Inside the Indigenous People’s Pavilion at COP21

Indigenous communities — whose rights have been largely left out of the draft Paris Accord text — are greatly impacted by climate change. Lauren Kaljur spent a day at the pavilion, part of a North America region day, and found a front more united than ever.

By: /
December 9, 2015
Indigenous leaders from all over the world pray as they sail on the Seine near the Eiffel Tower during a gathering demanding what they call are true climate solutions, in Paris December 6, 2015. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

On December 1 indigenous leaders from all over North America gathered for the North American region day in the Indigenous People’s Pavilion at the Paris climate conference to share their regional earth-focused demands and actions. In between dance, song and a sage-burning ceremony, many leaders spoke a common message: humanity would not be facing climate asphyxiation had indigenous rights been respected in the first place.

The Indigenous Pavilion is set up in the Climate Generations Zone, the civilian version of the UN Blue Zone at Le Bourget, Paris, for COP21. It has an especially strong presence this year, thanks to funding from Norway and France, facilitated by UNESCO. The Pavilion events occur parallel to the climate conference’s “high-level” negotiations to provide a platform for indigenous voices, which, by nature of the state-structured UN, often go unheard.

Though indigenous peoples around the world number approximately 400 million, speak thousands of languages and own, occupy or subsist off vast swaths of land, they are widely excluded from decision-making and refused their legal right to stewardship, leaders at the pavilion explained.

In Canada and the United States, “national interest” clauses often override indigenous rights to consultation, so many resource-extraction and climate mitigation projects such as fracking wells and hydro-dams get rubber stamped without their consent.

Given the big challenges climate change presents to government and the land-based responses required, Dene Chief Bill Erasmus spoke to the sense of frustration that indigenous people do not have official access to the negotiating rooms. “We have our own land, our own language and our own organizations and laws,” he told the crowd. “We meet the criteria of a nation. We are a nation.”

“Why are we not in that room?” he asked, pointing in the direction of the heavily secured UN Blue Zone. “Why is a 28-year elected leader not allowed into negotiations?”

The indigenous leaders’ proposal for COP21 first and foremost asks the UN to uphold its existing Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples within in the body of the COP21 negotiated text. Wording such as “security of indigenous peoples’ land tenure,” currently under dispute, would help ensure that the various climate adaptation and mitigation projects to emerge from COP21 are done in a way that respects indigenous rights to free prior and informed consent.

Leaders are also demanding that greenhouse gas targets limit global warming to below 1.5 C, as well as recognition of their right and ability to contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation solutions through traditional knowledge.                                                      

As Yaqui Nation and International Indian Treaty Council leader Andrea Carmen explained, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which took 30 years to put down on paper, “has climate written all over it.”

The hard-fought Article 29 declaring rights to the productive capacity of the land, for instance, is one of the most threatened today. Caribou in Alberta and other areas of Canada are under critical threat from human development.

Article 31, declaring the right to traditional knowledge and cultural heritage contained in the seeds, plants and fauna of indigenous land, is equally under siege through current land management practices. Salmon, Carmen explained, are nearly if not already extinct in many regions of the U.S., eradicating a staple source of food as well as a central pillar of culture and identity.

Indigenous stewardship and collective ownership of their lands puts into practice thousands of years of knowledge and has proven it can mitigate climate change and protect diversity. Put differently, land rights are good for the environment. 

Whose burden?

Much of the world’s carbon sits on or underneath indigenous territories. According to the broad coalition of indigenous peoples gathered at COP21, all of humanity must recognize that indigenous guardianship of this natural carbon storage is critical to survival.

When it comes to climate change, indigenous leaders expressed that they feel as though they are “carrying the burden” of saving the planet.

A number of the Canadian indigenous leaders speaking at the Indigenous Pavilion live in areas of heavy fossil-fuel development such as Alberta’s oil sands and British Columbia’s northern gas-fracked regions.

These regions are home to the carbon-storing forests of Canada’s boreal, which form a larger carbon-sink than the Amazon. 

While scientists widely understand that 75 percent of fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to mitigate irreversible climate disruption, Saskatchewan’s Premier Brad Wall has proposed carbon capturing the province’s coal emissions as its contribution to COP21. On the first day of the Paris climate talks, Port Metro Vancouver issued its second approval for a coal port set to load and ship dirty U.S. thermal coal for export to Asia. Coal is the world’s worst fossil fuel-emissions offender.  

Reasons to be hopeful

In the afternoon session of the North American region day, there was reason to celebrate. While acknowledging the frustrating and seemingly endless assault on their basic rights, the leaders expressed empowerment from their various litigation and actions so far.

Chief Erasmus described the creation of the Mother Earth Accord, developed at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Emergency Summit of 2011, through the unity of treaty councils, landowners and chiefs on both sides of the border, against the infringement of treaty rights and lack of consultation. Over 20 Canadian and U.S. indigenous groups, as well as private citizens, environmental NGOs and political parties have endorsed it.

Two young Canadian leaders described their legal wins in Canada’s hotbed for resource extraction and land and treaty rights infractions: Alberta's oil sands. Alberta is responsible for 30 percent of Canada’s GHG emissions, 23 percent of which comes from the oil sands.

The money behind the four major corporations profiting off the bitumen embedded in the Athabasca basin parallel nation-state economies. Though this makes for a goliath of an opponent, indigenous communities are winning in court cases launched against rights-infringing projects, Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Alberta explained.

Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree explained how their nation was the first to be granted trial on the cumulative impacts of oil extraction, such as water depletion, toxicity and caribou extinction, and is now in preparation for a trial in relation to over 21,000 violations of treaty rights.

There are further signs of hope: Prime Minister Trudeau announced on Monday that Canada will push for indigenous rights to be inserted into the body of the negotiating text.

Peaceful actions such as the Kayaktivists of Indigenous Rising’s all-indigenous flotilla down the Seine River last Sunday received widespread attention from the public, the press and social media through #canoes2paris. Though they may be excluded from formal COP negotiations, indigenous leaders are as creative as ever in voicing demands for land and human rights and in protesting against the continued pressure from some states to cut indigenous rights from the COP21 text.

 The theme running through all indigenous North Americans’ stories is the collective amnesia of humanity’s symbiotic relationship to the earth and to each other. Just as a tree is elemental carbon that offers oxygen to humans in exchange for carbon dioxide, so too is a treaty a relationship, Rochelle Diver of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, explained. Healing the relationship to earth heals the relationship with each other.

Though still far from reaching their human rights demands, the leaders at the Indigenous Pavilion are walking the walk, demonstrating through their own actions what healed relations can generate.