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Saami, Inuit Push for Rights in Climate Agreement

Arctic indigenous peoples’ groups are in Paris to attend the climate change summit and to urge negotiators to adopt an agreement that recognizes and protects their rights, as well as their culture and traditions – and to provide funding to support adaptation.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

With two days remaining for negotiators at the COP21 talks in Paris to settle on an international climate deal to curb global warming, Inuit and Saami leaders have been pushing hard to ensure nations recognize the challenges faced by northern indigenous peoples.

One sticking point remains for the Arctic indigenous delegates. That’s the inclusion of text in the agreement which they say would protect the rights of indigenous peoples as countries implement the climate change agreement to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.

The draft proposal on which the negotiators are working mentions indigenous peoples. But their rights are referred to only in the preamble – not within the operational paragraphs.

“It means nothing. It’s just a fluff statement,” said Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), who is leading the Arctic delegation at the climate change talks.

The International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change released an open letter calling for the negotiators to explicitly reference the rights of indigenous peoples in article 2 of the proposal. That would mean removing the square brackets that identify text still under discussion, as follows:

This Agreement shall be implemented on the basis of equity and science, and in accordance with the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances, and on the basis of respect for human rights, INCLUDING THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, and the promotion of gender equality [and the right of peoples under occupation].

So why does it matter?

“The inclusion could get the U.N. Framework on the Convention on Climate Change to do research into how to incorporate indigenous peoples’ rights into climate action, including mitigation projects,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, in New York.

It might seem like a small thing to rally over, but the inclusion of the text could have real effects on the traditional livelihoods of Arctic indigenous peoples. They say it would ensure special safeguards for indigenous peoples and promote their right to be involved in the decision-making, including the right to say no to mining and climate mitigation projects.

Hydropower dams, windmill parks and other green energy projects that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants demand large tracts of land.

“They are often built on reindeer grazing areas in the Saami territory, and reindeer will avoid these areas where they build the windmills,” said Aile Javo, president of the Saami Council, an umbrella organization for the Saami living in Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden.

Burger also points out that the text is symbolic. “It sends a clear message about how climate change impacts human rights and indigenous rights,” he said.

“The call for including the social cost of carbon is getting louder and louder every day,” said Brynhildur Davidsdottir, from the University of Iceland, during a side event on Saturday that focused on climate change in the Arctic and its effects on indigenous peoples. “The Arctic is full of people, but in the negotiations it is not presented like that.”

Climate change is already affecting the Saami and their traditional reindeer herding activities. Warmer temperatures and freezing rain – instead of snow – coat the ground cover that the reindeer rely on for food. In the past, these conditions used to crop up from time to time, but they have become annual occurrences, said Javo. If the reindeer can’t graze, the herders will have to buy food and distribute it to the animals to keep them from starving to death. It all means higher costs. “It will have huge economical effects for the reindeer herders,” she said.

The ICC and the Saami delegation members are also pushing for assistance to help adapt to climate change. Eegeesiak wants assurance that remote Arctic and indigenous communities in developed nations will have also access to adaptation funds.

Some nations have made financial commitments to other at-risk people in developing countries to prepare and adapt to climate change, but these funds aren’t accessible to Arctic communities because they are part of developed countries such as Canada and Sweden.

“Countries like Canada are investing a lot of money in underdeveloped countries to help them adapt to climate change – as they should – but they’re not investing in their own communities,” said Eegeesiak. She called on Canada to provide funding to help Inuit adapt to climate change.

The Arctic delegation has also chalked up some successes during the meeting. Over the weekend, several countries, including the U.S., Canada and China, as well as the E.U., said they would support a target that limits global temperature rise to 1.5C (2.7F) instead of 2C (3.6F).

A 2C (3.6F) rise in average global temperatures will still see Arctic temperatures increase by 3–6C (5.4F10.8F) by 2100.

“We are not optimistic now,” said Javo. “I’m afraid we will have to fight hard.”

Top image: Climate change is having economic impacts on the indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic. Wetter winters are putting herds in danger as ice layers build up on the ground, preventing reindeer from foraging and leaving them hungry. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

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