The Indigenous World 2022: 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 pursu[e] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C...” (Art. 2a).
The UNFCCC recognizes that achieving sustainable development requires the active participation of all sectors of society. Nine “constituencies” are therefore recognized 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 organized in the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC), which serves as a mechanism for developing common positions and statements among 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 operationalized over the last six years since its establishment in 2015. Beginning with an agreement on the Platform’s functions and purpose in 2018, progress 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 adopted at COP 25 in December 2019. This was further advanced with the adoption of a second three-year workplan at COP 26 in November 2021. These advancements raised the expectations of Indigenous Peoples who, given the lack of recognition of their nationhood, predominantly by States, are trapped between the convention 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), provides an argument that they should be given a space at the negotiation table alongside States. As it is still early days for the Platform in UN terms, it remains to be seen if the influence and say of Indigenous Peoples at the UNFCCC will be elevated above that of civil society.
This piece is dedicated to the passing of our dear colleague and brother, Estebancio Castro-Díaz. As he continues on his journey to being an ancestor, we honor, from all seven regions, his extensive legacy for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. We are privileged to carry his spirit with us always.
The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) took place in Glasgow after a year-long postponement, marking two years since the last COP. The first multilateral environmental meeting to take place in-person during the global COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 40,000 accredited Indigenous Peoples, party representatives, media, leaders, and civil society traveled to Scotland to push for urgent and transformative action to meet the Paris commitment and finalize the implementation guidance for the Paris Agreement.
The talks took place against a backdrop of multiple and intersecting crises in the world: the ongoing health crisis, the biodiversity crisis and, of course, the climate crisis. COVID-19 continues to spread, causing the loss of over five million lives across the globe, shining a stark light on inequity both between countries (especially those of the Global North and Global South) and within them, as well as at COP. Delegates from Indigenous Peoples and the Global South were worried about their safe and equitable participation in the COP, raising concerns about the ongoing reality of vaccine apartheid and growing travel inequities. At the same time, the climate crisis continues to threaten the future of humanity and the planet, highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report on “The Physical Science Basis”.
2021 picked up on the proposed climate momentum of 2020 whereby Parties were required to strengthen their “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs – also known as their greenhouse gas emission reduction targets). Approximately 153 countries (accounting for 49% of global greenhouse gas emissions) submitted new, updated targets; however, in the weeks leading up to the COP session, the UNFCCC Secretariat’s Updated NDC Synthesis Report found, even with these updated NDCs, that emissions would increase 16% by 2030 relative to 2010, instead of reducing by 45% to prevent warming past 1.5°C. In light of this inaction, Indigenous Peoples do not stand idly by as they are advancing solutions grounded in a knowledge system developed by living reciprocally with Mother Earth for thousands of years.
This climate leadership is increasingly being recognized within the hallways of the UNFCCC. COP 26 marked the end of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform’s initial, two-year workplan and saw the adoption of a second, three-year workplan and an extension of the Facilitative Working Group’s mandate. Indigenous Peoples continue to take tangible steps to show Parties why their voices, solutions and knowledge are integral to solving the climate crisis.
Outside of the UNFCCC, Indigenous Peoples saw further progress within the corridors of the United Nations. Two decisions by the UN Human Rights Council stand out: first, the Council’s adoption of a resolution that recognizes a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right and calls on Member States to work with Indigenous Peoples to implement this right; and second, the Council’s decision to appoint a new special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. Combined, these are emblematic of the success of Indigenous Peoples’ advocacy, providing an example of the growing awareness of the connection between human rights and environmental law and policymaking.
COP 26: Our last chance?
Heralded as the “last chance to keep 1.5°C alive” by COP 26 President Alok Sharma, the two-year lead-up to the Glasgow Climate Conference was awash with political maneuvering, leader-level commitments, and criticism from civil society about the “most inclusive COP ever”, as declared by the United Kingdom (UK) amidst structural barriers to Indigenous Peoples and Global South participation. In a clear diversion from previous COPs, a World Leaders’ Summit opened the two-week conference as Heads of State and Government from 120 Parties attended, instigating a revolving conveyor belt of largely male leaders (only a handful of female leaders attended) calling for greater climate ambition and new financial pledges (in line with the USD100 billion committed in Copenhagen). Worse still, members of the nine constituencies were given only four tickets for each series of six negotiations in the restricted area where topics such as Article 6 were being negotiated behind proverbially closed doors. For Indigenous Peoples, an announcement on the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation was welcomed but participants shared a collective sigh when the political roadshow ended, refocusing on the task at hand: the finalization of the Paris Rulebook.
