Getting local voices to global talks on climate change
- Summits like COP fail to take account of tribal people and their needs
- Indigenous experiences lose out to science when competing for political attention
- Promises made on climate change and development have made little difference on the ground
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To say that the Batwa people, a pygmy tribe in Uganda, are struggling seems an understatement. Driven from its ancestral forest in 1992, the tribe is afflicted by excruciating poverty and all the social ills that come along with losing home and livelihood.
Drug and alcohol abuse, HIV and environmental disasters have taken their toll. In 2002, when the last census was taken, the Batwa numbered only about 3,500.
That’s less than the average attendance rate at major UN summits — two of which are taking place in the last quarter of this year to try to address global problems, including those that poor communities such as the Batwa are facing.
The two events are the UN Sustainable Development Summit, which took place on 25–27 September in New York and resulted in the adoption of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the UN conference on climate change, or COP 21, taking place in Paris in December.
“[The indigenous people] were the ones who became even poorer because they were displaced by the settlers from the lowlands, whom the government subsidised to go to the forests in the highland communities.”
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The two deals on climate and sustainable development will affect each other. If countries do not agree sufficient greenhouse gas cuts to limit global warming, then achieving the SDGs could be even more difficult. This is because climate change affects rainfall, crop growth and vegetation — all crucial to SDG goals related to food, sanitation and health.
In contrast, opting for quick economic development powered by fossil fuels could lead to increased global warming as carbon emissions skyrocket. This means that development done wrongly exacerbates climate change, but climate change left unchecked would also undo tentative progress in development.
To address this conundrum, national leaders pledged “that no one will be left behind” when they signed up to the 17 SDGs and 169 targets in September. But in reality the impoverished villages of the Batwa are a world apart from the smooth marble floors of international conference centres. And, for people lacking access to the most basic health and education facilities it is a long way to achieving the power and financial capacity to join international negotiations is incredibly difficult.
Andrew Miller, from the NGO Amazon Watch, has attended three COP conferences, and says that these difficulties work both ways. Summits like COP might result in grand statements and commitments, but actual changes to the lives of poor people can be hard to see, he says.
“I have a hard time thinking of specific examples where those efforts contributed to concrete results at an international level that then yielded positive outcomes locally,” he says.
Without having more say in policymaking, there is a very real danger that marginalised and indigenous groups will not get enough say in shaping the policies that are meant to solve their problems.
Policy without the people
Take the example of Vietnam. The country used the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs’ predecessors, to provide subsidies, training and international investment to farmers, reducing extreme poverty and improving rural climate resilience. But there was a catch.
As part of its strategy, the Vietnamese government gave subsidies to farmers wanting to produce mono-crop plantations, and sanctioned the creation of such plantations in forests inhabited by indigenous groups.
“[The indigenous people] were the ones who became even poorer because they were displaced by the settlers from the lowlands, whom the government subsidised to go to the forests in the highland communities,” says Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous leader from the Kankanaey Igorot people in the Philippines, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous people face a variety hurdles to influencing international negotiations. They are scattered across the globe in small, remote communities. There are language barriers and less access to education, so indigenous leaders may find it difficult to understand the complex negotiations and power struggles that flummox even university professors. Their remoteness and small size makes them less relevant for scientists providing evidence for such major decisions as the anticipated COP climate deal.
Resources are also a problem — with international travel, hotels and booking fees, attending a conference can easily cost several thousand US dollars per person.
As a result of such obstacles, international processes tend to sideline the needs of indigenous people, says Brock Bersaglio, a geographer at the University of Toronto in Canada. For example, the SDGs are less about meeting their needs and more about making it “easier for multinationals to invest in developing countries”, he says.
This, he says, was particularly obvious during the International Conference on Financing for Development, held in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in July 2015. The outcome document of this conference devotes just one of its 117 paragraphs to the rights of indigenous people, but states repeatedly that multinational companies should be supported and encouraged to expand to create innovation-based growth.
The lack of activity of indigenous people in traditional science adds to these problems, as many policymakers struggle to incorporate their knowledge into decisions in the same way they include conventional research results. Carlos Mondragón, an anthropologist at Colmex, a university in Mexico City, adds that international institutions and agreements often have “an overwhelming tendency to ignore, marginalise and underestimate local knowledge and experiences of the environment and of local productive systems”.
