Report on the Indigenous Struggle for Recognition at COP21

Written by Fernando Tormos, PhD Candidate in Political Science at the Political Science Department of Purdue University and a member of the International Network of Scholar Activists

If it were possible to do a word count of all of the words spoken in Paris during the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP21), I would not be surprised if the word finance came out on top. As a leader of an indigenous peoples’ group recently told me in reference to the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program, “money is a necessary evil; without it, we wouldn’t be here in Paris.” Yet, discussions of so-called “climate financing” or “green financing” tend to dominate the sorts of exchanges that are taking place here in Paris while discussions of human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, gender and racial equality, and the adverse effect of climate change and the extractive practices of multinational corporations on frontline communities are relegated to a second plane.[1] Environmental, indigenous, and global justice activists have faced numerous challenges at COP21. Mainly, activists are burdened with having to push the conference organizers to honor their commitment to transparency and the inclusion of civil society while also having to advocate for the recognition of human, and specifically indigenous peoples rights in the legally binding sections of the draft agreement.

One can find indications of the relegation of discussions on human and, specifically, of indigenous peoples rights in the most recently published draft of the Paris accord. Negotiators have been working on this draft for months now. Coming into Paris, after the latest round of negotiations in Bonn, Germany, the draft of the accord included a clause that articulated the purpose of the agreement and recognized the rights of marginalized groups—Article 2.2.[2] This clause is particularly important for indigenous peoples because, beyond recognizing individual human rights, it also recognizes the collective rights of indigenous peoples and of Mother Earth.
The most recently published draft of the Paris accord dealt a blow to a multitude of social movements and marginalized social groups when Article 2.2 was taken out of the main body of the draft agreement and placed in the Addendum. What this means is that the bringing the language on the rights of indigenous peoples, gender equality, the protection of Mother Earth, decent work and quality jobs, and intergenerational equity back into the accord is not completely off of the negotiating table. Yet, negotiators leave marginalized groups a very small window of opportunity for securing a legally binding accord that is based on principles of global justice.

The removal of this language hasn’t been the only challenge that environmental and global justice organizations have faced. On top of having to advocate for this language, indigenous peoples have had to push national delegates to keep clauses that recognize the value of the traditional and ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples, advocate for greater inclusion of civil society in the negotiations, and press the French presidency of the COP to honor its commitment to transparency.

Indigenous peoples present in Paris continue to stand firm in resistance to the denial of their rights and to the policy silences that would allow for the continuation of exploitative and extractive practices in their territories. After 21 Conferences of Parties national delegations continue to debate whether the climate accord should recognize and represent marginalized groups, and whether they should entail a form of economic redistribution. The abolitionist Fredrick Douglass once said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will…The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” Environmental and global justice movements remain resilient, as they always have, in spite of the challenges that they face in these negotiations. They seem to understand perfectly what intellectuals have noted; that freedom and solidarity are constant and ongoing struggles (Andrews 2004; Weldon 2006).

After 21 Conferences of Parties of the UNFCCC, there may come a day when frontline communities and, specifically, indigenous peoples, no longer recognize the legitimacy of these international negotiations. If these international negotiations continue on the same path that they have traversed for the past two decades, these coral reefs of international activism may share the fate of our Ocean’s coral reefs.[3] This future, however proximate it may be, is hard and perhaps fruitless to predict. Yet, what does seem clear is that the oppressed of this Earth will continue to find hope and inspiration in the sacrifices that so many have made in their struggles for a more just world. Their sacrifices fuel our belief that another world is possible.


[1] A recent report by the Climate Policy Initiative provides indicators on the growth of climate financing initiatives in recent years. This report may be found at: <;

[2] The article read as follows: “[This Agreement shall be implemented on the basis of equity and science, in [full] accordance with the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities [, in the light of national circumstances] [the principles and provisions of the Convention], while ensuring the integrity and resilience of natural ecosystems, [the integrity of Mother Earth, the protection of health, a just transition of the workforce and creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities] and the respect, protection, promotion and fulfillment of human rights for all, including indigenous peoples, including the right to health and sustainable development, [including the right of people under occupation] and to ensure gender equality and the full and equal participation of women, [and intergenerational equity].]”

[3] Sidney Tarrow (2001) referred to international institutions as coral reefs for international activism. The loss of legitimacy of these institutions in the eyes of indigenous peoples may limit the extent to which indigenous peoples spend resources and efforts on attending international negotiations that systematically deny them substantive representation and participation.

Andrews KT. 2004. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.
Tarrow, Sidney G. 2001. “Transnational Politics: Contention and Institutions in International Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science (4): 1–20.
Weldon, S. Laurel. 2006. “Inclusion, Solidarity, and Social Movements: The Global Movement against Gender Violence.” Perspectives on Politics 4 (1): 55-74.  


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