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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, is deep into discussions on worldwide issues as the conference is set to come to a close on Friday, Nov. 12.

To find out how Indigenous issues are being handled, Indian Country Today checked in with the two Indigenous leaders attending the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, and watched the digital discussions.

Graeme Reed, of Anishinaabe and European descent, is co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change and a member of the United Nations Facilitative Working Group of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform.

Andrea Carmen, a citizen of the Yaqui Nation, is former co-chair of the UN Facilitative Working Group and executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council.

First, the good news

Although it’s taken years of hard work at past UN climate meetings, Indigenous peoples have successfully created space for themselves at COP26. The Facilitative Working Group, a UN-constituted body, convened the first annual gathering of Indigenous knowledge holders on Nov. 8.

All seven UN socio-cultural regions were represented with 28 people participating in person and four virtually.

“It was a symbolic reclamation of space,” Reed said. “I don’t think it would have been possible without work by the Facilitative Working Group.”

The knowledge holders included elders and youth nominated by each region. During the day-long closed session, participants shared and exchanged traditional knowledge, challenges and solutions to climate change confronting their homelands.

“It was a very exciting and emotional exchange,” Carmen said. “Russian and Nepali Indigenous peoples, Sa’mi, Masaii and others were able to speak to each other freely with the help of translators.”

Indigenous peoples have traditionally been shut out of closed high-level COP negotiation meetings.

“Participants asked that the meeting be closed,” Carmen said. “They are sending a summary of their final recommendations to the COP parties.”

Carmen described some of the high points of their recommendations.

“There was a consistent overarching sense of urgency during the session and calls for immediate, decisive action by COP parties to reduce and reverse the impacts of climate change,” she said.

Among the findings of the group, she said, were:

  • Although pollution and emissions didn’t come from us, our responsibility as Indigenous peoples is to provide governments with direction for a new way of living that respects and protects the natural world.
  • Survival of Indigenous peoples cannot be separated from ancestral homelands and the health and well-being of the natural world as a whole. We have always been adaptable people but now the climate changes are coming very quickly.
  • Only when the rights and land tenure of Indigenous peoples to lands, forests and waters are recognized and respected will we be able to protect our territories and pass along our traditions to new generations.
  • Our knowledge, values, ways and world views are collective and inter-generational, based on respect, listening, responsibilities and oral traditions. This knowledge is time-tested; its value cannot be encompassed or reflected in books or “peer-reviewed” studies by non-Indigenous scientists. Our knowledge should be respected and have equal standing with other researchers and scientists.
  • Indigenous cultures and ways of knowing are the foundation for producing traditional goods, but exploiting these systems undermines our ability to depend on them.
  • Protecting and restoring Indigenous languages is essential to maintaining our ways of knowing, identities and responsibilities with the natural world and passing them along to a younger generation.
  • Indigenous women are at the forefront of experiencing impacts of climate change but also lead the way in protecting our survival and adapting to climate change.
  • Indigenous peoples and knowledge holders should be able to participate directly with our own voices in the UN process. Our rights, cultures, lands and ways of life are directly affected and should be respected.
  • We demand an end to allowing Indigenous rights defenders to face criminal actions, persecution and assassination.
  • Loss and damage from climate change is economic and non-economic; direct financial resources to Indigenous peoples would help protect and strengthen our resiliency.
  • Indigenous youth must be provided an ongoing seat at the table. They will inherit the results and impacts of the decisions we make today and judge us accordingly.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry met with members of the U.N Facilitated Working Group and other Indigenous leaders at COP26. The meeting was facilitated by Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

“Special Envoy Kerry seems committed to including Indigenous peoples in these discussions,” Carmen said. “He was very strong in linking the rights of Indigenous peoples with the outcomes of the broader discussion here.”

The not-so-good

Despite everybody’s efforts getting Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests included in

Article 6 of the Paris Climate Agreement — which deals with rules and measures of carbon markets — negotiations remain highly political.

Although Indigenous peoples are included in the text of the agreement, the issue now goes to ministerial negotiating rooms where access and influence is very limited.

“It’s going to be a slog,” Reed said.

There has been a lot of media coverage of the Action for Climate Empowerment, or ACE, for youth, gender equity and Indigenous peoples. The goal is to empower all members of society to engage in climate action through education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information and international cooperation on these issues.

But at the last minute on Nov. 5, representatives of oil-rich Saudi Arabia pressured other countries to remove references to human rights, Indigenous rights and gender equity.

Some of the parties are objecting to transparency regarding the buying and selling of carbon credits. For instance, some want credits accrued under the Kyoto clean development mechanism to be credited moving forward. The mechanism was created in 2006 under the Kyoto protocol and was the first carbon-crediting scheme.

“Some countries are heavily invested,” Reed said. “But we don’t want to create an environment in which we are selling hot air.”

The United Kingdom, the U.S., Germany, Norway and the Netherlands announced on Nov. 1 a funding pledge of $1.7 billion to be given to Indigenous peoples and local communities for their work protecting the world’s lands and forests.

Such funding, according to Carmen, usually goes first to countries before going to Indigenous peoples.

“It’s very bureaucratic,” she said. “Governments may take fees and so forth before giving the money to Indigenous peoples. Since the funding is available to developing nations, it leaves out the U.S., Canada, the Arctic areas and many places in the Pacific, and Russia.”

