Indigenous voices have a right to be heard in the fight against climate change

Andrea Berardi, The Open University

Géraud de Ville, The Open University and Institute of Environmental Security

Céline Tschirhart, Royal Holloway University of London

As we enter the final year before COP21, which will hopefully lead to a strong commitment on climate change mitigation and adaptation by the international community, it is paramount that the voices of the nearly 400 million Indigenous peoples are heard. The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that: “indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous people’s holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change.”

However, far too often today, dominant international strategies for addressing climate change focus almost exclusively on the commodification of nature. Policies such as REDD+ tend to override alternative conceptions of development, often held by the very minorities or indigenous peoples whose lives are most directly threatened by the impacts of climate change. As a consequence, financial support for management practices within indigenous territories is rarely pursued in accordance with these groups' own understanding of nature and development, or in ways which do not erode cultural identity. As the people with the most to lose from the impacts of climate change, indigenous communities should control how information about their territories is collected and disseminated, and most importantly, this information should be used to direct policies towards supporting the long-term survival of these communities within their traditional environments.

Over time, and as a result of colonial legacies, the reorganisation of indigenous peoples' spaces, beliefs and interactions with their natural environment, together with the systematic manipulation of discourses around environmental problems, have promoted the interests of non-indigenous stakeholders. When indigenous perspectives are considered – if they are considered at all – they are presented as singular and simplistic. As a result, stereotypes of indigeneity – which tend at best to portray indigenous communities as 'guardians of nature' or, more frequently, as 'inefficient exploiters of natural resources' – remain dominant. While there is an emerging call for reconciling climate change mitigation, rights to self-determination and development, practical and alternative approaches to build bridges between indigenous worldviews and dominant models of sustainable development, they remain to be implemented to date.

Direct public engagement with indigenous voices and practices could allow for a building of these bridges. Furthermore, indigenous voices on a public scene can foster networks directly amongst indigenous communities and would allow them to perform and reinforce their own identities. The few initiatives promoting bottom-up engagement of indigenous communities by empowering them to record, analyse and disseminate information can significantly enhance their potential for autonomy and self-governance, and support the voicing of alternative conceptions of development. These rare initiatives have enabled indigenous communities to engage in negotiations with a range of stakeholders, including international policymakers and funding bodies, over local development priorities.

Working in the Guiana Shield region of South America, Project COBRA is an example of an initiative demonstrating how indigenous communities can take control in presenting their own stories and perspectives to national and international policymakers and negotiators. Project COBRA builds capacities within indigenous communities to use accessible visual information and communication technologies and participatory processes to engage the whole community in identifying and sharing their own solutions to current and emerging challenges, including climate change. Even within Project COBRA's work, the content of the materials produced by indigenous communities has occasionally been questioned if it failed to promote the agenda of particular non-indigenous institutions. Indeed it has sometimes been a real battle to prevent non-indigenous stakeholders from exerting pressure to manipulate the message, and to ensure that indigenous communities record and share their own solutions to the climate change challenge, and their aspirations for the future.

Billions of dollars are being mobilised in the fight against climate change, and other equally significant challenges such as poverty alleviation, biodiversity conservation, education and health. But, if indigenous communities are not allowed a say on how the money is spent, there is the real risk that it will be misdirected, forcing these communities down a development route that may not be of their choosing and potentially further degrading the environment and destabilising the climate. It iss time indigenous communities are allowed to take control of the messages that are told about them, for their own benefit, as well as that of the whole of humanity.

To download Project COBRA’s Practitioner’s Handbook, ‘How to Find and Share Community Owned Solutions’, go to