Indigenous Activists Demand Action from Governments and Policymakers at COP26

Indigenous people only account for 5% of the world population, yet they protect more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

Climate Change Special Edition

By Julissa Castro-Ruiz / Matthew staff and COP26 delegate

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) was a historical moment in which minority communities were not asking but demanding governments and policymakers’ rapid action against climate change. During our time at COP26, we had the opportunity to attend various panels featuring Indigenous activists. The Indigenous communities have drastically experienced the consequences of climate change for years. They are facing land grabs, water shortages, and their environmental and human rights defenders are targeted by both corporations and governments.  

At least 1,005 environmental activists have been murdered since the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed. 

One in three of those activists killed were indigenous people.  

In my home country of Honduras, the most prominent death has been the Lenca leader and winner of the prestigious Goldman prize for environmental defenders, Berta Cáceres. Berta was opposing the construction of an internationally financed dam. She was shot in her house in arch of 2016.  

On the Indigenous Rights: Securing the Future of Biodervisity panel hosted by the NYT Climate Hub, we heard from young female Indigenous activists from around the world as they shared how climate change has impacted their respective communities. 

From left to right: Moderator Lindsay Levin Panelists Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Cassidy Krammer, Alex Pataxo. 
Photo: Julissa Castro Ruiz  

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim from a Mbororo community in Chad talked about the nomadic life of the Mbororo minority. They live off the land and can see the changes that are occurring to it. This had become the reason for her involvement in climate change activism. Oumarou explained how at the international level decisions are made without knowing what is happening on the ground or how it is impacting these communities, and she is trying to create a bridge between them.  

This bridge is a shared goal she has with Cassidy Kramer, who was raised 30 miles above the Arctic Circle as part of the  Inupiaq community. In the panel,  Kramer recalled how the hunters and elders have a generational connection with the land and can also see the changes that occur daily. These communities are seeing hotter temperatures, droughts, a warming and rising ocean, and loss of species. This brings more health risks and poverty to them, and the threat of having to be displaced in search of better living conditions.  She is using her voice to bring awareness to her community, get them to the decision-making table.  

Indigenous people are not victims, they refuse to be victims, they are the solution. They are the future.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Indigenous people only account for 5% of the world population, yet they protect more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity. More than their scientific knowledge about the land, it is their spiritual connection to it that makes them the  first climate activists.  They offer solutions that are coming from thousands of years of living on the land. These nature-based solutions have in fact become a focus of COP26, with speakers and leaders presenting the latest state-of-the-art on nature-based solutions and their role in delivering the goals of the Paris Agreement.  

At the summit, iIt was announced that $1.7 billion dollars will be given to indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in recognition for protecting forests. The governments of the UK, US, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands are leading the funding pledge. The fruits of the Indigenous activist’s never-ending fight are now to be recognized.  

We are happy with the financing announcement, but we will be watching for concrete measures that will reveal whether the intent is to transform a system that has directed less than 1% of climate funding to indigenous and local communities. What matters is what happens next…

Tuntiak Katan  leader of Ecuador’s indigenous Shuar people and General coordinator of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities 

The women in these communities play a crucial role. While men are gravitating more towards labor-intense work and often must leave their communities in search of a job, women are left in charge of the management of the household. They are experts in agriculture, they know which crop to plant in the dry season, they know where to get the medicine just by going to the forest and taking the herbs.  They can study the sky and anticipate the weather.  They are the ones educating the youth. They play a key role in the adaptation and resilient of the community and in advocacy for education.  

These women think for the entire community, and become new innovators at climate summits like COP26, because they understand the nature of the problems in their land. History of our climate wouldn’t be written without these women. 

As COP26 concluded and many promises were made for the Indigenous communities, the next step is to see how the governments and corporations upheld their promises, particularly the pledge made. How will the $1.7 billion dollars be distributed? And how does a community which has been historically underfinanced make use of this  investment?  

Article originally delivered as a speech in COP26 Town Hall Meeting at JCU. 

Further reading 

Hindou Ibrahim: Women’s leadership in Chad: An activist challenges her nomadic community’s view of women, while mobilizing her people for survival in an increasingly arid climate, by Believe Earth 

WHERE WILL EVERYONE GO? How climate refugees move across continent, by ProPublica