Indigenous World 2019: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international treaty adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 to tackle the growing problem of global warming and the related harmful effects of a changing climate. The UNFCCC entered into force on 21 March 1994, and has near universal membership, with 197 countries as ratifying parties (hereafter Parties). In 2015, the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement, a universal agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

By March 2019, 185 of the 197 Parties to the UNFCCC had ratified the Paris Agreement.[1] The Green Climate Fund is a fund established by the UNFCCC as an operating entity of the financial mechanism to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change.

The UNFCCC recognises that achieving sustainable development requires active participation of all sectors of society. Therefore, nine “major groups” are recognised as the main channels through which broad participation is facilitated in UN activities related to sustainable development. Indigenous peoples constitute one of these major groups and thereby exercise an influential role in global climate negotiations. The Indigenous Peoples’ Major Group (hereafter Indigenous Peoples) is organised in the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) which serves as a mechanism for developing common positions and statements of indigenous peoples, and for undertaking effective lobbying and advocacy work at UNFCCC meetings and sessions.

The Paris Agreement Implementation Guidelines

COP24, which was held in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018, might be remembered for the adoption of the rather weak Paris Agreement Implementation Guidelines, or “rulebook”, omitting any clear reference to human rights or the rights of indigenous peoples. The rulebook includes references to indigenous peoples’ “knowledge” with regards to communication of information on adaptation action. The rulebook also includes a reference to “engagement” with indigenous peoples with regards to the “information, clarity, transparency and understanding” Parties should promote when communicating their future nationally determined contributions (NDCs). However, proposed human rights references under these sections were rejected. With regards to new market mechanisms, a proposed reference to human rights in the guidance for cooperative approaches through “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” was also rejected. Ultimately, negotiations on market and non-market mechanisms failed and will be taken up again at COP25 in Chile in early 2020.

Beyond the rule book, the COP welcomed a report by the Task Force on Displacement under the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage and invited Parties and other stakeholders to consider its recommendations which include that Parties take into consideration their respective human rights obligations. Other decisions and declarations at COP24 saw references to human rights dropped last minute.

The Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform

One exception to the above, was the decision reached by Parties to operationalise fully the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (hereafter the Platform).[2] Containing a human rights reference, this decision was largely perceived as a victory not only by Indigenous Peoples, but also by Parties who had participated in many hours of formal, informal and “informal-informal” discussions, cultivating solid relationship, mutual trust and understanding in the process.

The negotiation over the establishment of a Facilitative Working Group for the operationalisation of the Platform has been a delicate process since COP21 in 2015 (see also previous editions of The Indigenous World). There has been a great deal of diplomacy employed by Indigenous Peoples and they have worked successfully in partnership with Parties. Since COP23 in 2017, it has become customary for Parties to invite Indigenous Peoples to the negotiating table during informal discussions, and have their representatives participate in consultations and provide input on draft decision text.

In 2018, efforts to reach agreement on the full operationalisation of the Platform including the establishment of the Facilitative Working Group continued. Key events throughout the year included an informal workshop in Helsinki in February, an intersessional meeting in Bonn in May, an informal event in Cochabamba in October, and finally, COP24 in Katowice during which the decision was adopted.

The intersessional meeting in May began with a multi-stakeholder workshop on the operationalisation and implementation of the functions of the Platform. During this one-day meeting, more than one hundred participants acknowledged the important role that indigenous peoples and local communities play in addressing the adverse effects of climate change in a holistic and integrated manner and “converged on the need to collaborate and commit to enabling the full operationalisation of the Platform and the implementation of its functions.”[3]

Two issues related to the operationalisation of the Platform dominated the subsequent negotiations. Firstly, some Parties expressed their concerns over the definition of “local communities” (or lack thereof) and its impact on the structure of Facilitative Working Group. Secondly, some Parties were concerned that the Platform may be used as a means to undermine the “territorial integrity and political independence of sovereign states” as enshrined in the UN Charter. The Platform is named the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, but the absence of local communities as a self-organised constituency at the UNFCCC made it challenging for both Indigenous Peoples and Parties to find a common solution to overcome these concerns.

Despite coming to an impasse in Bonn in May, efforts by Indigenous Peoples and Parties to build mutual trust and understanding continued, resulting at COP24 in a decision which contained satisfactory language on the following contested issues:

  • The Facilitative Working Group will have seven Indigenous Peoples’ representatives (one from each socio-cultural region) and seven Party representatives.
  • Only once local communities organise as a constituency, these will also be given seats in the Facilitative Working Group with a corresponding number of Party seats.
  • ‘Territorial integrity’ is only referenced with regards to functions involving local communities, whereas the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is referenced with regards to functions involving Indigenous Peoples.

One important thing to note is that in theory, Parties can appoint indigenous persons as their representative in the Facilitative Working Group. This has precedence from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at which several indigenous persons have been appointed by States. With regards to the Facilitative Working Group members nominated by Indigenous Peoples, each socio-cultural region will exercise their self-determined process to choose its representative and alternate.

