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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Centering Indigenous Rights and Perspectives in the Fight Against Climate Change

Climate change has disproportionately exacerbated many challenges global Indigenous communities face, including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment. Yet Indigenous voices and perspectives have been marginalized in global climate debates and discourse.

Signe Leth, senior advisor at the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs and Indigenous Women & Land Rights, joined Northwestern University assistant professor of political science Kimberly Marion Suiseeya for a conversation on the connections between Indigenous rights and climate change in a Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar. Here are three key takeaways:

Indigenous People bear the brunt of the worst consequences of climate change–and are critical sources of climate solutions.  “Indigenous Peoples govern, own, or manage 22 percent of global land area, 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, 20 percent of tropical forest carbon and 95 percent of remaining cultural diversity,” said Suiseeya. “They are simultaneously integral leaders responsible for governing and managing environmental change and are also the people most vulnerable to and marginalized by global responses to environmental problems.” 

According to Suiseeya, there is growing recognition from states and conservation organizations that the unique relationship that Indigenous Peoples have with their own environments make them uniquely qualified to help address global environmental problems.  Yet despite this increased recognition, Indigenous People still face an uphill battle to ensure their own lands and rights are protected.

The struggle for global land rights is inextricably linked with the fight for climate action and effective environmental governance.  Despite their unique perspectives and relationship with their environments, the world’s 550 million Indigenous People—including 330 million in Asia alone—continue to face discrimination, marginalization, pressure to assimilate and violent repression with little legal recognition at the national level.  These communities are often locked in a perpetual struggle for legal recognition of and self-determination over their ancestral lands because of “resource extraction, infrastructure development, and large-scale agro-industrial plantations,” said Leth and, ironically, “the establishment of protected areas including national parks and eco-zones." 

Also, the effects of climate change often exacerbate the challenges that Indigenous People already face, because these communities often “live in sensitive ecosystems and are dependent on the local natural resources,” Leth said.  Even when climate mitigation action is taken, it is often done so without considering Indigenous perspectives or rights, with damaging consequences.  “Large development projects, such as dams, windmill parks, or thermal projects are often implemented on Indigenous Peoples’ lands without their consent,” she added.  Indigenous Peoples’ “right to land, territories and natural resources is at the core of a rights-based approach to climate change actions.  These rights need to be protected, respected and promoted.”

There is a gap between international recommendations and national implementation of laws that protect and advance Indigenous People’s rights.  In recent years, “I’ve seen a dramatic change in the impact that Indigenous leaders have at international climate negotiations,” said Suiseeya.  While this increased support at the international level is really important, Leth noted that “there is a big gap between international recommendations and national implementation” of climate laws that protect the rights of Indigenous People. Ultimately though, there are reasons to be cautiously hopeful.  Through a combination of grassroots movements and international law, “pressure is created from multiple sides to show countries what can be gained if they grant Indigenous People rights, and what they lose if they don’t,” said Leth.  The goal is to “reframe the conversation toward policies that address what is needed in the communities affected most,” added Suiseeya.


This dialogue was part of the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs’ "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar series, which focuses on a different United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) each quarter. This webinar focused on SDG 13: Climate Action, spotlighting how effective approaches to combatting climate change require unprecedented global cooperation and scientific knowledge. Winter 2021 webinars are co-sponsored by the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and sustainNU.