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The emergence of Indigenous youth in the climate negotiations: from disappointment to climate leadership

During climate talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Bonn (UNFCCC), Germany, in June 2023, IWGIA met and talked with seven Indigenous youth leaders from Latin America. These youth had travelled to Bonn to make their voices heard, promoting transformative change and supporting the historic and multiple causes for which their Indigenous Peoples are fighting.

Indigenous Peoples youth support the historical and ongoing struggles of their Peoples

Indigenous Peoples, especially Indigenous youth, are facing numerous challenges. The effects of climate change, and associated loss and damage, are intertwined with the intergenerational impacts of colonialism and poor recognition of their rights and identity (FAO 2021).

Among the various struggles Indigenous youth face are the demarcation of territories and resistance to the legacy of colonialism and its ongoing repercussions. For example, Indigenous youth denounce the expansion of agribusiness and extractivism, monocultures and different types of illegal and legal mining that have profoundly impacted their territories and ways of life. The impacts of extractivism are currently combined with various initiatives aimed at the production of "green" energy to maintain consumption levels in the countries of the North, such as the construction of hydroelectric plants and the production of hydrogen and methanol.



Advocacy as a climate change strategy

All the conflicts Indigenous Peoples face increase the effects of climate change on Indigenous communities' lands, waters, territories and resources. Indigenous youth are witnesses to the multiple losses and damage already caused by extreme weather events and the slow-onset impacts of climate change on their territories. Among the most evident impacts, Indigenous youth perceive the decrease of water sources in all their forms, the collapse of biodiversity and the disappearance of many species, including the extinction of those that are the basis of their food and culture. Indigenous youth are witnessing how all daily dynamics and livelihoods are being disrupted, even pushing many members of their communities to migrate. In cities, migrants suffer different types of discrimination, are subjected to demanding and precarious jobs, and lack access to adequate housing, education and health care. The fragmentation of communities means that customs, language and traditional practices are affected. Both physical and spiritual health and identity of Indigenous Peoples are weakened, and with them, the resilience of the communities.

In order to address these inequalities, Indigenous youth are organising themselves. Through their advocacy, these agents of change aim to strengthen the self-determination of their peoples, supporting, for example, territorial management, food sovereignty, the right to water and access to information. By strategically positioning themselves between different worlds, Indigenous youth link Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge with non-Indigenous technologies, facilitating the dynamism that characterises Indigenous knowledge systems and generating innovative initiatives to address the climate and biodiversity crises.

However, Indigenous youth face a double challenge: their voices tend to be heard even less than those of their adult peers, especially at the national level. Accordingly, these young climate activists denounce the various ways in which the COP (UNFCCC Conference of the Parties) perpetuates colonial dynamics that marginalise Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous youth have not been adequately represented in climate negotiations and face multiple barriers to effective participation - including language. When Indígenous youth are considered in decision-making, they are often positioned only as a “vulnerable population”, without the right to influence measures that are supposed to reduce their vulnerability and no recognition of their leadership. In this way, their agency, important work and contributions to local environmental management are rendered invisible.

Injustice, rather than a barrier, becomes a driving force. A strong disillusionment with the international climate negotiations fuels the motivations of Indigenous youth. This process has not respected their rights and has been ineffective in curbing the existential climate crisis. While recognition of the contributions of Indigenous Peoples and their knowledge systems has increased in discourse, this recognition has generally not gone hand-in-hand with the creation of mechanisms that give Indigenous Peoples the place they deserve in climate action [see IWGIA's paper Recognition of Indigenous Peoples in Nationally Determined Contributions].

Motivations and expectations that call for Indigenous youth: an understanding of sustainability based on "buen vivir" (good living)

Disillusionment, coupled with the certainty that no one will work on their behalf, is pushing more and more Indigenous youth to demand new ways of negotiating climate governance and to open up new spaces for participation. They aspire to enable Indigenous leaders, elders and youth, to negotiate horizontally with non-Indigenous authorities and to advance culturally appropriate, community-centred climate policies that include them at all levels and stages. This search is complemented by the creation of platforms and solidarity networks that, based on “good living”, allow Indigenous youth to share their experiences, strengthen their capacities, raise awareness, articulate the international advocacy of Indigenous Peoples and strengthen their rights.

Indigenous youth motivations also include bringing local realities to the multilateral sphere, bearing witness to the impacts of climate change that affect their communities, and thus inviting decision-makers to put themselves in their shoes and design climate policies that respond to the diversity of realities. In addition to the recognition of their particular vulnerability, Indigenous youth want the work that they and their communities do daily to minimise the effects and impacts of climate change to be recognised. These experiences are a reminder that there are other ways of relating to and caring for nature, ways that Indigenous Peoples have developed for centuries and that many communities still maintain. The memory associated with this ancestral knowledge, which is positioned as an alternative today, gives us the certainty that we can do things differently. In this remembering, the hope for changing the course of history lies.

