How decent work for indigenous peoples helps advance the fight against climate change

Rishabh Kumar Dhir: Technical Officer, GED; Martin Oelz: Senior Specialist on Equality and Non-Discrimination, GED; Marek Harsdorff: Expert, Green Jobs.

Did you know that Brazilian forests managed by indigenous peoples had near-zero deforestation while forests outside their protected areas had much higher deforestation leading to 27 times more carbon dioxide emissions? This is just one among several examples of how indigenous peoples are playing their part to fight climate change.

Too often, the general public thinks of indigenous peoples as victims of marginalization, poverty, discrimination and exploitation. Indeed, there is evidence to this given that indigenous peoples constitute roughly 5 per cent of the world’s population but nearly 15 per cent of the world’s poor.  Furthermore, their rights are often overlooked in many of the countries they live in. They lack access to decent work opportunities while their lands, livelihoods and cultures, even in the 21st century, continue to be under severe threat.

So what happens when we add climate change to this landscape? How does it affect those already marginalized?

These are the very questions we initially asked in our new report where we find that indigenous peoples share a unique combination of characteristics that make them particularly vulnerable to climate change, as well as to actions that aspire to address climate change but exclude them.

These characteristics include (i) poverty and inequality; (ii) erosion of indigenous peoples’ natural resource-based livelihoods; (iii) residence in geographical areas exposed to climate change; (iv) migration and forced displacement that enhances their reliance on the informal economy; (v) gender inequality both within and outside of their communities; and lastly, (vi) the lack of recognition, rights, institutional support and inclusion in public policies by States.

Be it floods, droughts or rising sea levels or exclusionary climate action, the threats from climate change-related impacts can be extremely serious for indigenous peoples, and also pose a formidable challenge to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. As an indigenous rights campaigner, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, explained during the signing of the Paris climate agreement, “Climate change is adding poverty to poverty every day.”

However, the picture does have bright sides. Seeing indigenous peoples only as victims in need of ‘protection’ is an incomplete response.

We argue in our report that while indigenous peoples face severe threats from climate change, they are also at the forefront of combating it. They are agents of change who are significantly shaping the fight against climate change.

Let’s look at some interesting figures: indigenous peoples are 5 per cent of the world’s population, yet they care for nearly 22 per cent of earth’s surface and protect an estimated 80 per cent of the remaining biodiversity on the planet. These figures immediately highlight the unique position that indigenous peoples are in to make tremendous contributions towards strong climate action.

How are these agents of change making such contributions? We found that indigenous peoples share certain unique characteristics and ways of engagements with their natural surroundings, which are critical for both effective climate mitigation and adaptation.

Firstly, indigenous peoples’ core asset is the natural capital, which they use in a productive and sustainable manner because they also share a complex cultural relationship with their surroundings and ecosystems. Secondly, their knowledge and cultural approaches to interacting with ecosystems as well as natural resources can provide socio-technological solutions to sustainably producing food, managing forests and safeguarding natural resources.

Therefore, fundamentally, we noticed that indigenous peoples, who are over 370 million around the world, are at the vanguard of running modern green economies.

Nevertheless, we also realized that the threats that indigenous peoples face will certainly undermine their capacity to be agents of change. However, if they have access to decent work opportunities; if they are empowered to participate in decision making; if their rights are protected; and if policies address their social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities while honing their positive potential as partners, workers, entrepreneurs and innovators, indigenous peoples will become empowered agents of change who can play a vital role in spurring green growth and combating climate change.

ILO’s Convention No. 169 and the Guidelines for a just transition provide important guidance for realizing all those scenarios.

As the international community moves forward towards making the Paris Agreement on climate change and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals a reality, let us remember to ensure that the agents of change who are critical for shaping this reality are empowered to continue to play their role.

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