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Climate justice means having Indigenous peoples at the table


Indigenous peoples and their territories are under threat in Latin America. Climate change and climate action are jeopardizing their capacities to safeguard fundamental rights, traditional territories and ways of life, livelihoods and personal security. 

Communities from the Mexican rainforest to icy passages in the south of Chile face encroachment on territories by well-known sources. These include the expansion of agriculture and extractive industries, and the loudly touted global transition to low-carbon energy, which is putting pressure on lives and livelihoods.  

Indigenous peoples, allied organizations and universities are responding to the challenges, not only with adaptation and mitigation plans, but also by vying for a seat at the table to demand climate justice as the world attempts to meet the goal of keeping the global temperature increase at or below 1.5 degrees by 2050. 

“Climate governance tends to be exclusive and often fails to consider the agency of Indigenous peoples. There is a push for the energy transition, but the local consequences for Indigenous peoples are not being considered well enough,” said Markus Gottsbacher, a senior program officer at IDRC. 

IDRC is supporting research led by South American institutions to promote climate justice through Indigenous knowledge and participation in policy formulation as part of the response to the threats at hand.

Building legal security to defend territory

In Peru’s central jungle, the Asháninka people are facing the spread of coca farming for cocaine production and other illicit activities on their territories. They want to stop it before it approaches the violence that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when the insurgent Shining Path virtually enslaved Asháninka communities.  

The Asháninka, like most lowland Indigenous peoples, depend heavily on fishing. But water in the Ene River, along which many communities are located, is at historically low levels as a result of climate change. The Ene is also becoming increasingly contaminated from chemicals used for cocaine production.  

Illicit activities — such as illegal drug trading, logging, gold mining and wild animal trafficking — are creating havoc and increasing the level of danger for Indigenous and environmental activists. 

“One of the first challenges is how to organize around external threats, developing territorial defence,” said Carlos Quispe, a specialist in the Rights Program at Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR), a Peruvian non-governmental organization.  

DAR is partnered with CARE, one of the most important Asháninka organizations in Peru’s central jungle, in IDRC-supported research on rights and territories that also includes work with Indigenous groups in Colombia and Brazil. The research teams analyze traditional practices for territorial defence and the impacts of government policies over the last 10 years.  

The project between DAR and CARE has two pillars: legal security for territory and developing economic opportunities. The second cannot happen without the first. Quispe said land titling is the first step, but it is not enough on its own.  

“Titling is seen as the way to defend territory and stop invasions, but communities do not only want a piece of paper. They want to make sure that boundaries are clearly defined and georeferenced,” he said.  

The research findings will support the efforts of the Asháninka and other Indigenous communities to defend territories and engage public officials to design state instruments and mechanisms to stop territorial loss. 

A group of Asháninka people watch as a man points to a map surrounded by words such as “risk”, “defense” and “territory.”
Jessica Florián/DAR
Residents of the Indigenous community, Catungo Quimpiri, participate in a workshop with the Peruvian non-governmental organization Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales.

Climate change and just responses

In San Martín in Peru’s northern jungle, government and private-sector solutions to mitigate climate change are adding to the already heavy burden faced by Indigenous peoples.  

Maritza Paredes, a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, is leading IDRC-supported research in San Martín that focuses on two dimensions of climate change: the physical changes caused by variations in temperature and the changes brought about by politics and policies that respond to climate change. 

Paredes is part of a larger research project that aims to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into policies in Peru and Chile, including national climate adaptation plans. The project will explore a variety of methods, such as creating reconciliation spaces for Indigenous peoples and government officials so they can examine climate justice together; and expressing Indigenous perspectives, especially those of women and youth, in music, artwork and storytelling maps to influence climate justice narratives.   

The specific research in Peru involves Kichwa peoples living within two protected areas: one created by the national government, Cordillera Azul National Park and the other by the regional government, the Cordillera Escalera Regional Conservation Area.  

“We have found an important disconnect between the establishment of conservation areas and Indigenous peoples in the area. The state recognizes that the forest has been safeguarded by Indigenous peoples, but it does not recognize their rights to these territories,” said Paredes. 

She said that territory is everything for Indigenous peoples and failure to involve them means that climate justice will not be achieved and the climate change tipping point will not be avoided.  

“Indigenous peoples are not opposed to conservation; they have been conserving their territory. What they want is title to what is being conserved and the economic opportunities. They want access to these funds to resolve their multiple issues,” said Paredes.  

Legal empowerment to sway climate action

In Chile’s Magallanes, deep in the country’s south, the non-governmental organization FIMA focuses on legal rights in a research partnership with the Kawésqar people and urban communities to challenge a low-carbon solution: green hydrogen.  

Green hydrogen would create a new energy source through electrolysis, separating water molecules using renewable energy — wind, in this case. Products range from energy generation to synthetic gasoline.  

“What no one says is that these are large-scale projects with a major impact on territories. They are displacing people and they do have an environmental impact, which means they are not green, just a different kind of energy,” said Macarena Martinic, a lawyer and coordinator of FIMA’s Access to Justice Program.  

Martinic said the research aims to strengthen legal instruments that communities have used to slow salmon-farming, and apply them to green hydrogen projects, which are still in the nascent stage.  

“The goal is for Indigenous peoples to be at the table and have a voice in policy decisions. We want to generate evidence and instruments that the Kawésqar can use for legal actions, but which can also become models for other communities in Chile and even outside the country,” said Martinic.   

FIMA’s efforts in Magallanes are part of broader IDRC-supported research that includes Argentina and Mexico to support communities in understanding their rights, claiming them and putting them into practice. Case studies in each country will build action research processes based on existing legal empowerment strategies in affected communities to ensure environmental laws and rights are enforced and respond to community needs.  

Research for climate justice

Adrian Di Giovanni, IDRC team leader for Democratic and Inclusive Governance, said that “ignoring the perspectives, knowledge and rights of Indigenous peoples also means ignoring threats to them and the environment.” 

Supporting research that addresses climate change as an issue of justice, he said, “is not business as usual. The challenge lies in forging new partnerships between those most affected by climate change and climate action, the justice community and climate change researchers.” 

This focus on climate justice builds on a rich body of IDRC-supported research to develop locally led technical and social solutions to climate adaptation, inclusion and gender equality. A critical component is also to build resilient and equitable food systems, as climate change — and policies to mitigate it — threaten the ability of agricultural systems to sustainably meet the dietary needs of the global population.  

The knowledge, perspectives and practices of Indigenous peoples throughout the world must be part of the transformative, evidence-backed action to address climate change.