To achieve their goals, Indigenous youth are making their voices heard. These voices emphasise the importance of ensuring climate action based on commitment, empathy and sensitivity. They also call for us to affectionately position the natural world at the centre of the debate, thereby no longer seeing nature as an inexhaustible source of resources for the benefit of the few. The voices of Indigenous youth remind us of the urgent need to evaluate our consumption patterns and question the blind faith in economic growth. Thus, they invite us to legitimise a sustainable relationship with the natural world.

The idea of sustainability that Indigenous youth advocate, however, is different from the word that has become meaningless after so much repetition of unfulfilled promises and false solutions. On the contrary, it is an idea of sustainability that is conscious and committed, based on the principle of reciprocity. This idea of sustainability translates as good living. It means taking from nature only what is necessary and giving back in full what nature gives us and what makes the reproduction of life possible. Sustainability is a principle that governs the coexistence of different species, allowing them to live in freedom. Sustainability is, therefore, directly connected to the right of self-determination enjoyed by Indigenous Peoples. A sustainable future is one that recognises the territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples and allows Indigenous communities to autonomously develop their life and development projects and thus continue their contributions to nature.

The demand for spaces for effective participation

Echoing the main demands of the International Indigenous Peoples' Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC), the Indigenous youth of Latin America demand that states respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples as set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) - which, unfortunately, is sometimes not even known by state representatives participating in international climate negotiations. Effective commitment to the UNDRIP requires concrete and justice-based actions to prevent global warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. This includes phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable energies under an approach that ensures respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Such actions can only be implemented with the effective participation of Indigenous Peoples from all socio-cultural regions of the UN, including knowledge holders, women, youth, persons with disabilities and persons with gender diversity, and the equitable engagement of Indigenous knowledge systems, which are comprised of science and technologies, as well as worldviews, values and laws.

It is urgent that climate negotiations address the historically constructed inequalities that climate change is reinforcing. In addition to effective and permanent spaces for participation, support for Indigenous Peoples must be accompanied by direct access to and management of all funding for adaptation, mitigation and loss and damage to address the impacts of climate change in their territories. The losses and damages, economic and non-economic, attributed to climate change that Indigenous youth perceive along with their communities are multiple and often invaluable. However, Indigenous Peoples continue to demonstrate their resilience and their worldviews provide us with narratives that strengthen hope for a better future. Because of this, their knowledge systems must be supported.

Beyond pledges on paper, which are important, Indigenous Peoples require financial support and concrete actions to ensure the exercise of their rights and participation. All decisions and actions that states are implementing to address climate change mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage must recognise, respect, promote and protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples. In particular, it is critical that Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous youth are included in the discussions on loss and damage at the 28th UNFCCC COP in Dubai in December 2023, including the Warsaw International Mechanism, the Santiago Network and the new "Loss and Damage" Finance Facility created under the UNFCCC. Indigenous youth, thanks to their lived experiences and knowledge, can lead the implementation of these mechanisms on the ground.

To strengthen their advocacy, the Indigenous youth present in Bonn proposed the creation of an International Indigenous Youth Forum on Climate Change (IIYFCC). Under the umbrella of the IIPFCC, this Forum will aim to articulate collaborative networks and leadership among Indigenous youth, support youth attending the negotiations for the first time, promote intergenerational learning spaces, facilitate information sharing and strengthen the capacities and participation of Indigenous youth in the UNFCCC. Indigenous youth plan to announce the creation of the IIYFCC during COP 28.

The IIPFCC stressed in its closing statement at COP 27, and reiterated at the Bonn Climate Conference: "for Indigenous Peoples, climate change is a matter of life and death". Indigenous youth then make an urgent call to action: to stop pretending to act and make real commitments, i.e., rights-based commitments that are not just on paper. However, this call is not a passive demand, but rather an invitation to value the contributions of Indigenous youth and to support and engage with Indigenous-led actions that respond to climate change with equity and justice. This partnership demands new spaces in decision-making processes that, while culturally appropriate, ensure the full and effective participation of Indigenous youth in decision-making processes, as well as fair, direct and facilitated access to climate finance for Indigenous Peoples.


This article was written by Rosario Carmona based on interviews with:

Açucena Marinheiro da Silva
Ati Gunnawi Viviam Villafaña Izquierdo
Diego Aza Valenzuela
Guidaí Vargas Michelena
María José (Majo) Andrade Cerda
Wara Iris Ruiz Condori
Wenatoa Parakanã


The interviews were conducted by IWGIA Climate Advisor, Stefan Thorsell, with support from Camila Romero Peiret, during the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June 2023.

Tags: Youth, Climate



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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