Indigenous peoples from around the world want governments to show more determination in tackling the climate change crisis.
And indigenous peoples have a fundamental responsibility and right to be included in climate change negotiations, they assert.
“We reiterate the urgent need for collective action,” says the Anchorage Declaration, which was reached by consensus last week at the first Indigenous People’s Global Summit on Climate Change.
Several hundred delegates from Canada, Tanzania, Kiribati in the South Pacific and other nations met in Anchorage for the summit.
It was a mini-UN.
Like that organization, the summit represented a rich cultural tapestry, a shared vision and diverse voices. And, like the UN, it had a significant difference of opinion that threatened to divide the process.
The logjam came at the latest possible moment—and mirrored a conflict seen throughout the world.
Some wanted a moratorium on oil and gas development. Others didn’t.
For years, indigenous peoples have been heavily impacted by climate change.
They “will almost certainly bear the greatest brunt of its impact,” said Patricia Cochran, host of the summit and chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.
That’s because the people most attached to the land, sea or ice are more immediately affected by the climate. And throughout the summit, delegates spoke passionately about the impacts they were experiencing on their traditional lands.
The summit was a chance to exchange information on locally observed climate change and, more importantly, to identify solutions to the challenge.
We’ve been adapting to climate throughout our history, said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous leader from the Philippines and chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
“As well, we have the experience of a low-carbon lifestyle,” she said. “It is a valuable example to the world.”
Some members of the African delegation had never ventured beyond their traditional territory before. They brought “extra calabashes of milk” in order to try to stay warm when they travelled to the North.
Through an interpreter, Maasai elder J’m Osokoni Ole Kishau described drastic changes to rainfall, the river and, ultimately, the cattle his people herd.
But he did not realize how widespread climate change was.
“I am surprised that white people also have it (climate change). This will be my lead story when I go home.”
The summit discussed traditional experience, resilience, knowledge and wisdom as a means for finding a more long-term, holistic approach to the global problem.
“Climate change has no boundaries,” said Bill Erasmus, Chief of the Dene and international chair of the Arctic Athabaskan Council. “That’s the beauty of bringing everyone together.”
Ever since the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was passed in September of 2007, they have been organizing with a renewed sense of purpose.
The treaty states “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights.”
Even though Canada is one of three countries worldwide that has chosen not to sign the treaty, Erasmus says, “We’ll get there.”
In the meantime, it is important to get “traditional knowledge and science working together with respect” on climate change right away.
Time is of the essence.
In December, the UN will meet in Copenhagen to discuss climate change at the 15th Conference of the Parties. The role of the so-called COP15 in Copenhagen will be to come up with a global plan for climate change to follow the Kyoto Protocol.
The stakes are high, and indigenous people want to be included.
So the main purpose of the summit in Anchorage was to formulate an indigenous peoples message to the world in advance of COP15.
This message was in the form of a declaration to be presented to UN president Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann.
Brockmann came to the summit and spoke to delegates about humanity’s common past and common future.
“We want and need to integrate the views and values of indigenous peoples into the negotiations on climate change.”
Delegates gave Father d’Escoto, as he is affectionately called, a standing ovation.
However, they did not give him a declaration.
On the final morning of the summit, just as Brockmann was set to receive the declaration, a disagreement unfolded around the final wording.
At issue was a moratorium on any new oil and gas drilling on traditional territory. Some delegates wanted the moratorium in and some did not.
An emotional Ben Namakin, the Pacific representative and the official youth delegate, spoke at the signing ceremony.
“I would like to pay my respect to the UN president, and I pay my respects to all of the elders, but I am unable to sign the declaration at this time.”
The youth delegation, with Namakin as their spokesperson, felt strongly there should be no new drilling.
All delegates agreed that fossil fuels need to be phased out, but some, especially those regions where indigenous peoples receive benefits from oil and gas development, were not ready for such a moratorium.
Rather than derail the process, the disagreement drew the delegates together.
After many additional hours of negotiation, the delegation maintained consensus by acknowledging that, on this one issue, there were differing viewpoints.
Cochran summed up the declaration by describing it as “united in culture, spirit and hope.”
While it took 20 years to develop a treaty on the rights of indigenous people, the final declaration from the Indigenous People’s Global Summit on Climate Change took only five days to develop, she noted.
John Streiker is an engineer, environmentalist and the former federal Green Party candidate for the Yukon.