The main outstanding issue of the Paris Rulebook was the cooperative approaches under Article 6 through which Parties’ intended to include controversial carbon market mechanisms. Since Paris, Indigenous Peoples have been pushing for strong safeguards for human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples to disallow violations under the new mechanisms similar to those caused by their predecessor, the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol. Support for these safeguards gained momentum at COP 25 in Madrid where, despite their absence from the text, several Parties became increasingly vocal for their inclusion. This continued in the two-year negotiation following Madrid, including at the informal Subsidiary Bodies consultations held in June 2021. In Glasgow, Indigenous Peoples were again firm, advocating for the inclusion of human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples in all three paragraphs (6.2., 6.4., and 6.8), the creation of an independent grievance mechanism, and the requirement for free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples in the development of carbon market mechanisms. This advocacy was largely successful as Parties concluded the contentious negotiation at COP 26. At the time of gavelling, the decision text included explicit reference to human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including in specific operative texts (for the first time ever). Further to this, the text created a process by which to develop an independent grievance process in Article 6.4. The text also included a call for Parties to engage in a local and subnational stakeholder consultation with Indigenous Peoples, among other groups, albeit failing to refer to the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. Though not all demands were fully adhered to, Indigenous Peoples celebrated the success in terms of human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, creating an important precedent for the implementation of the Paris Rulebook. Other areas that were passed in Glasgow were common time frames (i.e., the length and submission of NDCs), the Global Stocktake, and the Glasgow Climate Pact.
The Glasgow Climate Pact was the main political outcome of the conference, picking up on the transition of cover decisions (i.e., those decisions that are led by the host Presidency) to political documents. This transition has enabled Parties to speak to items that may not be included in the full Paris Agreement. A clear example of this was the first mention of the “phase-down of unabated coal” and “phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” in the UNFCCC’s history, even though the language was weakened by some last-minute changes by India, pressured by the United States and China. Other key commitments included requests for Parties to revisit and strengthen their climate ambition in line with the 1.5°C target, increase the levels of finance for loss and damage (although a Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility was blocked by the United States and the European Union), the creation of a global goal on adaptation, and a series of ministerial meetings on pre-2030 climate ambition. Indigenous Peoples were well-represented in the decision (eight references), largely due to the constructive relationship with the UK COP Presidency, including emphasizing “…the important role of [Indigenous Peoples’] culture and knowledge in effective action on climate change”, and continuing to urge Parties to “...actively involve indigenous peoples and local communities in designing and implementing climate action.”
Indigenous Peoples: a subtle representation in the UNFCCC
This growing presence of Indigenous Peoples within the UNFCCC is not surprising. Over the past two years, Indigenous Peoples have been successful in leveraging advocacy and communication tactics, as well as the increased institutional credibility created by the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, to develop a fruitful, reciprocal relationship with the COP 26 Presidency. In the lead-up to COP 26, the IIPFCC and UK COP Presidency co-facilitated a series of dialogues concerning Indigenous perspectives on nature-based solutions (NbS), and the role of Indigenous leadership in developing and leading NbS. These took place during the UN Regional Climate Weeks (Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America and Caribbean) and on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. These dialogues created a considerable amount of momentum, leading to the announcement of the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion at COP 26, held in the blue-zone (or the negotiations zone) for the first time ever.
The Indigenous Peoples Pavilion quickly became a refuge for Indigenous Peoples during the conference, containing both an office space for Caucus coordination and a live-streamed theater room. Over the two weeks, nearly 70 events were organized by Indigenous women, men, and youth, representing hundreds of Indigenous Nations from over 20 countries, sharing presentations, panel discussions, film screenings and songs to showcase their initiatives on climate change adaptation and mitigation with a focus on Indigenous knowledge systems. The full suite of presentations can be found on a stand-alone website, marking an important precedent for the communication and amplification (and connection) of Indigenous Peoples’ voices during the COP negotiations, connecting to actions occurring back home.
In addition to the Pavilion, COP President Sharma hosted a Presidency Dialogue with Indigenous Peoples, hearing directly from Indigenous representatives from all seven regions about the role of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, knowledge systems and perspectives in addressing the climate crisis and the international climate policy process. While the discussion was useful, an Indigenous youth called out young people’s lack of representation, calling for a separate meeting between them and COP President Sharma. Of particular note was the hosting of the first Annual Gathering of Indigenous Knowledge Keepers, as part of the Platform workplan, where 28 knowledge keepers from the seven UN sociocultural regions met and developed a call-to-action for States.
The Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform
Although the initial two-year workplan of the Platform took place largely online, FWG members were able to make progress. The pandemic challenged them to adjust their activities to the virtual arena while remaining accountable to the concrete action expected by them and Indigenous Peoples alike. For 2021, this meant hosting one meeting (FWG 5) virtually and a second in-person with some virtual attendance in Glasgow. The virtual setting was challenging to navigate in terms of technologies, interpretation and time zones while also maintaining cultural protocols. Based on direction from Indigenous representatives, the UNFCCC Secretariat also introduced the concept of “Informal Dialogues with Contributors” before and after the FWG meetings as a mechanism to support their full and effective participation.
FWG 5 was held over four days from 21-24 June with each day involving around three hours of meetings. Similar to previous years, the session included the final election of new Co-Chairs and Vice-Chairs (one Indigenous representative and one State representative for each) for the final one-year term. Following this election, each agenda item followed a similar format whereby responsible FWG representatives presented an update on their respective activity as part of a stock take on progress under the initial two-year workplan, responded to any concerns of other FWG representatives, and then opened the dialogue for Indigenous representatives and observers to comment. Key updates included the completion of the thematic training workshops for Parties and relevant institutions to understand, respect, recognize and increase the ethical inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in the context of climate change (Activity 4), a final discussion on recommendations on the engagement and input of Indigenous Peoples and local communities across the UNFCCC process (Activity 6), mapping exercises related to the participation of Indigenous Peoples and local communities (Activity 7), and funding opportunities (Activity 11), among others.
The rest of the session focused on the collaborative development of the draft second three-year workplan. Based on the discussion at the meeting, FWG members worked together to finalize the workplan and present it to Parties for adoption in Glasgow. The final draft workplan streamlined the number of activities in order to focus on those that would lead to the greatest outcomes for Indigenous Peoples. This included continuing annual international gatherings as well as regional gatherings (Activities 1 and 2, which were unable to occur because of COVID-19), a series of training workshops and tools for Indigenous Peoples and States (new Activity 4 and 5), and an in-session multi-stakeholder dialogue (new Activity 7), as well as new activities such as an annual round table in collaboration with Indigenous youth (new Activity 8).
The second FWG meeting (FWG 6) took place in Glasgow from 28-30 October, marking the first time in two years that representatives had seen each other in person. The meeting followed a similar circular format, starting with a ceremonial opening by Indigenous representatives from North America, and then focusing on walking through the agenda. Although there was relative comfort in the draft workplan for consideration by Parties, an important discussion emerged around the development of terms of reference for the FWG, concluding that they would leave it for the new set of members to be nominated by FWG 7 in June 2022. Following this discussion on the workplan, the meeting shifted to the upcoming in-session activities, including the Annual Knowledge Keepers Gathering, and a long discussion on the potential to take a position on the inclusion of human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Article 6. After much discussion, the FWG was unable to take a position, despite general support for the rights of Indigenous Peoples. This highlights an important limitation of the body whereby Indigenous Peoples are still unable to have any formal mechanism through which to influence key negotiation items.
The Annual Gathering of Indigenous knowledge keepers was a momentous occasion. Nearly 28 representatives, including Indigenous women, youth, and men from each region, traveled to Glasgow to attend and share some of their observations, teachings and reflections. Although there was much last-minute negotiation, the knowledge keepers were able to confirm a full-day preparatory meeting on Saturday within the blue-zone in which Parties were actively prevented from participating. This symbolic (and physical) reclamation of space enabled the knowledge keepers and other Indigenous Peoples’ representatives to discuss internally, sharing their priorities, reflections and teachings in a safe space. These discussions were then synthesized by the FWG activity leads (including Andrea Carmen, Yow Mulalap, and Pasang Sherpa) in preparation for a meeting with States the following Monday. The Calls-to-Action and the discussion between knowledge keepers and Parties marked the first time that Indigenous knowledge keepers had directly addressed Party representatives within the UNFCCC.
Amidst all the controversy and inaction circulating inside and outside the negotiating rooms, the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform continued to make progress. After three relatively painless negotiation sessions, Parties adopted the second, three-year workplan. In the decision, Parties agreed to a continuation of the FWG without changes to its composition. This included postponing the addition of local communities’ representatives another three-years, and giving additional time for their self-mobilization and self-representation (instead of Parties speaking for them). Parties also adopted a formal review of the FWG with an invitation for Indigenous Peoples to make submissions, and proposed future consideration of the local communities’ issue. The quick adoption and solidification of the growing role and influence of Indigenous Peoples within the UNFCCC is an important opportunity for Indigenous Peoples to continue breathing life into the workplan, slowly increasing the presence of Indigenous Peoples and their Nations within the UNFCCC.
