Using Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Climate Policy Development

By Katie Donnellan

(Katie Donnellan is a research assistant in the Department of Law at Maynooth University, Ireland.)

The convergence of World Indigenous Peoples Day and the release of the IPCC Report on climate change on August 9th, 2021 highlighted the convergence of the issues of climate change and the empowerment of Indigenous Peoples (IPs).  In November 2021, the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26 summit, presented the opportunity to operationalize the empowerment of IPs in the battle against climate change, and Indigenous voices were heard both inside and outside of the summit, influencing negotiations and protesting on the streets. Selected Indigenous stakeholders who were party to negotiations enjoyed ‘Friends of COP’ status, a nod to the role of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) in combatting climate change.  However, in practice, IPs were disproportionately blocked from attending Glasgow, with obstacles ranging from lack of access to Covid-19 vaccines, unpredictable travel rules and visa and accreditation issues. The deal reached at the conclusion of the summit bitterly disappointed Indigenous activists, who denounced it as a ‘death sentence’ for Indigenous communities, largely due to the incentivisation of off-setting, rather than cutting, emissions, which is linked to issues ranging from environmental destruction to murder. As encapsulated by the Indigenous activist Andrea Xieu, ‘The problem is not only the blah, blah, blah of politicians, but the bang, bang, bang of greenwashing.’  

The outcome of COP26 is a symptom of the broader issue of the exclusion of IPs from international climate policy discourse and the extant underlying trust deficit between IPs and the UN community. Invoking IKS to address the climate catastrophe is timely, according to former UNGA President, Maria Fernanda Espinosa: ‘We either think about the next elections or the next generations’. Often living in high risk environments, IPs are the first and most severely impacted by the negative consequences of climate change. They comprise just 5% of the global population yet protect 80% of global biodiversity. The value of their contribution to climate decision-making is evident, as their ‘resilience, creativity and resolve… [has] done so much not only for IPs but for the world, and will continue to bring the world to a better place.’ (Former Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya).

IKS constitutethe understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings’ which ‘complement broader-scale scientific research with local precision and nuance.’ Their well-documented value to developing culturally-appropriate climate change solutions is manifold, from environmental observation to developing mitigation and adaptation technologies. This is exemplified in the Cameroonian forests, where the Indigenous Baka peoples are making their voices heard through Indigenous-led technologies which ‘connect indigenous knowledge and values with decision-makers’ and rebut the negative perceptions of IKS which underpin traditional State practices of ‘conservation from above.’ Participative technology is empowering Baka peoples to lead collaborative mapping projects, under which solutions are led and informed community concerns. The benefits of including IPs in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and in climate action specifically, are two-fold: situated on the front-lines of climate impacts, IPs provide a measure for the Agenda’s achievement, whilst IKS can also substantively contribute to climate change solutions. It is therefore vital that IPs are included in international decision-making to combat climate change.

The ILO Convention 169 affords IPs rights to political agency and participation. Its poor ratification rate frustrates this instrument’s potential to be a widespread, legally binding source of Indigenous inclusion in policy-making, however, it can still provide a template for informing the creation of inclusive, collaborative decision-making processes. The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its 1997 Kyoto Protocol make no reference to the role of IKS, however, the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1993 recognises the role of ‘traditional knowledge, innovations and practices’ in conservation and sustainability of biological diversity, and a 2012 Report explores how to promote their participation in the UN. The UNDRIP recognises the right of IPs to political participation and autonomy, while their role in climate decision-making was explicitly recognised in the preamble of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement and implicitly in the Sustainable Development Agenda, which prioritises the fight against climate change and building inclusive institutions. UNGA Resolution 71/321 and its follow-up report encapsulate the political momentum gained for enhancing the IPs participation in the UN. 

Ms Espinosa identifies three deficits which hinder the transformation of this political will for inclusion of IPs into concrete action to create collaborative policy-making processes and to promote knowledge-sharing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous forums. The first deficit is the implementation deficit, referred to by Mr Anaya as the need to ‘operationalise the rights and principles agreed upon’ in various international treaties and to mobilise the political will to not only vindicate specific IPs rights but to also include IPs in confronting issues like climate change, through the top-down financial and political empowerment of local-led, grass-roots initiatives. 

Bridging the second deficit of inclusion and participation requires the transformation of current UN political structures so as to become more inclusive of all of society. As it stands, IP agency within the UN system is largely confined to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), an insular forum with little outward engagement with other branches of the UN political system. IP voices need to be included across the UN political framework and the participatory forums which comprise it need to become more engaged with one another in order to reap the benefits of diverse viewpoints. The UN itself recognises that the most effective solutions for combatting climate change are those emanating from the populations who are affected by climate change, such as Indigenous populations, and developed through decision-making processes that are accountable to and inclusive of those populations. Such solutions are enriched by localised knowledge, sustainable subsistence and community-based innovation. In this spirit, IKS incorporates the Indigenous principle of ‘two-eyed seeing’ which ‘refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to using both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.’ UNESCO acknowledges the benefits of granting political representation, agency and autonomy to IPs, at both the local and international levels, as it is their lived experiences and generational wisdom that provides the most effective solutions for fighting and adapting to climate change. Indeed, the motto of Ms Espinosa’s UNGA presidency was ‘making the UN relevant for allmaking the multilateral work to improve quality of life, rights and standards at the local level.’ Political participation is central to not only empowering the agency of IPs but also to enriching policy-development with IKS. 

Thirdly, the trust deficit encapsulates the perception by marginalised people, including IPs, that UN institutions are not delivering for them. Although UN bodies have recognised the importance and contributions of IPs to climate change discourse, as outlined above, it appears this has not translated into concrete action to include them.  Ms Espinosa advocates for a resolution through a reconnection of scales, by which she says the UN must empower IPs to be architects of their own destinies and enable local decision-making to inform UN policy through the instalment of effective built-in listening machinery to register the voices of IPs worldwide. This could be bolstered by more streamlined, effective and accessible Treaty Body processes, under which IPs could assert their rights within the UN system. She further highlights that the enhancement of IPs’ status within the UN needs to go further than the dedicated Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, which, as an exclusively Indigenous forum consisting of inter-Indigenous dialogue concerning primarily Indigenous issues and confined to an Indigenous – as opposed to a UN – agenda, fails to foster the integration of Indigenous views into mainstream policy-making, and which lacks outside engagement from other branches of the UN system.

Efforts are underway to bridge these deficits, with UNESCO’s inclusive, transparent consultation process for the development of its Recommendation on Open Science, seeks to recognise and include IKS in formal science and educational systems, based on principles of inclusiveness and respect for diversity. The report issued at the conclusion of this consultation process explicitly references IKS in the context of sustainable natural resource management and advocates for positive action and incentives to establish ‘respectful links between indigenous and scientific knowledge systems.’ Under the 2030 Agenda, UNESCO’s policy on Indigenous engagement is to ensure IP priorities are heard though various strategies: promoting inclusive collaboration between IPs, scientists and policy-makers, through dialogue, awareness-raising and capacity building between them; supporting the development of community-based observation systems and solutions which draw upon Indigenous knowledge, innovations and practices for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change; engaging with agencies across the UN system, including the specific Indigenous mechanisms within the UN system – namely, the above-mentioned UNFPII, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – and; advancing resource mobilisation efforts to finance the reform. 

Back in August, IPs called for a new Social Contract, inclusive of all citizens of the world and truly reflective of ‘We The Peoples’. The outcome of COP26 highlights the UN system’s failure to heed this call. The above-mentioned trust deficits must be bridged and IP voices more actively included in decision-making if we have a chance of surmounting perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation, climate change.

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