On Wednesday a group of international ministers and delegations worked through the night refining a fresh draft of the text that will form the world’s first global climate treaty.
Major redline issues around the treaty’s long-term target — whether it limits warming to 1.5 or two degrees Celsius — as well as climate finance, loss and damage and transparency kept negotiators up until 6am Paris time as countries worked towards a level of compromise that will not threaten the world’s most vulnerable countries with catastrophic climate impacts.
Yet, among the high-level talks, Canada stepped in to raise another crucial issue: the potential exclusion of indigenous rights from the text of the agreement, expected to be agreed Friday.
Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, spoke before a plenary hosted by French President Françoise Hollande late Wednesday night to implore international leaders to make reference to human and indigenous rights in the Paris climate agreement stronger and permanent.
“The agreement must recognize adequately the importance of respecting human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples,” McKenna said.
Indigenous Rights Uncertain in Climate Treaty
Last week negotiators placed the only reference in the draft text to such rights within square brackets. This means it is contested and could eventually be removed from the final agreement. Indigenous leaders at the climate talks say they want to see a climate deal that not only acknowledges the unique rights of indigenous peoples but that traditional lands, cultures and practices have been greatly impacted by climate change.
In addition, indigenous groups want to ensure a new low-carbon plan is not used to by governments to justify controversial hydro, wind or other projects.
“We are deeply concerned that the reference to human rights and rights of indigenous peoples…is under brackets,” McKenna said, recommending the reference be “unbracketed as we move forward.”
McKenna further called for human and indigenous rights to appear in the “operational paragraphs” of the text as well as in the agreement’s introduction, where it currently sits. The introduction is not legally binding.
“This is critically important to us,” McKenna said.
Last week indigenous groups observing the negotiations revealed countries including Norway, the United Kingdom and the European Union were working to remove mention of human and indigenous rights from the agreement.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have argued specifically against the inclusion of human rights, saying the language could open up unnecessary liabilities in an agreement that, they argue, is only supposed to be about environment.
These efforts have led observers to suggest the talks are being held up by what some have described as human and indigenous "rights deniers."
At a press briefing hosted by representatives from indigenous communities across the globe, Frank Ettawageshik with the Native American Rights Fund said: “A climate change agreement that does not recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and human rights for all would be a failure.”
“It’s disappointing that we have to fight as hard to get this point across,” he said, adding he believes nations are using indigenous and human rights as a bargaining chip.
“It’s a constant fight for this,” he said. “We’re trying to reinforce those who are enforcing it, and get those people who are standing in the way to at least step aside long enough to let this be a part of the agreement.”
Indigenous Groups Fight for Inclusion in Climate Talks
“Many of our Indigenous peoples still live off the land, living a subsistence-based lifestyle,” Princess Daazhraii Johnson from the Neets’aii Gwich’in in Alaska said this week.
“And given that many of the world’s fossil fuel reserves are on or adjacent to Indigenous lands, we must protect our collective rights to self-determine our relationship to Mother Earth by rejecting false solutions to addressing climate change,” she added.
Johnson, who is also a spokesperson with Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL) Alaska, said it is critical both human rights and, separately, indigenous rights remain within the text.
“The inclusion of the rights of Indigenous Peoples text, in addition to Human Rights text is crucial,” Johnson wrote in a press release. “A Western, non-Indigenous evaluation of Human Rights does not necessarily adequately protect our rights as Indigenous Peoples.”
Crystal Lameman, Treaty Coordinator and member of the Beaver Lake Cree nation in Alberta, said she feels like a discussion over whether or not to include indigenous rights in the climate treaty is retrogressive.
“It’s like being hurtled back 30 years into the past,” she said at the venue of the Paris climate talks.
The Beaver Lake Cree is currently engaged in a major legal challenge against the cumulative impacts of oil extraction in the Alberta oilsands, which has negatively impacted the community’s rights to hunt, gather medicines and fish according to a historic Treaty 6 agreement.
“Right now I’m fighting for the very future of our children, the next seven generations to come.”
“It’s important as indigenous woman that comes from the tar sands,” Lameman said.
“It’s important as an indigenous woman who comes from Treaty 6 where we live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet — the northern boreal forest — where every single thing a human being needs to survive is right there,” she said. “That’s what were here on the ground in Paris to fight for, the very essence of who we are as indigenous peoples.”
Lameman said it has been difficult to stand by while states negotiate her children’s rights.
“Indigenous peoples don’t have a voice [in the negotiations] when we’re the first people to impacted by climate change. The people who are on the frontlines are the first people to feel the effects of climate change and we’re being exclude from those negotiations.”
“That’s like stabbing me in the heart,” she said.
Indigenous Peoples, from Arctic to Small Islands, Affected by Climate
On Wednesday a group of indigenous peoples from both Arctic and island states called on leaders in Paris to keep temperatures from warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Both low-lying islands and Arctic regions are suffering extremely early impacts of melting sea ice and permafrost as well as sea level rise.
“We are deeply concerned about the impacts of climate change on sea ice and our way of life,” Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna told reporters this week. Taptuna joined the government of Greenland as well as the Inuit Circumpolar Council in a call for a climate agreement that recognizes the disproportionate effects of climate change in the Arctic.
The Inuit Circumpolar Council Chair Okalik Eegeesiak said the agreement should draw from the experience of indigenous peoples who are “most directly impacted by climate change.”
Members of the Indigenous Environmental Network, say the inclusion of indigenous rights in the treaty text is important for ensuring climate solutions don’t negatively affect traditional lands and ways of life.
Large-scale hydro projects, such as the contentious Site C dam in British Columbia, can flood traditional territories, and wind farms can affect the seasonal migration of reindeer which are a critical part of some indigenous cultures in the Arctic.
Ariel Deranger, member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation down river from the Alberta oilsands, said an inclusion of indigenous peoples rights in the agreement may help guide appropriate solutions.
“At the moment the rights of Indigenous Peoples all over the globe are being violated by ‘green climate projects’ — such as hydropower dams — in the name of ‘climate mitigation,’” she said.
“If such violations are happening now, imagine what will come with a legally binding document, where the rights of Indigenous Peoples are not guaranteed.”
Lameman said Canada and Alberta have both clearly stated their intentions to ratify the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a legal document some say supersedes whatever emerges in the climate treaty.
“This is your time to prove it,” Lameman said, addressing Canada’s leaders. “This is your time not to use words but to take action and ensure Canada is one of the loudest voices in those rooms.”
“You have an obligation to ensure it — that those other states are hearing Canada and they’re hearing it on behalf of indigenous peoples of that nation.”
Image: DeSmog Canada/Keri Coles