The 30 by 30 forest conservation plan in which more than 100 world leaders have promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 fails to take in the reality of Indigenous subsistence lifeways into account.

“If these areas are protected, they can’t be used by Indigenous peoples for traditional hunting, fishing or gathering, and limit access to sacred sites,” Carmen said.

Tribal voices and authority

Meetings and panels at the Indigenous People’s Pavilion have been lively and inspiring, and many are available via livestream on the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change Facebook page. This is the first time the pavilion is in the COP Blue zone, an official space.

Here are some sound bites from the Indigenous Peoples’ Pavillion.

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Sharp, with NCAI, spoke during a panel convened by Canada’s Assembly of First Nations about tribes’ rights and authority in addressing climate change.

“Tribal nations should have decisive say over our land, territories, resources and people,” she said. “No other sovereigns should be able to take unilateral action to install pipelines or exploit our natural world for other people’s gains. We need to be in a position to exercise political equality with world leaders to advance and protect the earth. The world is beginning to recognize that following Indigenous leaders is absolutely necessary for the survival of humanity and the future of our planet.”

“We intend to advance our climate agenda, not only domestically but internationally.”

On Nov. 4, Sharp received diplomatic recognition from the UN Climate Change Conference of the Partis, the first Indigenous leader to receive this honor.

Struggles against Enbridge Line 3

Panelists shared the history and background of the struggle against Enbridge Line 3.

“Enbridge had a very well-funded and comprehensive public relations campaign that influenced all the legal decisions and government leaders in supporting construction of their pipeline,” said Ellen Anderson of Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

“Even though a federal judge concluded that the facts showed that the impact of this project would be 193 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to $287 billion in social costs, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the project.

Ashley Fairbanks, a citizen of the White Earth Nation representing Honor the Earth, also spoke.

“Just because the pipeline is running doesn’t’ mean you can’t shut if off,” Fairbanks said. “I think Joe Biden could do that today. He could take that action and stop this pipeline and make sure our wild rice beds, what our ancestors survived genocide to protect, are still available to us.”

Fairbanks said more than 500 lobbyists from fossil fuel companies are attending COP26.

“That’s more than double the number of Indigenous people here,” she said.

Kyle Hill, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, is an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine.

“When we talk about traditional ecological knowledge, it is a moral imperative to protect our lakes,” Hill said. “They are our spirituality; the relationship we share with these lakes is critical to our being.”

More on carbon markets

Carbon markets continue to drive discussions. At an It Takes Roots press call at COP26, several people spoke up about the issue.

“In our view, carbon market mechanisms subsidize the polluters and add more burden on frontline communities that are primarily Indigenous, Black, Brown, migrant and poor. They are already suffering the most from the impacts of climate change,” said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Goldtooth is of Dine’ and Dakota ancestry.

Ozawa Binesh Albert, co-executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance and a citizen of the

Anishinaabe and Yuchi tribes, took on the fossil fuel industry.

“Some of the fossil fuel corporations have bragged that they helped create some of the key carbon market elements of Article 6,” Albert said. “Industry is taking credit for some of these carbon fixes that are not to the benefit of humanity but to the benefit of their profits” Albert is a citizen of the Anishinaabe and Yuchi tribes.

New York Times Climate Hub

The moderator of this panel asked, “How can western and Indigenous science work together?”

Jade Begay, the climate justice campaign director of NDN Collective, responded, “Indigenous people are the first climate scientists. Our nature-based solutions are the way, but we can't confuse Indigenous solutions with business models that allow corporations and governments to continue to pollute.”

Frontline communities confront JPMorgan Chase

Indigenous land defenders gathered outside the JPMorgan Chase offices in Glasgow’s financial district on Nov. 10, demanding the bank stop financing fossil fuel extraction.

“The time to divest from fossil fuels is long overdue,” said Eriel Deranger, executive director of Indigenous Climate Action. “This extractive economy is killing our communities and killing the planet. We cannot have false solutions that allow fossil fuel extraction to continue.”

Although JPMorgan has pledged to reduce operational carbon intensity by 35 percent by 2030, the bank’s investments include some of the most destructive and polluting types of extraction such as tar sands, Arctic oil and gas, Amazon oil and gas, fracking and coal mining. JPMorgan funded Enbridge Line 3 construction in Minnesota.

Contentious negotiations

A draft of the climate summit agreement was released on Nov. 10. Several countries including Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Brazil and Australia are resisting including a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 C.

In an interview with CNN, William Collins, professor of meteorology at the University of Reading said it is important to recognize the importance of keeping the 1.5- degree goal.

“The current pledges in Glasgow are not even close to meeting these cuts by 2030,” he said. “The hope was that this level of ambition could have been achieved in Glasgow. If not, countries will need to be brought back to negotiations again next year.”

Sara Shaw, climate justice and energy programme director at Friends of the Earth, wrote via email, “This draft COP outcome is less a Glasgow pact and more a Glasgow get-out clause. The targets are disturbingly weak and full of loopholes allowing rich countries to avoid responsibility for reducing emissions and providing finance to developing countries.”

The climate conference is scheduled to end on Nov. 12 but Carmen said that past COP meetings have extended into the weekend. 

CLARIFICATION: We have updated the story to reflect that Indigenous leaders are demanding an end to allowing Indigenous rights defenders to face criminal actions, persecution and assassination.

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