Climate Exchange

Connecting Knowledge and People

The elephant in the room: policy based responses to climate change are still failing to account for indigenous voices

By: Rory Walshe and Alejandro Argumedo

An op-ed from the Indigenous Peoples’ Biocultural Climate Change Assessment (IPCCA) Initiative Secretariat


The Sami people of Finland - one of the IPCCA Local Assessment case studies

The Sami people of Finland – a IPCCA Local Assessment (IPCCA 2014)

Indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable groups to the impacts of climate change. They stand to lose so much because, as well as relying on the natural environment and biodiversity for their livelihoods (often in fragile ecosystems), their entire worldview or ‘cosmo-vision’ is intertwined with and based on complex interactions with nature and the environment.

Indigenous people are also made vulnerable by their widespread and continuing neglect and marginalisation in national, regional and international climate change policy. Unfortunately this state of affairs is no surprise; the erroneous portrayal of indigenous peoples as homogenous, backwards and vulnerable is a product of colonialism and has been prevalent since the early stages of the development paradigm.

However, for a number of reasons, it should not be assumed that because indigenous groups are vulnerable to the effects of climate change that they are vulnerable overall. The global practical experience of various indigenous peoples’ initiatives (including the Indigenous Peoples’ Biocultural Climate Change Assessments – IPCCA) who have carried out local climate change assessments in countries worldwide shows that indigenous communities posses important resilience which should not be neglected. Furthermore, if policy responses, such as those of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), are to be effective, participation of these communities and the integration of their knowledge, priorities and worldview is critical.


A Sapara community of Ecuador

the Sapara community of the Ecuadorian IPCCA Local Assessment (IPCCA 2014)

Climate change is a global problem but its impacts are local and vary significantly by location. Indigenous people have been adapting to changes in the environment for centuries, and as a result have become highly attuned to variability, shifts and trends. In response to these perceived changes, indigenous communities have developed a number of strategies and methods with which to adapt to change and which provide resilience.

Assessments conducted by the IPCCA on Indigenous peoples’ from every continent, and representing every major type of ecosystem have demonstrated that many of these adaptations are already being utilised in response to contemporary changes. These include; diversifying and supplementing natural resources, altering and modifying key species and biodiversity, shifting timing cycles and calendars, adjusting locations, and collective resource management, among others. Yet these skills and knowledge are too often neglected and overlooked by the broad technical and scientific approaches of the climate change policy apparatus, despite the fact that this knowledge provides capacity for community based adaptation.

There are many Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), which engage with indigenous communities, effectively or otherwise. These include the UNFCCC, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and various initiatives by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Each of these bodies operates programs with diverse priorities, timescales and methods, divided and categorised into themes such as adaptation, mitigation and development.

This division between these mechanisms and programs is of course purely arbitrary, and this is especially true for indigenous people. Even the more recent theorising of ‘planetary systems’ belies the interconnectivity of indigenous bio-cultural systems. In this way and by requiring this artificial division, the holistic cosmo-vision of indigenous communities is inherently undermined by international policy frameworks.

Participation of indigenous communities is also a major issue, with different MEAs employing different degrees and methods of participation for indigenous communities. The UNFCCC has ‘engaged’ with indigenous communities only since 2000, however the level of influence of indigenous people in the process remains minimal and the plight of Indigenous people is seldom mentioned in the discussions or publications.

The CBD on the other hand has created a dedicated unit – see article 8(j) – for indigenous knowledge and its processes are relatively open and pay particular attention to diverse epistemologies of knowledge. There are also positive examples of the inclusion of indigenous peoples from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), UNESCO-LINKS initiative and various UNDP community based adaptation projects worldwide.

At the last COP in Warsaw, the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) statement called for the setting up of an Indigenous Peoples’ Expert body, which would act as a technical advisory body and a consultative resource that contributes to the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of all UNFCCC subsidiary bodies, activities, mechanisms and programmes. This would include existing UN Indigenous mechanisms such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII), the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (SRIP). Also, it called for establishing a technical support unit for Indigenous Peoples’ issues and an indigenous focal point in the UNFCCC Secretariat, which should be established under the Adaptation, Technology Transfer, Capacity Building and Science Programmes. Finally it asked the UNFCCC to facilitate a dedicated fund mechanism for the participation of indigenous peoples’ organizations in climate policy-making processes and should support our mitigation and adaptation activities at ground level.

As shown in the CBD case, such mechanism would ensure the inclusion of indigenous peoples voices, solutions and knowledge in climate change decision-making at all levels.

However, along with altering the policy landscape, there are several more intangible barriers that continue to prevent the integration of indigenous voices into climate change policy, and which will need to be addressed. These include the marginalisation, exploitation, and cultural imperialism imposed on indigenous communities, often in the name of climate change mitigation or adaptation.

At the most prosaic level, another issue is the dichotomy between science based policy and indigenous knowledge, and the perceived incompatibility of the two to interact. Scientific based policy knowledge typically has problems understanding the qualitative, rich and place specific outputs from indigenous communities.


Sea level rise encroaching on the Kuna Yala community of the IPCCAs Panama local assessment (IPCCA 2014)

Sea level rise encroaching on the Kuna Yala community – Panama IPCCA local assessment (IPCCA 2014)


The experience of the IPCCA points to the conclusion that these barriers must be overcome and that environmental justice and locally appropriate governance is a prerequisite for successfully addressing climate change. More than this, for indigenous communities, top-down techno-centric climate change approaches are not only inadequate but also counterproductive.

These lessons learnt are a few of the cornerstones of our forthcoming Synthesis Report. This report is the culmination of many years work and a global network of partners and communities. It presents an international holistic overview of the findings and lessons learnt from the IPCCA’s local assessments. These local assessments have been conducted over the past four years with indigenous communities from around the world, representing every major ecosystem type. These include the high mountain agro-ecosystem in Peru, the Karen people of the Thai tropical rainforest, the sub arctic Sami tribe in Finland, the Island ecosystem Kuna Yala people in Panama, the Sapara nation in the Ecuadorian Amazon and finally the Adivasi of Andhra Pradesh, India. These six detailed local assessments of six different indigenous communities allows for an unprecedented analysis of international indigenous responses to climate change. This will be presented at the upcoming Conference Of the Parties (COP) 20 in Lima.

Therefore, its real strength – and what is really exciting about the report – is that for the first time the report draws out crosscutting lessons from across the world’s indigenous communities. It presents a truly global message through analysis of each of the six international communities in parallel. This analysis focuses on indigenous bio-cultural resilience and adaptation in response to climate change, food security, gender and livelihoods.

There has never been a more opportune time to have this issue discussed. In the last few years, and in the run up to UNFCCC COP 20 in Lima and COP21 in Paris, the international momentum in advocating for the integration of indigenous people and knowledge in the climate change landscape has gained pace. Critically, however, there has still been very little practical action on the key issue of the participation of indigenous communities in climate change solutions which link evidence on the ground to policy development in the UNFCCC. Therefore, concomitant with the development of an Indigenous Peoples’ Expert body, the IPCCA proposes a concept of participation that goes beyond the bureaucratic mechanics of the UNFCCC into a model of participation based on the control of local processes, linked to the UNFCCC. Now is the time for the climate change community to rally behind this cause.

For more details on the IPCCA, go to IPCCA or contact


Suggested citing:

Walshe, R., Argumedo, A. 2014.The elephant in the room: policy based responses to climate change are still failing to account for indigenous voices  [Online]. Available at: [accessed + date when the website was accessed]


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