Sustainable Development

How to include Indigenous communities in climate action

Munduruku Indians from the Amazon Basin demonstrate in front of the Ministry of Mines and Energy by lying on the street to symbolize the dead, in Brasilia June 11, 2013. The Indians are demonstrating against violations of indigenous rights and are calling for the suspension of the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant on the Xingu, Teles Pires and Tapajos rivers, a huge project aimed at feeding Brazil's fast-growing demand for electricity.  REUTERS/Lunae Parracho (BRAZIL - Tags: ENVIRONMENT ENERGY CIVIL UNREST POLITICS SOCIETY)

Indigenous people are demonstrating against violations of their rights, in protests such as the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock territory Image: REUTERS/Lunae Parracho

Laura El-Katiri
Visiting Fellow, European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR)
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Sustainable Development

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  • The International Panel on Climate Change recently highlighted the importance of empowering Indigenous communities.
  • However, they are still currently largely excluded from decision-making processes around climate and sustainable development.
  • There are many resources available that set out how to give Indigenous communities a seat at the table.

Indigenous people make up a small minority of the world’s population, yet they have played a critical role in sustaining the world as we know it. There are more than 476 million Indigenous people in the world, spread across 90 countries and representing 5,000 different cultures, living in all geographic regions. Much of our world’s non-commercially exploited land and many of its remaining mineral and forest resources, major rivers, fossil fuels and sources of renewable energy are found in or around the territories of Indigenous communities.

In its recent, sixth report, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights that empowering Indigenous communities “not only strengthens climate leadership in many countries, but also changes broad social norms by raising knowledge of Indigenous governance systems which supported sustainable lifeways over thousands of years.” With many Indigenous livelihoods and cultures being inextricably linked to their lands, territories and resources, the IPCC also finds that, worldwide, Indigenous people bear the brunt of environmental and climate injustices because of their geographic location in extraction and energy “sacrifice zones”, areas most impacted by extreme weather events, and/or through inequitable energy access.

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Underrepresentation of Indigenous communities

While the potential for Indigenous knowledge to contribute to global climate action is by now acknowledged widely, acknowledgement has not translated into tangible action. In many international forums, strategies, and development agendas, Indigenous peoples remain largely invisible, acknowledged in some cases by name, but with no formal recognition of their rights, and the knowledge they have to offer. The Agenda 2030 mentions Indigenous people multiple times, as does the Paris Agreement, but with no formal commitment to anchor global development action in Indigenous knowledge, rights, or representation. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which contains a legally vague yet symbolically significant recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights over the development of their own territories, was adopted back in 2007 by 143 out of 158 states in favour – with all votes against from highly industrialised, developed countries.

This lack of representation of Indigenous voices in national policy-making, and global development forums and initiatives, comes at a loss for global climate ambitions. The programs and ambitions that are set do not benefit from the expertise and knowledge of the Indigenous communities, and as a result are often short-term focused, lack the buy-in of key stakeholders, and threaten the long-term resilience of these agendas.


Such exclusion fits into a historical pattern that has seen Indigenous communities being marginalized and discriminated across the globe for hundreds of years. They have been deeply affected by land-grabbing and forced displacement, the destruction and contamination of their land, the depletion and contamination of water resources, and the destruction of sacred sites and their cultures. Much of this has happened in the name of national development and economic progress, through land dispossession and conversion, industrialisation, mining, energy and settlement, and associated infrastructure development. Indigenous peoples’ rights have been violated everywhere in the world, and Indigenous peoples and advocates are standing up for these rights, in protests such as the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock territory, to large-scale wind projects in Sapmi and Lake Turkana.

Indigenous perspectives

“Water is a source of life, not a resource”, Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people has written. Indigenous people highlight a critical, blind spot in our current development paradigm: that we cannot build a sustainable development agenda on the blind exploitation of our planet’s finite natural resources, no matter what the promise is. Our current development model hinges on available economic measures of progress such as GDP growth and industrialisation, including in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Unsurprisingly, meaningful participation by Indigenous people in decision-making processes that concern development priorities is far too often hindered by the perceived opposition of Indigenous communities to what the mainstream development agenda considers “progress”. Indigenous communities are not properly consulted on these matters because the process relies on more comfortable pre-existing relationships and networks. International organizations and Indigenous communities have very different decision-making styles, and there is rarely time to properly interpret and incorporate the feedback of Indigenous communities in a project’s design, implementation, and evaluation. And more often not, there is no political will either.


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How to improve inclusion for Indigenous communities

We can do better, and we must. To make better use of Indigenous communities' traditional knowledge, and the historical stewardship many have exercised over their land, international development agendas need to take better care of Indigenous people and their rights. International institutions should give Indigenous communities a central role that guarantees their inclusion in international debates that affect the global development agenda. Recognition, representation and consultation should form the basis of both global and national level policies with regards to sustainable development, including under the Agenda 2030 and international efforts for climate action and biodiversity conservation.

We also need to become better at defending Indigenous peoples' rights, including over their land, their resources, their cultures, and their right to dissent. Indigenous environmental defenders face significantly higher rates of violence where they oppose states and business interests than other population groups, and their access to justice is often constrained by lack of legal recognition and access to resources. Addressing this challenge is not only a national policy priority, but also one that benefits intergovernmental institutions, development finance institutions, and businesses themselves. If left undone, we risk failing in our mission to build a better future under the umbrella of sustainable development.


This was highlighted by the president of the Sámi Parliament, commenting in 2018 about the way many clean energy solutions such as mines, windfarms, and railways disrupt traditional migration routes and breeding grounds for reindeer. Facing what she calls “green colonialism”, she says, “So, as an Indigenous people, we not only carry the burden of climate change, but we also carry the burden of mitigation… And it is a pretty heavy burden.” As part of the sustainable development agenda, we need to build a future with those who have been stewards of our planet’s biodiversity for such a long time. It is time for the Agenda 2030 and our national efforts to recognise the value of this knowledge, and to learn how to do better.

There are many resources available that share how to best include Indigenous communities in the origination, design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of climate agendas. The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment has developed a business primer on how communities can be properly consulted in wind and energy projects. Also, in order to ensure that the voices of Indigenous communities are at the table, mapping Indigenous networks is critical. This work has been spearheaded by initiatives such as Canada's Assembly of First Nations and Indigenous Clean Energy.

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