Different lifestyle, different ideas
Part of the problem with bringing the voice of indigenous people into climate and development negotiations is their incredible diversity. There are at least 370 million indigenous people living in more than 5,000 distinct groups. Of these, some, such as the Batwa, live in haphazard circumstances and have complex development needs.
The hunter-gatherer Batwa were kicked out of Uganda’s Bwindi Forest in the 1990s due to the creation of gorilla conservation projects. The Ugandan government forced them to become farmers — with disastrous consequences, as the Batwa lacked the knowledge and experience needed to turn the wasteland they were housed on into prosperous farmstead.
Two decades after their eviction 99 per cent of Batwa households are food insecure and drink unclean water.  Lack of access to their traditional food has caused health problems, and lack of income means healthcare, quality food and education are hard to come by.
The Batwa are the people whom the SDG and COP negotiations are intended to protect. Climate change in particular may intensify their problems, because it is likely to reduce water levels, increase crop failures and heighten the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria in their part of the world.  Disease resistance is a particular problem as the Batwa’s immunity to malaria is much lower than that of other Ugandans because there are no mosquitoes in Bwindi Forest.
But rather than just waiting for help, the Batwa also have a lot to give. Michelle Maillet says that any solutions proposed at future UN talks need to consider communities’ existing knowledge and experience. “Traditional knowledge has given resilience to indigenous communities like the Batwa in the past,” Maillet says.
Maillet is the manager of an international project, based out of McGill University in Canada and with Ugandan partners, researching the resilience of indigenous groups to climate change. Her team believes that including indigenous groups in climate talks will bring new knowledge and arguments to debates around adaptation that go beyond existing scientific evidence.
“But this may not be enough to help them adapt to climate change in the future,” Maillet warns.
In fact many indigenous people may be more aware of climate change than negotiators and researchers in Paris or New York. In the Middle Hills of Nepal, scientists working with indigenous farmers have found that they have first-hand knowledge of climate change because of changes in crop growth and water levels, which are caused by unusual rainfall patterns. 
“Governments should respect and protect human rights of indigenous peoples.”
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Tarit Kumar Baul, an agricultural researcher at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh, says that attempts to solve the problem by importing farming techniques from elsewhere did not work.
Baul found that new crop varieties introduced to improve nutrition could not cope with the erosion caused by intense rainfall. This resulted in farmers using more fertiliser and pesticides, leading to an overall decline in food productivity in these fragile soils.
But when local farmers were asked to use their experience to tackle the problem, they came up with successful innovation strategies, such as diversification from cereals to vegetables, farming goats and using fodder trees.
A hard time
Nepal’s work on agriculture in the Middle Hills is just one of several inclusive approaches that protect indigenous knowledge and try to apply it alongside appropriate scientific evidence. According to Baul, the success of the project lay in local wisdom, such as which local tree species will grow best in which location. 
But the Nepalese farmers and the Batwa are two very different peoples, and what works for one may not work for the other. Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) which help indigenous groups attend international summits struggle daily with the fact that the spectrum of their experiences is so vast and wide — and therefore difficult to represent and incorporate at international summits like COP21.This is why the ongoing invisibility of indigenous people in international negotiations also harbours dangers for the people themselves. Tauli-Corpuz points out that these groups are often the losers when they are absent at summits that deal with important issues, such as distribution of resources and land management.
She says that if there are nationwide shortages of food or water, countries are generally willing to sacrifice their tribal people for the ‘greater good’, and many, like Uganda and Vietnam, have already done so — destroying their homes and livelihood for economic gain.
“Governments should respect and protect human rights of indigenous peoples,” including their right to participate in decision-making processes, Tauli-Corpuz concludes.
This article is part of our Spotlight on Joint action on climate change.
 Indigenous health adaptation to climate change (IHACC) — Uganda (IHACC-Uganda, 2014)
 Lea Berrang-Ford and others Vulnerability of indigenous health to climate change: a case study of Uganda's Batwa Pygmies (Social Science & Medicine, September 2012)
 Tarit Kumar Baul and others People’s local knowledge of climate change in the Middle-Hills of Nepal (Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, October 2013)
 Tarit Kumar Baul and others Agro-biodiversity management: using indigenous knowledge to cope with climate change in the Middle-Hills of Nepal (Agricultural Research, February 2014)