indigenous cop26 climate justice
Indigenous people from Mexico at a climate strike in Glasgow, during COP26. Photo: Yanine Quiroz.

Climate justice must include land rights: indigenous leaders at COP26

Climate finance for developing countries was one of the main issues at the UN Climate Change talks (COP26) at Glasgow, Scotland. However, for indigenous people, climate justice is not all about money.

“Summarizing climate justice to money is reducing the conversation too much,” said Mitzy Violeta, a young Mixtec woman from Oaxaca, Mexico.

“Who does that money get to, what do you do with it? Rather, what we say is: let us live. Stop invading territories and wanting to deprive us of our common goods: forests, and water!”, the indigenous leader adds.

Climate justice is a term that addresses actions against climate change from a human rights perspective. This concept recognizes that countries experiencing the worst impacts didn’t significantly contribute to cause the climate crisis. Often the most affected are indigenous people.

At COP26, held from October 31 to November 13, climate organizations mainly focused on getting developed countries —such as the United States and the EU— to further reduce their emissions and meet their promise to finance climate action in developing countries.

But for representatives of Mexican indigenous communities, financing is only one part of a more complex model.

Climate justice from indigenous eyes

Mitzy —indigenous leader from Mexico— is dedicated to defending her territory and the rights of indigenous women as a researcher.  According to her, climate justice begins with respect for her lands, her knowledge and decisions.

Mindahi Bastida, coordinator of the Otomí Regional Council of Alto Lerma of Mexico, agreed and pointed out that the country conserves a great cultural and biological diversity. Because of this, she added, land rights for indigenous territories are required to protect ecosystems in their communities.

“It is time for oil and all fossil fuels to stay underground because they’re dirtying the sky, which we call Father Sky. They are dirtying the lands and all the heritage of future generations,” Bastida said.

Indigenous communities are very important to face climate change and its impacts. They conserve 80% of the planet’s biological diversity, in spite of comprising only 5% of the global population, according to data by the World Bank.

climate strike glasgow cop26
Indigenous leaders protested in the streets of Glasgow during COP26. Photo: Yanine Quiroz.

Their knowledge of climate and weather conditions is even incorporated in scientific reports, such as the one published this year by the Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations organization that assesses scientific knowledge around the world on climate change.

“Indigenous communities are much more attached to Earth. They know about planetary processes, about the balances of nature, they are a bit like scientists of the territory,” said Florencia Ortúzar, a Chilean environmental lawyer with the Inter-American Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA).

“Many times (indigenous people) are the most affected by climate change. They are so connected to the Earth that environmental imbalances affect them even more,” the expert in environmental law added.

Florencia Ortúzar works in AIDA’s climate change program and points out that if we want the world to move forward as a whole, we cannot stop considering communities. She added this is a human rights issue for these communities.

Impacts to the community

Mitzy said she received pressure to industrialize her territory, but she liked it just like it is: untouched. “In the face of so much dispossession and death, being able to continue conserving the life around it is very good,” she adds.

Her community borders Guerrero —in Mexico’s southwest— and is in the middle of two types of climate: one arid and the other more humid. But these forests are already starting to feel the effects of climate change, she said.

“We are all becoming aware of the changes in our territories and the environments we inhabit. It’s not only the increase in temperature, water scarcity and pollution of our rivers, we also see how destruction has a name and surname: it is those large industries and projects that come to be implanted in our territories,” she adds.

In the central valleys of Oaxaca —where Mitzy Violeta originates from— temperature increase has caused desertification and loss of water resources. This makes it difficult to adapt the territories to more impacts, says Rodrigo Galindo from Oxfam.

In mountainous regions, most communities depend on harvesting their own food. But constant storms cause landslides and loss of crops in the area, Galindo adds.

Drought is also a problem in the northern region of the country, such as in the state of Chihuahua, he said. This region is experiencing longer and more frequent heat waves, he added.

climate strike cop26 indigenous people
Indigenous leaders from Mexico giving a speech at a climate strike in Glasgow, during COP26. Photo: Yanine Quiroz.

Taking climate justice to court

After COP26 there was some progress regarding finance for indigenous people, as for example the announcement of $1.7 billion for indigenous and local communities to protect the biodiversity of forests, said Belén Páez, director of the Foundation Pachamama, during a post-COP webinar.

“Financing to conserve forests is a favorable balance for indigenous peoples, but there are contradictions when returning to our countries and seeing if these agreements are really being fulfilled or not,” she points out.

But as governments fall short of fulfilling their legal duties, litigation has become an option to enforce climate justice, said Ortúzar.

“Climate litigation responds to the outcomes of COP26. If negotiations continue this slow, litigation is a tool to generate changes,” said the lawyer. She added a case of success occurred in Colombia, where a group of young people won a lawsuit to stop deforestation taking place in regions of the Amazon.

Of course, there are downsides to litigation, as it is very resource and time intensive. It can also bring unintended consequences, such as retaliation or suing back, Ortúzar said.

Mitzy, on her part, said that indigenous organizations must increase pressure by all means possible. “As long as the COPs are captured by the powerful, there will be no great changes,” she said.

“The call is to organize and re-signify. We want to make these spaces belong to the people and movements, to raise new horizons for the people who are actually experiencing the problems”, said the indigenous leader.