Our Voices

There is no climate solution without Indigenous Peoples and the protection of their rights

Last week concluded the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, with over 150 heads of state, including President Biden, meeting to discuss efforts to address climate change. The annual conference comes as global warming has caused more frequent and extreme climate disasters, giving countries large and small a role and obligation to take part in the fundamental worldwide debate, and create strategies for development and sustainability.

At the center of the discussions was an evaluation of the country-specific responsibilities and contributions that derived from the signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.

COP26 has mobilized civil society organizations and activists, including leaders of indigenous communities from different countries who face the most dangers and threats from the climate crisis, even though they contribute very little to greenhouse emissions themselves. Supporting Indigenous Peoples to protect and manage their lands and natural resources should be a high priority on the agenda of any serious commitment to fighting the climate crisis, yet, it continues to be overlooked.

Take Brazil, which has a very important, albeit polemic, role to play—despite the Brazilian’s government rhetoric in COP26, the country has not demonstrated any real domestic advancement on environmental protection. On the contrary, under President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, the privatization of land, including areas of the Amazonian rainforest, has been boosted like never before, through two recent main programs: Programa de Estruturação de Concessões de Parques Naturais and Adote um Parque, and attempts to pass further legislation that would open Indigenous reservations to commercial exploitation. Moreover, in September, Brazil’s Supreme Court suspended the Indigenous land rights case where it was to analyze the time frame or marco temporal argument, which erroneously and dangerously establishes that Indigenous Peoples must demonstrate that they already occupied their lands in 1988, when the Constitution was adopted. The Court did not set a new date to re-examine the matter, despite it being a landmark case that will define the legal status of the marco temporal clause, and the future of Indigenous land rights in Brazil.

Alessandra Korap Munduruku, the 2020 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate, is a key indigenous leader who has been fighting tirelessly to defend the rights, ancestral lands, and culture of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil. Munduruku has played a key role in advancing women’s leadership in her tribal community, and began to study law in 2019 to use legal tools in the fight for land demarcation and the preservation of the Tapajós region. She and other indigenous leaders signed a letter ahead of the COP26, rightfully linking the climate crisis to “the ongoing regression and rollback of indigenous and environmental safeguards and rights.”

The demarcation and effective protection of Indigenous lands is pivotal to minimize environmental impact and exploitation of their territory, as well as to preserve the integrity and dignity of Indigenous Peoples and other traditional communities. According to a recent report published by the Conselho Indigenista Missionário, assassinations of Indigenous leaders and activists on Indigenous lands in Brazil increased by 61% last year, showing that the government failed to provide protection.

Brazil is not the only Latin American country that has been failing to effectively support and protect Indigenous and other ancestral communities, even though they occupy 404 million hectares in the region and represent almost 10% of the population. Their forests continue to be invaded by illegal mining and activities, infrastructure constructions, and privatization. Moreover, Indigenous and land rights defenders continue to be criminalized and killed. According to a report by Front Line Defenders, last year, 331 human rights defenders were killed globally, 69% of which were defenders of Indigenous Peoples’ and environmental rights, with most of the murders occurring in the Latin American Region.

Solid protection of Indigenous lands and an unbreakable respect for their rights in Brazil, Latin America, and around the world, is not only urgent, but a necessary component of any solution for climate mitigation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recognized the importance of Indigenous land, and customary land governance systems in the fight against climate disaster. This is a pivotal opportunity to call on states to recognize and protect Indigenous lands rights, and to guarantee the rights to life and personal integrity of human rights defenders as established in their domestic laws and international agreements. Indigenous Peoples have an essential role to play in combating the climate crisis, and must be an integral part of the global negotiation process. They’re not only among the first to suffer the consequences. They’re also the ancestral guardians of their territories, and hold the knowledge and values that are a key component of the solution.

Roby is an international advocacy and litigation attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.