In a world growing increasingly perceptive to representation and diversity issues, Indigenous voices remain the most marginalized among climate change activists.
Climate advocates from more socially-advantaged backgrounds are responsible for using their privilege to create space for more enlightened, respectful, and participatory forms of activism.
The world isn’t affected by climate change uniformly
A key aspect of climate change advocacy acknowledges disproportionate environmental impacts on global societies by highlighting inequalities persisting within and across countries.
Indigenous communities around the world are among the worst affected by such adverse climate change processes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies the health, survival and livelihood of Afro-Latinos and Indigenous groups in various Latin American regions as significantly impacted.
A UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) Working Paper on climate change and social inequality (2017) describes the process as a vicious cycle. Existing power asymmetries cause disadvantaged groups to experience climate change's worst effects. These imbalances subsequently decrease the ability to cope and recover from damages suffered.
Similarly, Indigenous agricultural and pastoralist communities are negatively impacted by climate change-induced variations in rainfall, wind, and other natural forces that affect crops, forage for livestock, and local animal migratory patterns.
Climate hazards also facilitate the proliferation of harmful diseases in areas they could previously not thrive in, such as diarrheal, nutritional, and respiratory illnesses.
The survival of Indigenous populations depends on their lands and territories
More than just a platitude, the "special relationship" that Indigenous communities have with their lands is a verifiable concept within international legal regimes. This relationship has informed the basis of court decisions issued by regional human rights institutions on a global scale.
A prevailing argument put forth by Indigenous activists is to have greater autonomy and relative independence, including access to natural resources. Their special relationship with the land is vital for survival and preserving their way of life.
Governments should recognize this special relationship on a legislative level to ensure Indigenous people's rights are protected. In the critical decision of Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v/s Nicaragua, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights court directed the state of Nicaragua to consult with local Indigenous populations before initiating any development projects on their lands.
By recognizing the special relationship Indigenous communities have with their lands, states must be aware that interfering through large-scale development might lead to deleterious conditions and environmental degradation. This can deprive Indigenous populations of their means of subsistence and way of life. As such, states are directly responsible for imposing inhumane and degrading conditions upon a native population.
Legislative environmental justice successes and limitations
A number of cases have found some success, such as Teitiota v/s New Zealand (2020) where the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that forcibly returning a person to a place where they would be at increased risk to the adverse effects of climate change violated the right to life protected within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Similarly, the Dutch Supreme Court in Urgenda v/s the Netherlands (2019) directed the state to reduce carbon emissions to protect local and future populations' right to life and health.
The case of Juliana v/s the United States (2015) established that prior state knowledge of the adverse impact of fossil fuel emissions reflected a failure to protect the right to life, liberty, and property of young people.
Indigenous environmental movements have also argued that Nature and living environments themselves have rights and warrant state protection. Dejusticia v/s Colombia (2018) resulted in the Colombian Amazon itself deemed as a rights-holder to be protected from deforestation.
Similarly, the Whanganui Iwi community was able to achieve recognition of the Whanganui river in New Zealand as a legal personality, entitled to protection. A number of Brazilian Indigenous movements have urged international bodies to recognize the crime of ‘ecocide’ as a crime against humanity.
In the case of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation v/s Enbridge Pipelines Inc., the Canadian Supreme Court forbid seismic testing in Baffin Bay due to the impact on marine mammals.
But even these victories come at a price. Many are the products of many years of litigation, considerable financial costs, and precarious legal admissibility criteria. Such cases have also demonstrated the difficulty in establishing culpability of environmental degradation directly as a result of corporate actions, which the latter are quick to deny and attribute to ‘natural’ processes instead.
Global environmental Indigenous movements have also been particularly at the brunt of a number of other human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detention, and inhuman and degrading treatment.
Brazil itself has been identified as the world’s most dangerous country for human rights defenders, with Indigenous activists subject to vicious and discriminatory rhetoric from political powers. These existing attitudes permeate all levels of society and inform law enforcement responses and subsequent policymaking.
The responsibility of climate activists
Demanding state accountability for Indigenous communities has undoubtedly worsened due to structural barriers to justice, socially engineered patterns of discrimination, and denial of human rights protection. This work is fraught with difficulties that the mainstream movement often neglects to acknowledge or engage with.
Any climate activism movement seeking to follow a truly intersectional approach should educate its members on the concerns of those most directly affected by climate change processes, while providing them the space to exercise their voice and articulate their experiences.
Written by Pallavi Chatterjee, postgraduate student of Human Rights at the University of Vienna. Former education specialist with a background in development and human rights.