The activities of the Platform will focus around its three main mandates which include knowledge, capacity building, and climate change policies and actions. The actual activities, however, are yet to be determined. These will be decided upon through an open consultation process in 2019, amongst other initiatives. Many participants have already experienced, through the repeated interventions by Indigenous Peoples, the potential of “knowledge” in addressing the adverse effects of climate change. Through this practice, the discussions have demonstrated a lot of promise as to what the Facilitative Working Group and the Platform could become when they are operational and what is possible for Indigenous Peoples and Parties in the UNFCCC and other international conventions.

While many Indigenous Peoples’ representatives seem genuinely content with this COP24 outcome, there are also voices of concern fearing indigenous peoples’ issues will now be “parked” in the Platform rather than being prominent in the main negotiations. Uncertainty also hangs over how the local communities will emerge in this process, and what kind of impact it will have on the Facilitative Working Group and Indigenous Peoples’ influence in the UNFCCC. In addition, Indigenous Peoples are concerned that the lack of ambitions by Parties and their failure to adopt a strong rulebook with a rights-based approach, may undermine indigenous peoples’ rights and therefore the effectiveness of the Platform in implementing its functions. Nevertheless, the Platform is widely regarded an important milestone for the Indigenous Peoples fighting for their rights and the recognition of their role in climate action at the UNFCCC.

Green Climate Fund

2018 was an important year for indigenous peoples’ issues in the Green Climate Fund (GCF). At its first board meeting, board members adopted the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy (hereafter IP Policy).[4] The IP Policy represents a high-level rights-based benchmark for the Fund’s operation and for climate finance at large.

The development of an IP Policy was one of the most important elements of the work of the indigenous peoples’ advocacy team which has followed the GCF over the past years. The GCF is considering and approving an increasing amount of project proposals that will have potential impact on the lands, territories and resources of indigenous peoples. By the end of 2018, the GCF had approved 93 projects for a total amount of USD 4.6 billion.[5] This stresses the urgency and need for an IP Policy in order to protect indigenous peoples’ rights and ensure that projects funded by the GCF are also of benefit to indigenous peoples. The Policy also demands continuous engagement of indigenous peoples and right-based organisations in the GCF.

Indigenous peoples’ representatives had long argued that the GCF would not be fully compliant with emerging international best practice in terms of recognition, respect and promotion of indigenous peoples’ rights, until it adopted a stand-alone comprehensive IP Policy containing provisions and criteria for the implementation of the highest international human rights standards and obligations, including ILO Convention169 and the UNDRIP.

The IP Policy is a progressive and important instrument to guide the work of the GCF, as well as to monitor projects for their compliance with, and respect for, indigenous peoples’ rights. The policy recognises indigenous peoples’ rights, their crucial and active contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the importance of indigenous peoples’ knowledge and their livelihood systems. The policy also explicitly states that it “will apply to GCF-financed activities supporting the REDD+ actions.”[6]

The IP Policy also establishes the position of a Senior Indigenous Peoples Specialist within the GCF Secretariat who will be responsible for the management of the implementation of the Policy. Recruitment for this position was on-going in 2018 and is expected to be finalised in 2019. Furthermore, the policy establishes an indigenous peoples’ advisory group (IPAG) “to enhance coordination between GCF, accredited entities and executing entities, states and indigenous peoples.” The IPAG will consist of one representative from each of the four regions where GCF projects are being implemented (Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Pacific). It will provide advice to the GCF and review and monitor the implementation of the Policy. In 2018, indigenous self-determined processes started in the four regions to identify and nominate the IPAG members. The selection is based on specific criteria for candidates.  

In 2018, work on guidance for the implementation of the IP Policy also started. The guidelines, which are expected to be developed in 2019, will include guidance on “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC).

At the same time as adopting the IP Policy, GCF board members were supposed to adopt a revised Gender policy. Unfortunately, board members could not agree, and the policy was not adopted in 2018. Major issues of disagreement included the introduction of a national contextualisation and an exclusion of the reference to international human rights instruments. The Gender Policy remains on the agenda for 2019.

Notes and references

[1] See United Nations Treaty Collection at

[2] See UNFCCC, Decision -/CP.24 “Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform” at

[3] Multi-Stakeholder Workshop Report, 2018.

[4] The IP Policy can be found on the GCF’s website in English and Spanish:

[5] A complete overview of GCF-funded projects, and projects in the pipeline for consideration, is available on its website under the country profile pages at

[6] See GCF, “Indigenous Peoples Policy” at

Tomohiro Harada is a PhD Candidate at the Department of International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. His research fields are international relations, global environmental politics and indigenous diplomacies as it relates to the Sami People.

Tunga Bhadra Rai belongs to the Rai indigenous community of Nepal. He completed a Master’s Degree in Anthropology from Tribhuvan University and participated in the Cornell Nepal Study Program. He works with the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) Climate Change Partnership Program based in Nepal.

Kathrin Wessendorf is a social anthropologist from Switzerland and Head of Programmes at IWGIA. She follows the GCF board meetings as a representative of IWGIA.

Stefan Thorsell is Climate Advisor and Programme Coordinator at IWGIA. He is responsible for IWGIA’s Norad-funded REDD+ project in Myanmar and Peru.

Tags: Global governance, Climate



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