The Indigenous World 2021: 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 climate change. In 2015, the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement, a universal agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to hold “...the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and [pursue] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C” (Art. 2a).[1]

The UNFCCC recognises that achieving sustainable development requires the active participation of all sectors of society. Nine “constituencies” are therefore 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’ constituency is organised within the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC), which serves as a mechanism for developing the common positions and statements of Indigenous Peoples, and for undertaking effective lobbying and advocacy work at UNFCCC meetings and sessions.

The Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (“the Platform”) under the UNFCCC has been gradually operationalised over the last five years since its establishment in 2015. Beginning with an agreement on the Platform’s functions and purpose in 2018, progress has since advanced with the creation of a Facilitative Working Group (FWG) – the first constituted body under the UNFCCC with equal representation between Indigenous Peoples and states. During the FWG’s first year of operation, a two-year workplan (2020-2021), comprising 12 activities, was co-developed and then adopted at the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP 25) in December 2019. This progress raised expectations among Indigenous Peoples who, given the lack of recognition of their nationhood, predominantly by states, are trapped between the Convention’s state/non-state binary and therefore not fully accommodated within the legal framework of the UNFCCC. Their inherent, collective right to self-determination as Peoples, reaffirmed in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), offers an argument that they should be given a space at the negotiation table alongside states. As it is still early days for the Platform, it remains to be seen whether the influence and voices of Indigenous Peoples at the UNFCCC will be elevated above those of civil society.

Established by the UNFCCC in 2010, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) is an operating entity of the financial mechanism to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change. Being the world’s largest dedicated climate finance mechanism, the GCF aims to catalyse a flow of finance to investments in low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways, thereby contributing to the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.[2]

This chapter analyses developments and decisions involving Indigenous Peoples in 2020 – first at the UNFCCC and then at the GCF.


The end of 2019 marked the conclusion of a year with limited meaningful progress in addressing a rapidly changing climate. The year that followed, 2020, was heralded as the year of ambition both for the climate and Indigenous Peoples: a year where Parties would strengthen their “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs – also known as their greenhouse gas emission reduction targets), and a year where the much-anticipated work of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (hereafter “the Platform”) was set to commence. All of that changed when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global health pandemic on 11 March 2020.

The health of hundreds of millions of people has been threatened as a result of the virus; a virus that has impacted the way we live, work and relate to each other. At the same time, this reality has caused governments to mobilise funds previously unheard of (a collective mobilisation of several trillion USD to date) to protect the health and well-being of citizens. In so doing, the virus has forced governments and civil society alike to reckon with the inadequacies and inequities of our systems, including the international climate regime. Within one month of the WHO announcement, the year of ambition was put on hold and the 26th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP 26) postponed a year, with the new dates being proposed for 1-12 November 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. At the time of writing, only 45 Parties had met the NDC revision deadline, representing just 28% of global emissions.[3]

Making the link: COVID-19 and the climate crisis

While there are numerous parallels between COVID-19 and the climate crisis – the disproportionate impacts on structurally oppressed groups, its lack of respect for state borders, and the connection to racial justice, gender justice, Indigenous justice and disability justice – it is equally worth highlighting the differences. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutierrez, summarised this well: “The threat [of COVID-19] is temporary whereas the threat from heat waves, floods and extreme storms resulting in the loss of human life will remain with us for years.”[4] Indeed, research has shown that the reduction in annual CO2 emissions, as a result of the pandemic, was between 4% and 7.5% in 2020, with a peak decrease of 17% during the month of April, and if we are to meet our commitments to the Paris Agreement this would need to be sustained over the next decade.[5] These required reductions may also directly contradict government calls to “restart the economy” and reduce “red tape environmental regulations” as tools for economic recovery, while committing atrocities against Indigenous Peoples, including in so-called climate action initiatives that fail to safeguard Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

Indigenous involvement in the UNFCCC – the year that wasn’t

With the exception of actual negotiations, procedural work at the UNFCCC largely continued throughout 2020 by moving everything online. While this enabled the work to continue, with mixed results, it created obstacles for the full participation of Indigenous Peoples, both between and amongst regions, as they struggle to have access to the Internet and the resources to participate. Processes of accountability, also known as the protection gap, have been swapped for exclusive virtual meetings of UNFCCC officials, Party representatives, and privileged power holders amid COVID-19 restrictions. These issues have also occurred within the broader UN system, as dialogues and debates were swapped for monologues by global leaders, often overwhelmingly male according to observers.[6]

