CICERO - Center for International Climate Research
Understanding one point five

– Indigenous peoples everywhere have a right to their land territory and natural resources. We have to respect that.

Last May, I visited the UN's annual "summer summit" on climate change in Bonn, Germany. This was my first personal meeting with the UNFCCC (the United Nations Convention on Climate Change) and as many before me, I was overwhelmed. Not only by the multiple rooms, corridors and various formal and informal meetings taking place at all hours, but by the stories I found on my quest for the origin of the 1.5°C target. Below is one of these interviews.

- Monica Bjermeland, CICERO communications advisor

in this story


Kathrin Wessendorf, senior advisor and climate action team coordinator at International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs

The establishment of a Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform in the UNFCCC last year, as part of the Paris Agreement, shows that there is a growing recognition of indigenous peoples’ contribution to climate observation, climate actions, and climate solutions.

When I started working with Arctic issues in 2000, it was an extreme struggle for indigenous people to get recognition for their traditional knowledge.

One of the things that has been most recognized over the last twenty years, and where the push comes from, is indigenous peoples protecting the forest. This is already a contribution from indigenous peoples and a huge one. I worry that indigenous peoples’ knowledge is recognized only because it can help us.

Many indigenous peoples have actually adopted to climatic changes for many years already and have the knowledge of what kinds of potatoes grow in what kind of climate, for example, and how you can diversify your food sources in order to be more resilient and so forth. Their knowledge of plant species is essential.

What is tricky, though, is that indigenous people are the most affected by climate change – the ecosystems they live in are often very fragile and the societies marginalized and often discriminated against – and now, suddenly, these people are expected to contribute to the solutions.

It’s taking taking taking, right?


How can the climate system profit from their knowledge?

They are being pushed into smaller areas.


Indigenous peoples have a deep connection to the natural environment. Take Asia, for example, many indigenous peoples practice shifting cultivation, their traditional livelihood and extremely important for their survival, their culture and their spiritual world.

Disturbingly, shifting cultivation has been criminalized in many countries. The governments say it contributes to deforestation, even when many scientific reports show that this is not the case. Shifting cultivation is a livelihood where you have many diverse sources of food growing and, at the same time, forest protection. You don’t have a monoculture, which is a typical western agricultural way. Instead, you have a very diverse agricultural system.

Shifting cultivation is rotational farming, right, so you burn forest in order to use it for planting and this burning of forest is what is being criminalized. Burning per se is seen as degrading the forest.

Of course, if the period where you let the forest grow is shorter, it becomes unsustainable. However, the reason for it becoming shorter is not because indigenous peoples change their practice. It’s because they are getting more and more encroached on and land is being taken away from them. They are being pushed into smaller areas. What is making this practice unsustainable is the pressure on their livelihoods coming from the outside.

It’s the same thing with pastoralism. Pastoralists in East-Africa, for example, have often adapted to climate change by being mobile. Mobility is their way of coping with harsh climatic circumstances. But because protected areas and land owned by big farmers grow, their mobility is becoming limited. Today, it’s really hard for them to adapt.

Can you talk about the human rights turn in the Paris Agreement and its short-term consequences for indigenous peoples?

What enjoins indigenous peoples all over the world is that before and in Paris, they actually wanted a 1°C target.


A huge step forward for indigenous peoples!

Human rights language was absent in the UNFCCC before 2015. There are safeguards in the Cancun Agreement but the shift to talk about human rights and indigenous peoples’ rights was really a step forward. It was the efforts of the indigenous peoples’ caucus in collaboration with various other actors who got this language into the agreement. Some governments were also very positive, particularly the northern governments but also Canada and Mexico.

Within the 1.5°C discussion, what enjoins indigenous peoples all over the world is that before and in Paris, they actually wanted a 1°C target. Indigenous peoples were more ambitious than many others, as they are the most impacted. “We are already feeling the changes”, they said, and “even 1.5 will be a disaster for us”.

Of course, 1.5°C is quite good but not solely. Increasingly, indigenous peoples are impacted by climate action as well. Look at large scale power projects, hydro power or windmills, for example. Lands that governments think is available is typically indigenous peoples’ land. Projects are put on their lands, without consulting them, without their free, prior and informed consent. This happens in Mexico, in Kenya, in Norway … everywhere!

It’s for the greater good, right, and this justifies the pressure we put on them?

What do you think? It seems like a tricky dilemma.

To me, this is quite straightforward. If you do it right, indigenous peoples will not oppose renewable energy projects. They are the most impacted, so why would they be against mitigation projects?

You just have to do it right, you have to consult with the people potentially impacted by the projects. You have to involve people. You have to use the democratic process.

Indigenous peoples everywhere have a right to their land territory and natural resources. We have to respect that.

Indigenous peoples have contributed the least to humanity’s carbon footprint, right? Yet, they are the most impacted by it. Why do they now have to give the rest of the world their territories to save it as well? They are doubly impacted; impacted by climate change and impacted by the actions that are being taken against it.

Where does the 1.5°C target come from?

How can you achieve the SDGs and have an ambitious climate target if you don’t respect human rights?


I thought it was from the IPCC report? Isn’t it the IPCC that provided the scientific background? 

We are still missing a very basic understanding of the need to respect human rights and particularly indigenous peoples’ rights. It’s a risk not to do that. Any climate action project that does not respect human rights automatically disqualifies as a good project. We risk worsening the situation for people who are already in a bad situation. Bad projects can increase poverty, can increase food insecurity, can increase inequality.

Climate action that does not respect human rights and indigenous peoples’ rights can work against everything the countries want to achieve with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. How can you achieve the SDGs and have an ambitious climate target if you don’t respect human rights?