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COP 24 in Katowice: Indigenous Peoples Achieve Mixed Results

"I fear for my future. I fear for my community.” These words were spoken by Ryan Schaefer, 17, from the Dene Nation in Canada during the first meeting of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP 24) in Katowice, Poland. “Indigenous youth of the world stand before you today to affirm that we share his fears for our future,” said Ruth Kaviok of the National Inuit Youth Council of Canada. Her remarks were part of the opening plenary statement at the International Indigenous Peoples Forum at COP 24 on December 1. It was close to midnight on December 15 when the President’s gavel came down for a final time, concluding two weeks of intense debate.

Indigenous Peoples from around the world, including Tribal Nations and organizations whose traditional lands are within the political boundaries of United States, traveled to Poland to participate. Except for a few Indigenous representatives that were credentialed by States, most were designated as “observers” in this UN process, which is led and controlled by the 195 countries that signed on to the Paris Agreement adopted in December 2015 at COP 21. Despite this power imbalance within the UNFCCC (and, by and large, the entire UN system), some 100 Indigenous delegates representing all regions of the world stood united to insist on formal participation in this process that impacts us so directly, and to ensure that our rights and traditional knowledge are respected in national and global efforts to combat climate change.

In Katowice, the Indigenous Peoples Caucus, known as the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC), met in a weekend preparatory meeting and at least once daily during the COP to discuss strategies and reaffirm our collective positions in the face of new developments and COP 24 in Katowice Indigenous Peoples Achieve Mixed Results State proposals. Indigenous Peoples began the session by calling on States to meet their commitments to reduce emissions and reverse their fatal addiction to fossil fuels, which are the primary source of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. The IIFPCC opening statement referenced a recent UN study that reported that at their current rate, emissions are projected to raise global temperatures by 3ºC—a rate that will translate 2 to 3 times higher in the Arctic—and admonished the States for their failure to take meaningful action.

The most significant victory for Indigenous Peoples at COP 24 was the formal establishment of the Facilitative Working Group to develop a workplan for the “Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform.” The Platform is intended to strengthen and exchange traditional knowledge for mitigating and adapting to Climate Change, based on paragraph 135 of the Paris Agreement. Difficult issues under debate since Paris included equal participation between States and Indigenous Peoples in the working group, protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and traditional knowledge in this process, the definition and identity of “local communities,” and the concerns of some States that their “territorial integrity” might somehow be impacted in these discussions regarding traditional knowledge and climate change.
Throughout the negotiations, Indigenous Peoples, accompanied by key allies, held firm on the core issues of rights protection and equal participation. The final resolution,adopted unanimously by the COP 24 Plenary on December 8, reflected this commitment. It also established the working group with an equal number of Indigenous and State representatives,seven each. Additional places will be held open for the future participation of local communities when they are better defined and choose to become engaged. In an historic advance for Indigenous Peoples’ right to participate in decision making as affirmed in Article 18 of the UN Declaration, this is the first time that a UN body will provide for direct and equal participation.

The Facilitative Working Group will begin its work in 2019. Priorities include development of a work plan and structure for the Platform; adoption of rights safeguards to protect traditional knowledge and practices; and development of a budget to ensure support for the participation of Indigenous traditional knowledge holders and practitioners. At least one activity is planned for 2019. Possible discussion themes proposed by Indigenous Peoples include Oceans, Land, and Water; and Food Sovereignty and Forests, reflecting key eco- and knowledge systems impacted by climate change.

Despite the general mood of celebration for Indigenous Peoples at COP 24, there were some serious disappointments. A key priority for Indigenous Peoples was the inclusion of human rights and rights of Indigenous Peoples in the “Paris Rulebook,” which had to be adopted at COP 24 to determine the framework and guidelines for implementing the Paris Agreement. Unlike negotiating sessions that were held throughout the first week for States and Indigenous Peoples to engage on the Platform decision text, Indigenous Peoples had very little opportunity to participate directly on the development of the Rulebook.

Strategy meetings and side discussions were held with human rights organizations, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and States during the sessions to discuss how to pressure States to include strong human and Indigenous rights language. The Rulebook was finally adopted by consensus with seven references using the terms “Indigenous” or “Indigenous Peoples” (including a footnote recognizing the adoption of the new Platform), but making no specific references to human rights or the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Several references to human rights in the President’s draft going into the COP were removed in the negotiations. The final adopted text called on States to develop and report on their “voluntary national contributions” to reduce climate change with the input of Indigenous Peoples “as appropriate,” far weaker than the assurance of full and effective participation as called for by Indigenous Peoples.
/ Frank Ettawageshik (Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians in Michigan) represented the National Congress of America Indians at COP 24 and expressed mixed reactions. “We are gratified that an important milestone was reached in the formation of the local communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform and we express our appreciation to Indigenous Peoples and States from all the regions who worked so hard for this achievement. It is especially important that Indigenous Peoples from each region, using their own procedures, will select their representative on the Facilitative Work Group, which will draw up the work plan for the Platform,” he said. “But, we are extremely disappointed that the commitment in the Paris Agreement Preamble that in all climate actions, the rights of Indigenous Peoples and human rights generally are to be respected and promoted, got lost in the adoption of the Paris Rulebook in Katowice. The references to rights were consciously removed. This shows that we still have a lot of work to do at the UNFCCC to explain the importance of a rights-based approach for addressing climate change. We will continue to raise these issues at COP 25 in Chile, and beyond.”

Indigenous Peoples, especially those from the U.S., took note that the United States government delegation was highly engaged in the discussions and decision-making at COP 24, despite President Trump’s declaration in 2017 that the U.S. intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Although the U.S. was supportive during the Platform negotiations, they were one of only four States that took the floor during the final Plenary of the first week to oppose acknowledging the dire warning of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC was invited by the Paris Agreement and Decision to issue a report on the effects of a 1.5ºC increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels. The report, released in October 2018, confirmed the critical need to maintain the strongest commitment to the Paris Agreement’s aims of limiting global warming to well below 2ºC and pursuing efforts towards 1.5ºC. It also detailed the devastating effects of global temperature rise on ecosystems, health, food security, and the livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples around the world.

Most States agreed that the COP should adopt language “welcoming” the report as a basis for global climate action. However, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait, during the final Plenary of the first week, stated their firm opposition to that language, preferring to merely “take note” of the report. Many States took the floor to express their outrage at the U.S. and others that refused to acknowledge the urgency of taking dramatic action to bring the rate of global warming under control. Indigenous Peoples also reiterated their firm support for a 1.5ºC maximum goal in their closing statement to the Plenary. In the Indigenous Peoples Caucus closing Plenary Statement, Michael Charles (Dine’), a youth delegate, began by introducing himself traditionally in the Dine’ language. “We are deeply disappointed to see the language of human rights missing from the outcome of the Rulebook text,” Charles said, addressing both the advances and shortfalls of COP 24. “We believe that a rights-based approach is necessary to guide an implementation that protects us. This text is incomplete without human rights, and specifically Indigenous rights. . . . We will now embark on a process to breathe life into the Platform using our resilience, knowledge, and rights with equal representation between states and Indigenous Peoples.”

— Andrea Carmen (Yaqui), International Indian Treaty Council Executive Director, served on the Global Steering Committee for the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (2010–2018). She was selected to represent North America Indigenous
Peoples on the new UNFCCC Facilitative Working Group for the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform.

Photo: Indigenous Peoples and State negotiators celebrate their agreement on the final text for the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform at COP 24 in Katowice, Poland. Photo by Andrea Carmen. 

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