In lieu of the regular subsidiary meetings SB 52 and COP 26, the UNFCCC, in partnership with the Chilean and United Kingdom (UK) presidencies, hosted the June Momentum for Climate Change in June and the UN Climate Change Dialogues 2020 in late November / early December, both virtual. Amongst all the regular side-events, Indigenous Peoples participated as best they could, hosting an open, informal dialogue with the Facilitative Working Group (FWG) of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform in June, and a Special Event on advancing safeguards, protocols and good practices for knowledge-sharing and exchange of experiences for climate change adaptation, resilience and mitigation in November.[7] An informal session between the FWG and the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) was organised in September to discuss their distinct but complementary roles within the UNFCCC and broader climate advocacy. In addition to these events, the IIPFCC worked with the UK Presidency to celebrate World Indigenous Peoples Day on 9 August with a video showcasing Indigenous Peoples from around the globe.[8]

The Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform

The adoption of the initial two-year workplan of the Platform at COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, generated significant momentum and expectations for the activities of the Platform, breathing life into Indigenous-led solutions to addressing the climate crisis. Unfortunately, the pandemic challenged the FWG representatives to adjust their activities to the virtual arena, while remaining accountable to the concrete action expected by them and Indigenous Peoples alike. This led to the hosting of two meetings (FWG 3 and FWG 4) entirely virtually, creating both challenges - navigating different technologies, different interpretation services and different feelings - and successes - maintaining cultural protocol through opening and closing prayers by Indigenous knowledge keepers from different regions.

FWG 3 was held over four days from 5-8 October, where each day involved 3 hours of meetings.[9] In accordance with Decision 2/CP.24, this session included the election of new co-chairs and vice-chairs (one Indigenous representative and one state representative for each).[10] Following this election, each agenda item followed a similar format whereby responsible FWG representatives presented an update on their respective activity, responded to any concerns of other FWG representatives, and then opened the dialogue for other Indigenous representatives and observers to comment. While there was general support for the activities, Indigenous representatives raised concerns about the safety of regional gatherings due to COVID-19 (Activity 2); the treatment and protection of Indigenous knowledge systems on the forthcoming dedicated web portal for the Platform (Activity 3); and the distinction between Indigenous Peoples and local communities in the capacity-building workshops (Activity 4). Additional concerns included the challenge of accessibility and representation in a virtual context due to inconsistent Internet access and the inability of FWG representatives to support a position on the inclusion of human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Article 6. This inability of the FWG to take positions in support of the rights of Indigenous Peoples highlights an important limitation whereby Indigenous Peoples are still unable to have any formal mechanism to influence key negotiation items.

FWG 4 was held from 14-17 December and, again, each day was structured to include 2.5 hours of virtual meetings.[11] This session was heavily focused on updates on the various activities, most notably a brief discussion on the set of recommendations for the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) on the engagement and input of Indigenous Peoples into the UNFCCC (Activity 6), a presentation of a technical paper on the engagement of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in national climate policy (Activity 9),[12] a series of presentations on different UN-related funding programmes and a summary paper on the current funding opportunities for Indigenous Peoples (Activity 11)[13] and, finally, an in-depth discussion on, and live demonstration of, the dedicated web portal. Regarding the latter, a detailed and sometimes challenging debate followed on the inclusion of safeguards and protocols for the protection of Indigenous knowledge prior to the expected launch of the portal in early 2021. Concerns were also raised with regard to the approach of the meeting when presentations from various UN agencies prevented Indigenous participants from contributing their expertise to the funding and engagement discussions. This regrettable situation during the session seemed to clearly exemplify what Indigenous Peoples have been saying for decades. The meeting closed with a prayer and song.

The long and winding road to COP 26

The global health pandemic has drastically altered the work and involvement of Indigenous Peoples within the UNFCCC. While the Secretariat and some State Parties are trying to maintain momentum, Indigenous Peoples have raised significant concerns at the inequities exacerbated by the migration to virtual sessions. This is especially relevant when, as per Decision 2/ CP.24, and given the postponement of COP 26 to 2021, the review of the Platform is fast approaching. Discussions on the development of a future three-year workplan for the Platform, extension of the mandate of the FWG, and the challenging topic of local community participation (there remains no constituency) will all be on the table. Combine this with the unanswered concerns on the lack of human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples’ safeguards in Article 6 and we have an extremely important COP for Indigenous Peoples in front of us. Combined with the disproportionate impacts facing Indigenous Peoples due to COVID-19, solutions that simultaneously advance decarbonisation and decolonisation have never been more important.

