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COPCAS Student Blog: Indigenous peoples are land protectors – a frustrated dialogue with the COP26 presidency

Friday, November 26, 2021

In the first week of COP26, the COP president Alok Sharma and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa held a dialogue with indigenous peoples. Building upon a previous event of testimonies from communities on the front line of climate change, Sharma stated that indigenous peoples throughout the generations have held important knowledge, and that it is vital we use this knowledge to take care of the environment and effective climate action. Espinosa added that, whilst the data we have right now doesn’t look encouraging, we need clear pathways forward out of COP26.


Panellists representing indigenous peoples from different continents were allocated a mere two minutes each to provide an opening statement. These included calls for an independent fund to support mitigation, loss and adaption: trusting indigenous peoples to protect the lands that they have anyway protected for hundreds of years. There were also demands for an explicit reference to indigenous peoples’ existence and protection of their lands in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. But what is Article 6?!


In 2019, following COP25 in Madrid from the COPCAS workshop, I wrote about article 6 of the Paris Agreement and the Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (ITMOs). ITMOs are very appealing for wealthy industrialised nations, offering the opportunity to reduce the amount of required decarbonisation at a tradeable price. However, many people and organisations are highly sceptical of their role, pointing out how these offsets may (dangerously) allow some nations to stall actual reductions in emissions, whilst pretending to be doing something.This disagreement underpins article 6 of the Paris agreement, which at time of writing has yet to be agreed, (update: by the end of COP26 a deal between governments was reached on article 6).



After the opening statements came to a close, audience members were offered a platform. One observer said:


“We need to be frank and not beat around bush. The elephant in the room is emissions - green house gas emissions. The ambition for [tackling] these emissions has to be real. It is the polluting countries responsible for climate change. We hoped at the COP that we’d be able to overcome this intrusion and deal with emissions at the source, but we have concern over false solutions proposed over Article 6, REDD+. Nature based solutions are being promoted to continue [polluting behaviours]. We need real zero not net zero. False solutions are being proposed under Article 6.”


Many more questioned the legitimacy of proposals for Article 6 stating that, not only will they simply not work to reduce emissions, but they pose fundamental threats to indigenous peoples’ rights. Others repeated calls for adaptation, loss, and mitigation funding, and how this must be ring-fenced to actually reach indigenous communities rather than governments.


Another audience member, Ruth Spencer, asked the presidency to intervene in the destruction of natural systems in countries such as Antigua & Barbuda, which are at threat from new protected economic zones. Whilst Alok Sharma didn’t respond to Ruth’s question, myself and COPCAS coordinator Luisa Ciampi were able to meet with Ruth to discuss the issue she raised.


Ruth Spencer is chair of the Marine Eco-systems Protected Areas environmental group for seven Caribbean nations, and received support from the Irish government to attend COP26. Ruth explained how she stretched her budget to help assist another Caribbean observer to attend COP26, assisting them with flights, visas and applications – support which should really be offered to all attendees to ensure that missing access to government offices, technology, and finance is not a barrier to attending COP.


Ruth was able to explain some of the issues facing people in Antigua and Barbuda on a daily basis, the difficulties unevenly placed on women to support their families whilst taking on multiple jobs, and coping mechanisms developed by those living in difficult circumstances and poverty.


As a community member, and believer in community power, Ruth dedicates much of her time to connecting different groups across the islands, and finding resources and help that can benefit them. She doesn’t see this support coming from the government, but instead has to reach out to private investments and external funding sources. Ruth works with over 30 registered groups, but described the communication difficulties that limit the resources they can access.


Returning to the question raised during the presidency dialogue, Ruth described the protected economic zones. These are areas of land and coast being sold by the government to fishing companies for fishing rights, and to billionaires who fence off huge swathes of land around their mansions. On an island nation dependent on tourism for much of its income, the loss of available land is devastating. She says that the government wrongly blames the population for environmental issues such as damage to mangrove habitats, whilst the government itself is selling these precious resources.


Hearing the pleas of indigenous peoples and local communities around the world, Article 6 looks dangerously close to an agreement to violently remove communities from their homes: homes that their ancestors have protected for centuries. Such protection cannot be guaranteed by the companies this land is being traded to.


Written by James Fallon, COPCAS PhD Student.