The shift to implementation: COP 27 in the Africa region
Indigenous Peoples continue to punch above their weight within the UNFCCC, forging space within an inherently colonial institution. The adoption of the new three-year work plan of the Platform and the references to Indigenous Peoples in the Glasgow Climate Pact demonstrate how effective Indigenous advocacy, diplomacy and solidarity have been. But this journey is far from over. As the Paris Agreement shifts into implementation, Indigenous Peoples will also need to shift their attention, balancing progress at the international level with gains in advancing Indigenous self-determination, Indigenous legal orders and Indigenous-led solutions to addressing the climate crisis. As COP 27 in Egypt marks the first time in five years that COP will be held outside of Europe and is heralded as the adaptation and loss and damage COP, Indigenous Peoples will pressure States to listen to the voices of Indigenous elders, women, knowledge keepers, experts, youth, and leadership. The ultimate success of this advocacy, and progress in the Platform, will depend on how well it can amplify the voices of Indigenous Peoples and speed up transformative change amidst the real, immediate and existential threats that Indigenous Peoples are facing daily.
Graeme Reed 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. In his free time, he is close to completing a doctorate at the University of Guelph exploring Indigenous visions of nature-based solutions.
Inka Saara Arttijeff is the Secretary for International Affairs at the Sámi Parliament in Finland, representing the Sámi Parliament at international climate change negotiations, including COP26. She comes from a family of Inari Sámi reindeer herders.
Eileen Mairena-Cunningham is an Indigenous Miskito researcher from the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. She is the liaison in Latin America and the Caribbean for the Indigenous Peoples Major Group and the Active Observer from Civil Society Organizations from developing countries in the Green Climate Fund.
Stefan Thorsell is Climate Adviser at the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). He engages in international climate advocacy at the UNFCCC and the Green Climate Fund in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples’ representatives. He has contributed to publications on Indigenous Peoples’ rights in climate action and published research on the peace process in Colombia.
This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here
Notes and references
 UNFCCC. “The Paris Agreement.” Accessed 19 January 2022. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement
 A full honouring can be found on the IIPFCC Website, here: http://www.iipfcc.org/blog/2021/5/11/the-passing-of-our-dear-colleague-estebancio-castro-diaz
 We feel that it is appropriate to capture this reality truthfully. In the words of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the world reached a situation of vaccine apartheid in May 2021. At time of writing, nearly 40% of people in low-income countries have not received a first dose. More here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/world/covid-vaccinations-tracker.html
 UNFCCC. “Updated NDC Synthesis Report: Worrying Trends Confirmed.” Accessed 19 January 2022. https://unfccc.int/news/updated-ndc-synthesis-report-worrying-trends-confirmed
 Climate Home News. “Carbon offsets have patchy human rights record. Now UN talks erode safeguards.” Accessed 19 January 2022. https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/12/09/carbon-offsets-patchy-human-rights-record-now-un-talks-erode-safeguards/
 Bloomberg Green, “India’s Last-Minute Coal Defense at COP26 Hid Role of China, U.S.” Accessed 30 January 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-11-13/india-s-last-minute-coal-defense-at-cop26-hid-role-of-china-u-s?sref=jjXJRDFv; For more analysis, see van Asselt, H. “Breaking a Taboo: Fossil Fuels at COP 26” EJIL: Talk!, Accessed 30 January 2022, https://www.ejiltalk.org/breaking-a-taboo-fossil-fuels-at-cop26/
 Paragraph 66, Glasgow Climate Pact
 Recordings can be found here: https://lcipp.unfccc.int/events/5th-meeting-facilitative-working-group-fwg5
 Thomas Cameron (representing the United Nations regional group of Western European and other States) and Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim (representing the United Nations Indigenous sociocultural region of Africa) as Co-Chairs. Tuntiak Katan (representing the United Nations Indigenous sociocultural region of Central and South America and the Caribbean) and Alick Bulala Muvundika (representing the United Nations regional group of African States) were elected as Vice Co-Chair.
 Details on each of these events can be found on the web portal of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform: https://lcipp.unfccc.int/events/5th-meeting-facilitative-working-group-fwg5
 The final workplan, as well as the meeting notes, can be found in the FWG 5 Report: https://lcipp.unfccc.int/events/5th-meeting-facilitative-working-group-fwg5