The Green Climate Fund

While at the UNFCCC State Parties continue endless year-on-year negotiations on the language around human rights and safeguards, the reality at the Green Climate Fund (GCF) is different. The GCF had, by the end of 2020, funded a total of 158 projects since its operationalisation in 2015, with project investments amounting to USD 4.9 billion. It is estimated that these projects will benefit 407.8 million people and prevent the emission of 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.[14] No disaggregated data exist on how these projects affect Indigenous Peoples’ land and territories, however, or how Indigenous Peoples are impacted positively and/or negatively by the projects. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the ideal standards being fought for at the UNFCCC so far have not trickled down to be reflected either in the design of most GCF projects or in their implementation. With the adoption of the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy in 2018, and its operational guidelines in 2019, it was hoped that 2020 would be a year that saw an increased focus on Indigenous Peoples’ rights compliance in projects approved and entities accredited. Despite some progress detected, this did not end up being the case.

Formalisation of the Indigenous Peoples’ Advisory Group (IPAG), established as part of the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy, did not happen in 2020 as planned. Instead, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw a steady flow of funding proposals, accreditation applications, policies and programmes in the GCF. The numbers of projects approved and funds disbursed were showcased proudly rather than placing a focus on the individual project’s impact on Indigenous Peoples and communities on the ground.

Indigenous Peoples kept raising their voices at the GCF in 2020. Despite these efforts, funding proposals were approved without being sufficiently assessed against the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy. Many projects were approved without presenting Indigenous Peoples’ plans as stipulated in the policy. This shows that the GCF needs to progress in fulfilling its own obligation to fully respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights and effectively engage Indigenous Peoples in the design, development and implementation of strategies and activities financed by the GCF.

In 2020, the 25th, 26th and 27th meetings of the Board took place. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the latter two meetings were virtual. The participation of Indigenous Peoples, and of civil society organisations (CSOs) in general, shrank in the virtual setting due to lack of in-person coordination meetings and limited, or almost no, access to Board members, their advisors and the boardroom, amongst other challenges. Overall, following items of the GCF in 2020 endured as being the most relevant for Indigenous Peoples.

Updated Strategic Plan for 2020-2023

The GCF approved its Updated Strategic Plan for 2020-2023 at the 27th Board meeting, after many rounds of discussion and deliberations. The Plan lays out four strategic priorities i.e. strengthening country ownership, fostering a paradigm-shifting portfolio, catalysing private sector finance at scale, and improving access to GCF funding.[15] The document also covers areas such as replenishment, workplan for the Board, allocation of finance to the private sector, greater impact for developing countries compared with the initial resource mobilisation period, balanced funding across mitigation and adaptation over time, and the use of financial instruments and policy compliance in a more stringent manner. Streamlining the Updated Strategic Plan into programming for 2020-2023, the GCF has decided to review its policies and frameworks.

The core question for Indigenous Peoples is how the execution of the Updated Strategic Plan will incorporate a human rights-based approach. There is reference to advancing best practice policies and standards on environmental and social safeguards, Indigenous Peoples, gender and integrity, not only to “do no harm” but also to improve environmental, social and gender outcomes, and generate critical co-benefits. The Plan also mentions that the GCF will enhance engagement with Indigenous Peoples in line with the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy, including through establishing the IPAG. Holding the GCF accountable for these promises is a crucial task for Indigenous Peoples’ advocacy moving forward.

Integrated Results Management Framework

In 2020, the GCF started to develop an Integrated Results Management Framework (IRMF) so that it can measure and report on the impact of its investment and contribution to paradigm-shifting climate action. Scheduled to be finalised in 2021, the aim of the IRMF is to enable integrated reporting of progress towards delivery of the Updated Strategic Plan. It is of paramount importance to ensure that the IRMF indicators are robust and adequate for assessing compliance with the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy across all criteria.

Sectoral guides under development

Sectoral guides are guidance documents aimed at advising accredited entities (AEs), national designated authorities (NDAs) and other stakeholders on potential areas where GCF investment will have the most impact. They aim to guide and inform the development of funding proposals.[16] The GCF Secretariat has been working on the development of sectoral guidance across eight established GCF result areas. Consultation for the guides commenced in November 2020 with agriculture and food security; cities, buildings and urban systems; and energy generation and access. The sectoral guides must safeguard Indigenous Peoples’ rights and streamline the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy. Full and effective participation of, and consultation with, Indigenous Peoples in developing the sectoral guides is therefore of key importance.

