UNESCO Conference on Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change

UNESCO poster for conference (source: UNESCO)
UNESCO poster for conference (source: UNESCO)

UNESCO held a conference on indigenous people and climate change on 26-27 November in Paris, as a lead-up to COP21, the major annual conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNESCO conference, entitled “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change,” drew over 60 speakers and an audience of over 650 people in plenary and parallel sessions and side-events.  The event was unusual for its success in bringing indigenous people—from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific—in direct dialogue and exchange with scientists and with policy-makers. Though the specific cases varied greatly, they also shared some common elements. They show that indigenous groups are addressing the threats of climate change, along with the strong pressures which capitalist economies and modern bureaucratic states place on indigenous land rights and autonomy.

The numerous papers focused on the complementarities of indigenous and scientific knowledge about climate change. In contrast with some other discussions of the topic, which suggest that climate change has created unprecedented changes which render indigenous knowledge outdated and of little practical use, a number of presentations at the conference emphasized the dynamic nature of indigenous knowledge, and documented its ability to serve as a basis for the development of new forms of activity—pastoral and agricultural practices, land management (including controlled forest burns), internally-directed migration—which serve to adapt to climate change and to promote resilience.

Cacique Raoni Metuktire speaking at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)
Cacique Raoni Metuktire speaking at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)

This conference, organized by UNESCO and the French National Museum of Natural History, and Tebtebba, also received support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden, the United National Development Programme, Sorbonne University, Conservation International, the National Research Agency of France and the Japanese Funds in Trust to UNESCO.  It opened with talks by leading figures, including representatives of major Western institutions, such as Flavia Schlegel, the Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences of UNESCO, and Bruno David, the director of the French National Museum of Natural History, who discussed the reliance of indigenous peoples on natural resources and their vulnerability in the face of climate change.  There were addresses as well by indigenous leaders, such as Cacique Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó of Brazil, and Hindou Oumarou, a Mbororo from Chad, representing the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change and the Association of Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad; they recognized this vulnerability while emphasizing the long history of struggle and the effective resilience of indigenous peoples. Raoni’s energetic oratory and Oumarou’s evocation of human rights and sustainable development created strong impressions on the audience. Nicolas Hulot, the French Special Envoy for the Protection of the Planet, offered a provocative contrast, noting that indigenous peoples are often called “first peoples” and that current human generations will become the “last peoples” if climate change is not addressed.

Nicolas Hulot, Hindou Oumarou and Douglas Nakashima at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)
Nicolas Hulot, Hindou Oumarou and Douglas Nakashima at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)

The specific presentations, too numerous to be all summarized here, presented vivid accounts of the confrontations of indigenous peoples with climate change and with pressures on their lands. Minnie Degawan of the Kankanay people of the Philippines and the former Secretary-General of that country’s Cordillera Peoples Alliance, described how the Ibaloi people of Benguet, Philippines, faced with unprecedented weather conditions and land pressures, moved from their original territory to other sections lower down in the same watershed, where they adapted their traditional knowledge to construct terraces and select new crop and tree varieties in this area, but now face pressures from unregulated gold mining. She emphasized the role of religion and ritual in these adaptations.

Lino Mamani, a Quechua from Cusco, Peru, discussed a project in which a number of indigenous communities have created a “potato park” where they experiment with cultivating indigenous potato varieties at different elevations to assess which perform best under the changed climate circumstances. They coordinate with agricultural scientists, raising potatoes in both fields and greenhouses, and linking indigenous taxonomies of potato varieties with laboratory assessments of the DNA of these varieties. Alejandro Argumedo of a Peruvian NGO ANDES, and the coordinator of the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples discussed the exchanges between this program and similar partnerships in Tajikistan, China and Kenya. These cases offer examples of the close interactions of indigenous peoples and natural  scientists, and point to the way that these groups can learn from each other.

Tsechu Dolma speaking at UNESCO conference (source: Ben Orlove)
Tsechu Dolma speaking at UNESCO conference (source: Ben Orlove)

Tsechu Dolma, a Tibetan-Nepali researcher and organizer who has contributed to GlacierHub, discussed the Mountain resiliency project. In northern Nepal, climate change has brought irregular precipitation and glacier retreat. Working with local communities, this project works to develop activities such as greenhouses and micro-hydropower facilities which can promote food security, energy security and what she terms “talent security”—the promotion of local employment which can reduce youth outmigration. Local community men, women and youth contribute directly to the initial research which scopes out community needs and to the design and implementation of the activities. Dolma emphasized how this expansion of adaptive capacity can turn what would otherwise be climate disasters into manageable climate hazards. Her account documented the ways that investment of community land, labor and knowledge into these activities contributes to their long-term sustainability.

Other cases showed similar processes in other parts of the world. Fuluna Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce of Fiji described the revitalization of canoe-making traditions in his country, allowing sea travel once again to serve as an indigenous form of mobility which permits people to draw on the resources of different islands to promote resilience to disasters. Kathleen Galvin, an anthropologist from Colorado State University, discussed the negative combined effects of irregular rainfall and loss of land rights to indigenous pastoralists in East Africa, and spoke positively of the effects of meetings between these pastoralists, Mongolian herders, Native Americans and Euro-American ranchers in developing herd and land management strategies to address these challenges.

Several speakers located this work in the context of international climate policies. Douglas Nakashima and Jen Rubis of UNESCO noted that indigenous peoples have been observing climate change for at least two decades, citing as an example Inuit knowledge of shifting ice conditions and growing weather variability. They traced the growing recognition of indigenous knowledge in key statements and documents, including the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment of 2004, the IPCC’s Fourth and Fifth Impact Assessment Reports, and the Adaptation Committee of the UNFCCC Nairobi Work Program.  Their discussion was complemented by a talk by Valerie Masson-Delmotte, the head of the IPCC Working Group I. She emphasized the value of peer reviewed publications on indigenous knowledge for the groups that write the IPCC Assessment Reports.

These discussions led to consideration of further activities, particularly the promotion of further exchanges among indigenous peoples and between indigenous peoples and natural scientists. A number of speakers expressed a wish to expand further the recognition of indigenous knowledge among natural scientists and international climate policy circles, as a means to promote resilience and to advance indigenous rights. The closing address by Irina Bokova, the secretary general of UNESCO, emphasized the longstanding commitment of that organization to indigenous cultures and indigenous rights. It seems likely that the discussions at this conference and the development of ties among the participants will promote such efforts.

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