by getting this reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into page two of the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation draft agreement:

"Respect for the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and members of the local communities, noting General Assembly has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of indigenous peoples and taking into account relevant international obligations, national circumstances and legislation."

By Dec. 16 the victory weakened when the reference to UNDRIP was stripped from the final REDD treaty. The language changed to "Recognizing the need for full and effective engagement of indigenous peoples and local communities in, and the potential contribution of their knowledge to, monitoring and reporting of activities."

Frustrated, Cochran said, "It would have been a historic breakthrough. None of the other documents under development made any mention of UNDRIP or the Shared Vision."

Also on Indigenous Day, a large contingency of Native Americans, Alaska Natives and First Nations peoples joined supporters at the U.S. Embassy to deliver a message to President Obama, then traveling to Oslo to accept his Nobel Prize.

Gwichi'in Arctic Village leader Sarah James offered up prayers and said 18 of their lakes have perished from melting permafrost leading to wildfires that burn the lichen the caribou depend on. "It's disorienting the animals it confuses people even – they don't know their land anymore."

After terse negotiations Danish police allowed part of their group to deliver a handwritten scroll to the Embassy that included a 15-point position statement by the U.S.-based Indigenous Environmental Network.

The following day the G77 group of developing countries walked out of the talks with accusations that the developed countries were trying to wreck the Kyoto Protocol, a move that forced the U.N. to suspend several sessions to give rich countries more time to debate emissions cuts.

Fast forward to Dec. 16: Danish police fired tear gas and beat back environmental and indigenous activists at the Bella Center, after a few protesters smashed windows with rocks. They arrested hundreds, including innocent bystanders. Corpuz, critical of Danish authorities for their harsh treatment said one of her friends sustained head injuries from a police baton and had to be seen at a hospital.

Though the tempo increased with the unprecedented number of world leaders attending the meeting, it ground to nearly a halt Dec. 19 for the indigenous sector, with only 10 people out of some 200 allowed entry to the Bella Center. "The world leaders were talking to empty halls because they would not let many of our people in," Corpuz said.

And so it went, right up to the last harried minutes. IEN director Tom Goldtooth said that with little opportunity to get indigenous peoples into the Center, "we did not have a contingency inside to get some lobbying in on the declaration." What finally happened, he said, was the emergence of 'this accord document.'

"I was there all though the night in those final hours," Goldtooth said. "Crafted behind closed doors, indigenous peoples had no opportunity to lobby against it."

"There's no recognition or provisions for the rights of indigenous peoples. And that's problematic."

Watch a video of indigenous people's protests and procession in Copenhagen, courtesy of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Photo credit: Terri Hansen.