At least a quarter of the world’s land area is owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous peoples and local communities. While nature in these areas is degrading less quickly than in others, the impact of climate and ecosystem change has a direct impact on local livelihoods.
By 2100, says United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, “We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” Many, he projects, will be forced to choose between starvation or migration.
Siham Drissi is a Programme Management officer at the Ecosystems division at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Her work focuses on integrated landscape approaches for agriculture, food security, land and resource tenure, and landscape governance. In this interview, she discusses the relationship between indigenous peoples and the land they inhabit.
Who are we talking about when we refer to indigenous peoples; and what do we mean when we say that land is traditionally owned, managed or occupied?
A single definition would not capture the full range and diversity of the indigenous peoples and local communities of the world.
According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, indigenous peoples have “historical continuity or association with a given region or part of a given region prior to colonization or annexation; identify themselves as indigenous and be accepted as members by their community; have strong links to territories, surrounding natural resources and ecosystems; maintain at least in part, distinct social, economic and political systems; maintain, at least in part, distinct languages, cultures, beliefs and knowledge systems; are resolved to maintain and further develop their identity and distinct social, economic, cultural and political institutions as distinct peoples and communities; and often form non‐dominant sectors of society.”
When land is owned, managed or occupied in a traditional way, the word “traditional” refers to a knowledge that stems from centuries-old observation and interaction with nature. This knowledge is often embedded in a cosmology that reveres the one-ness of life, considers nature as sacred and acknowledges humanity as a part of it. And it encompasses practical ways to ensure the balance of the environment in which they live, so it may continue to provide services such as water, fertile soil, food, shelter and medicines.
How are indigenous people affected by changes in climate, biodiversity and ecosystems?
Due to their subsistence economies and spiritual connection to lands and territories, most indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately from loss of biological diversity and environmental degradation. Their lives, survival, development chances, knowledge, environment and health conditions are threatened by environmental degradation, large scale industrial activities, toxic waste, conflicts and forced migration, as well as by land-use and land-cover changes (such as deforestation for agriculture and extractives for example). These challenges are further exacerbated by climate change.
Rather than helping, some mitigation measures can increase the threat to indigenous peoples’ territories and coping strategies–as in the case of biofuel initiatives. While biofuel initiatives are meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they may affect the ecosystems, water supply and landscape on which indigenous peoples depend, ultimately leading to an increase in monoculture crops and plantations and a consequent decline in biodiversity, food and water security.
On the other hand, when the rights of indigenous peoples are protected–and particularly their rights to land, territories and resources–their culture thrives and nature thrives.
What role do indigenous people play in developing, managing and protecting natural spaces and ecosystems?
Indigenous peoples’ contributions are essential in designing and implementing solutions for ecosystems. Traditional knowledge and heritage can contribute to environmental assessments and sustainable ecosystem management. For example, the sustainable production and consumption of indigenous and traditional food has invaluable benefits for natural resources and ecosystems, contributes to a sustainable and healthier diet, and helps mitigate climate change. UNEP will further promote the use of traditional crops and pastoralism.
More broadly, UNEP is also working with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to publish work on traditional knowledge for ecosystems restoration and resilience, to be introduced in the fifth meeting of the UN Environment Assembly and mark the start of the UN Decade for Ecosystems Restoration (2021-2030).
On a policy level, how can we ensure that indigenous people are included in decision-making and management of ecosystems?
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples requires that free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples be obtained in matters of fundamental importance for their rights, survival, dignity, and well-being. Moreover, consultations to obtain this consent must respect local governance and decision-making processes and structures; must occur in indigenous languages and on indigenous peoples’ time frames; and be free of coercion or threat.
The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People are important policy instruments for indigenous peoples to voice their concerns and advocate for policy change within the UN.
At national and local levels, however, indigenous peoples continue to be marginalized. In response, UNEP has established a policy to promote the protection of environmental defenders through which it will denounce attacks, torture, intimidation and murder of environmental defenders; advocate for better protection of environmental rights and the people standing up for them; support responsible management of natural resources; and request accountability for events in which environmental defenders have been affected.
With the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, UNEP also engages with religious leaders and communities to work with indigenous peoples. A focus of our work is the mutual recognition of the sanctity of life and nature, and the equality among the beliefs of the world’s religions and the traditional spiritualities of indigenous peoples. In doing so, we hope to contribute to the safeguarding traditional knowledge, while healing our planet by facilitating the reconciliation of historical conflicts between religions and indigenous peoples.
In your time with the United Nations Environment Programme, you have visited many countries and spoken to many indigenous peoples around the world. What has inspired you?
I once had the privilege to participate in a meeting with women representatives of various indigenous peoples’ and local community groups to discuss, among other things, the importance of the free, prior and informed consent for environment protection. One of them told me that, “When we are not invited to the table, it means we are on the menu.” We have to engage with indigenous peoples as equal partners and knowledge holders!
Many indigenous groups had their own concepts of respect for nature and stewardship long before the conservation movement began. They have been observing environmental changes for generations; and have recognized patterns. And this is exactly the kind of knowledge and expertise we need, to tackle climate change and mitigate its harmful impact.
For more information, contact Siham Drissi: [email protected]