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At COP26, Indigenous leaders welcome funding but demand more of a say

‘Those who pollute the most and cut the most trees are the ones who make the most money.’

An indigenous woman wearing traditional dress holds a sign outside COP26.
Indigenous people from the Amazon protest outside the COP26 conference centre in Glasgow. They say their role in preserving nature is critical to reining in climate change, and are seeking better representation at the talks. (Paula Dupraz-Dobias/TNH)

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After a $1.7 billion pledge to help protect their emissions-absorbing forests, Indigenous leaders at COP26 feel their pleas are starting to be heard, but some still see it as too little and worry it won't end up where it’s needed if they continue to be kept out of the decision-making.

A majority of the new funding announced last week at the UN climate conference in the Scottish city of Glasgow is to come from the United States, the UK, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands, while philanthropic foundations have pledged to contribute $600 million.

Intended to “strengthen land tenure systems and protect the tenure and resource rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities”, the new stream of funding will run between 2021 and 2025 and is separate to the broader climate finance pledges going to poorer nations. 

Indigenous representatives attending COP26 welcomed the move, but noted that $340 million a year on average is still a fraction of the $100 billion expected to be paid annually from 2022 by rich nations to less wealthy countries to help them adapt to climate change.

Prior to COP26, the World Resources Institute estimated that while half of the world’s land and 80 percent of its biodiversity is managed and cared for by Indigenous and local communities, they only receive one percent of official climate funding.

“Indigenous people are doing a great favour, not just for ourselves but for everyone,” said Francisca Arara, a member of the Arara community representing the Institute for Climate Change in the Brazilian state of Acre, a public entity that coordinates conservation programmes in the western Amazonian region bordering Peru and Bolivia. 

“Those who pollute the most and cut the most trees are the ones who make the most money. We who preserve the forests barely see the benefits from that,” added Arara, speaking at one of the summit’s many side-events.

A July study warned that the Amazon, the Earth’s biggest tropical rainforest – which serves as a giant carbon sink – is in decline, with several areas emitting more carbon dioxide than they are absorbing. Deforestation has hit new records since August 2020, largely driven by agriculture and mining activities backed by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government.

By contrast, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that forests occupied by Indigenous communities, particularly where the communities’ land rights are recognised by states, are more intact than in other areas.

A seat at the table

In addition to seeking recognition for their contribution to climate change mitigation as guardians of the rainforests, Indigenous people have long demanded better representation in negotiations and a greater say in the decisions made about the regions where they live.

At COP26, most Indigenous representatives can only coordinate strategies within a caucus group. Only a handful of countries, such as Ecuador, have included Indigenous members on their official delegations – the only people privy to the closed-door negotiations.

While the amount of financial compensation for loss and damage caused by climate change continues to see pushback from richer nations in Glasgow who are concerned about the level of that support as well as risk of legal action and unlimited claims, other issues regarding finance also signal that the biggest polluters are still in charge.

For example, carbon offsets, which wealthier countries use to compensate their emissions by financing mitigation programmes elsewhere, have been a sticking point since the last COP talks in Madrid two years ago, and the rules have yet to be defined across nations.

The growing number of nature-based offset solutions involving forest conservation have some Indigenous peoples worried about the impact on forest communities who are not currently included in the conversations. Top among those concerns is that they may lose access to traditional areas for which they have not been granted land rights. 

Last week’s new funding pledge was accompanied by assurances that Indigenous communities would be given a greater say in the decision-making, but local leaders are demanding to be included in the discussions to ensure that the assistance is allocated where it is most needed, including in assuring those rights. 

Helen Magata of the Kadaclan Indigenous community in the Philippines, and communications officer for Tebtebba, an NGO promoting climate justice for native communities, said those who best understand the needs of the communities are the Indigenous peoples themselves.

“There is no one size fits all,” she told The New Humanitarian, pointing out that different communities have different priorities and needs. 

“We need to shift the narrative that big conservation projects are the thing,” Magata continued, suggesting it was important to consider factors such as the role women play in preserving nature as well as practices like seed banking and the careful use of water sources. 

As an Indigenous leader attending her fourth UN climate conference, Magata spoke of her frustration at the slow pace in giving Indigenous communities greater control over how climate finance should be managed and distributed in the places where they live. 

“It is being used by many as an excuse to fund money from wherever to international [aid and environmental groups] because they say Indigenous peoples are not capable,” she continued, calling for reallocations to build the capacity for Indigenous peoples to manage funds.

Veronica Inmunda, an Indigenous leader from the Ecuadorian Amazon, told The New Humanitarian there was an inherent contradiction in policymakers claiming to represent the people they are designing the policies for: “Governments cannot be the judge and the party.” 

And governments, she added, often don’t fully understand and respect Indigenous peoples’ needs. One recent example: Indigenous communities in the Amazon had to appeal globally for more pandemic assistance due to lacklustre COVID-19 responses in the region.

Where does the money go?

Indigenous representatives in Glasgow said earlier forest conservation projects have lacked transparency on funding and fallen short of their promises.

“It only goes to the bureaucracy and to consultancies in [the Peruvian capital of] Lima,” said Wrayz Peres, head of climate and biodiversity at COICA, the largest Indigenous association in the Amazon Basin, representing groups in nine countries. 

Peres, a member of Wampis Indigenous autonomous government, said large sums had been pledged to protect the Amazon, including a six-million-euro grant from the German Development Bank to Peru earlier this year, but few communities have seen the money. 

“For our contribution, how much have we received? Nothing.”

While many Indigenous representatives also expressed frustration at the lack of progress towards the 1.5 degree Celsius target in the Paris climate accords, some observers did at least see COP26 as a step forward in beginning to recognise the role Indigenous communities play in global mitigation efforts.

For Clémence Abbès Castillo, an Oxfam project officer in Peru who works closely with environmental defenders, Glasgow has seen the Indigenous platform moving forward – something she attributes to early campaigning efforts by community leaders.

But for Peres and other Indigenous leaders having to follow the discussions outside the official meeting rooms, the message is clear: “Our contribution in carbon mitigation to humanity is not from yesterday, it has been going on for 7,000 years. It’s important that this be recognised at the COP26.”

Edited by Anna Lekas Miller and Andrew Gully. Video by Paula Dupraz-Dobias, edited by Ciara Lee.

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