The role of the world’s more than 370 million indigenous peoples in fighting climate change has been largely ignored in national plans to curb planet-warming emissions issued ahead of upcoming U.N. climate talks, researchers and activists said.

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) found only a handful of governments included indigenous land and forest management as part of their climate strategies submitted to the United Nations in the run-up to negotiations in Paris to thrash out a new deal to limit global warming.

The RRI reviewed 47 “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), designed to form the basis of a new deal, from countries with large rural or forested areas.

Only five emphasise indigenous land and forest management as part of their climate change strategies, it said, whereas 26 make no mention of it at all and 16 mention it in passing.

To make their voices count in the two-week talks starting on Nov. 30, hundreds of indigenous leaders living on the frontlines of climate change – from sinking Pacific islands to the melting Arctic and Indonesia’s burning forests – will attend the summit.

“It is going to be a tough battle in Paris,” Joan Carling, secretary general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We continue to be ignored at the national level, so what we’re going to bring to the talks is the reality on the ground.”

RRI analyst Ilona Coyle said plans submitted by Brazil, Guatamala and Peru highlighted the importance of respecting indigenous peoples’ rights.

Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Peru also explained in their plans how indigenous peoples have been or will be consulted, and identify them as particularly vulnerable to climate change due to their dependence on natural resources.

Blind Spot

A growing body of research shows that recognising indigenous peoples’ rights is key in combating climate change, yet their role in preventing deforestation and land degradation continues to be a blind spot on the climate agenda, experts say.

Deforestation rates are significantly lower in areas where national governments formally recognise and protect the forest rights of indigenous peoples, according to a 2014 study by the RRI and the World Resources Institute.

To improve collaboration, the United Nations and the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) have brought together indigenous leaders and high-level government officials in over 20 countries in recent months to discuss contributions they can make to slashing emissions.

Several more dialogues are scheduled in the weeks ahead, including in Brazil, which has more than 800,000 indigenous people.

Teanau Tuiono, an indigenous leader from the Pacific Caucus, said the discussion there had strengthened participants’ resolve to protect the environment from climate change.

“We in the Pacific did not create climate change, but rising sea levels are putting islands and coastal communities under serious threat,” he said. “Nonetheless, we’re fighting. Not drowning.”

Separately, AIPP’s Carling said some progress had been made on deforestation, for example in Vietnam and Cambodia, where indigenous representatives have been included in national bodies dealing with forests.

“That would have been unthinkable in the past. But we still have a long, long way to go,” she said.

The IIPFCC has issued demands for the final climate change agreement in Paris, saying it is “imperative” that the rights of indigenous people are recognised and respected.

Those should include the right to refuse attempts to seize indigenous lands for high-carbon investments in agriculture, logging, mining, oil and gas, dams and roads, as well as tourism, the forum said.

Author: Megan Rowling is a journalist for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, covering the latest developments in humanitarian crises, aid, climate change, governance and women’s rights.

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