REDD+ result-based payments

The pilot REDD+ result-based payments programme of USD 500 million was exhausted with the approval of two final projects at the 27th Board meeting. Ever since the introduction of the REDD+ mechanism, Indigenous Peoples have had concerns with regard to non-carbon benefits, benefit-sharing schemes, consideration of the knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, and compliance with rights safeguards, namely the principle of free, prior and informed consent.[17] It is important to critically review this first round of REDD+ and its Scorecard, which is the evaluation matrix with parameters, eligibility criteria and investment frameworks for assessing REDD+ proposals. How the pilot projects have served and/or undermined the REDD+ Cancún Safeguards, the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy and other international human rights instruments is an important lesson to learn from this pilot programme before moving to the next REDD+ programme in the GCF.

Looking forward

If we are to achieve the 1.5°C degree goal by shifting climate action from “business as usual” into a “paradigm shift”, Parties to the UNFCCC and all stakeholders must recognise the important role of Indigenous Peoples. At the GCF, this is done through ensuring full compliance with the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy in all business. Indigenous Peoples will continue to demand accountability and advocate for this to become a reality.


Graeme Reed (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is of mixed Anishinaabe and European descent. He works at the Assembly of First Nations leading their involvement in federal and international climate policy, including as co-Chair of the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change at COP 25. In his free time, he is completing a doctorate at the University of Guelph studying the intersection of Indigenous governance, environmental governance and the climate crisis.

Tunga Bhadra Rai (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) belongs to the Rai Indigenous Nationality 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.

Stefan Thorsell is Climate Advisor at the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). He engages in international climate advocacy at the UNFCCC and the GCF in collaboration with Indigenous representatives. In addition to his published contributions on Indigenous Peoples’ rights, he has published research on the peace process in Colombia.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] UNFCCC. “The Paris Agreement.” Accessed 23 February 2021.

[2] The Green Climate Fund. “About GCF.” Accessed 23 February 2021.

[3] Gabbatiss, Josh. “Analysis: Which countries met the UN’s 2020 deadline to raise ‘climate ambition’?” Carbon Brief, 8 January 2021. Accessed 26 February 2021.

[4] Crist, Meehan.  “What the Coronavirus means for climate change.” The New York Times, 27 March 2020.

[5] Le Quéré, Corinne., Jackson, Robert B., Jones, Matthew W. et al. “Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement.” Nat. Clim. Chang. 10  (2020): 647–653.

[6] Nasr, Leila. “Swapping dialogues for monologues: Virtual gatherings bring big challenges for meaningful UN engagement.” International Justice and Human Rights Clinic at the Allard School of Law, 6 October 2020. Accessed 23 February 2021.

[7] Three Indigenous experts presented at the event: Francisco Cali Tzay (Mayan Kaqchikel, Guatemala, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, and traditional Indigenous farmer); Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim (FWG member representing Indigenous Peoples from Africa); Dalee Sambo Dorough (FWG member representing Indigenous Peoples from the Arctic). The recording of the event can be found here:

[8] Indigenous Peoples (@iipfcc). 2020. “International Day of Indigenous Peoples.” Video on Twitter, 9 August 2020, 3:57am. Accessed 23 February 2021.

[9] The full FWG 3 can be found here:

[10] Andrea Carmen (North American Indigenous representative) and Clement Yow Mulalap (State representative) were elected Co-Chairs, and Jane Au (Pacific Indigenous representative) and Irina Barba (State representative) were elected Vice-Chairs.

[11] The full FWG 4 can be found here:

[12] A full list of gaps can be found here:

[13] UNFCCC. “Concept note: Activity LCIPP workplan activity 11.” 17 April 2020. Accessed 2 March 2021.

[14] Green Climate Fund. “Homepage.” Accessed 26 February 2021.

[15] Green Climate Fund. “Updated Strategic Plan 2020-2023.” 11 November 2020. Accessed 23 February 2021.

[16] Green Climate Fund. “Report of activities of the Secretariat – Addendum II.” 30 October 2020. Accessed 23 February 2021.

[17] NEFIN. “Position Statement of Indigenous Peoples on Emission Reduction Program of Nepal.” November 2016. Accessed 26 February 2021.

Tags: Global governance, Climate



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

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand