Global climate-change policy must recognize indigenous rights

Indigenous peoples and local communities have been the chief casualties of climate change. Any meaningful legislation born out of the Paris Climate Summit must consider their plight.
Indigenous peoples and local communities have been the chief casualties of climate change. Any meaningful legislation born out of the Paris Climate Summit must consider their plight.
Image: Reuters/Joe Penney
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In my country, the Republic of Chad, our land has been changing along with the climate, affecting how we support ourselves and produce our food. Areas that had once supported cattle grazing for generations have now become too dry, forcing nomadic herders from their traditional routes to new territories and altering long established land-use patterns. We now rank as a world leader in hunger and conflict, an unsurprising tragedy that has taken place well off of the global stage.

But the economic sector that has played a leading role in climate change—the oil and gas industry—also competes for land in Chad, especially in the south of the country. Chadians, from all walks of life, including my Mbororo people, have had to accommodate this industry and bear witness to its environmental damages.

Several worlds away, in a series of international meetings under the auspices of the United Nations, delegates debate how to cope with climate change and reduce the emissions that cause it. The most recent meeting was in Bonn, Germany, at the end of Oct. 2015, and the series concludes with the global climate change mega-conference in Paris, France in early December.

At these meetings, I have been advocating for the recognition of our indigenous and traditional knowledge as part of any negotiated solution. This boils down to inserting language into the draft treaty that acknowledges the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities around the world, and in particular their right to own or manage the lands where they live.

The benchmark for my success so far has been the insertion of two paragraphs in a roughly 55-page document where just about every word is the subject of intense debate.

These paragraphs, and the words they contain, hold the key to our future. Without legal rights to our lands, resources, environment, and livelihoods, economic developments like oil drilling, mining, large-scale plantations, and hydropower projects will displace us. We need to be the ones deciding on the disposition of our lands.

And yet, more often than not, these rights are hard to come by. According to new research from the Rights and Resources Initiative, indigenous peoples and local communities lack the legal rights to almost three quarters of our lands.

Sustainable development is a buzzword at the international policymaking meetings, but for this jargon to have any meaning it must encompass respect for us and our priorities. Without this respect—which starts with our inclusion in any treaty coming out of Paris—the international community would replace one type of predatory economic development with another. And the impoverished peoples of the world—without legal rights—would continue to get pushed aside.

When we in Chad and elsewhere talk about land use and indigenous rights, oil drilling is one of the first problems we think about. And when we talk about climate change, the oil and gas corporations are foremost among both the primary culprits and those most in denial.

Oil was supposed to be the economic hope that would stabilize landlocked Chad after decades of civil war. In a landmark deal with the World Bank, ExxonMobil, Petronas, and Chevron, oil wells and a pipeline through neighboring Cameroon were financed under the condition that the people and the environment would be protected, and the profits would be channeled towards services that raise the standard of living in the country.

But while the oil flowed smoothly through the pipeline, the profits did not reach the people impacted by the project. The government used the money to build its army instead. The World Bank protested and eventually withdrew from the arrangement, but only after the pipeline’s completion.

The damage was done.

The results of this project have been ruinous. The loss of land and livelihoods has been unaddressed, and occasional leaks in the pipeline and the wells have tainted the land, its character, and water resources. The pipeline itself, now that it is complete, has enabled the expansion of the oil fields and the continuing marginalization of my people.

The final insult is the current deliberations by the World Bank to potentially lower the environmental and social safeguards for its funded projects, when it is obvious to us in Chad that the previous safeguards were nowhere near strong enough.

Chad is not the only place where oil development has trampled our rights. Similar stories transpired in neighboring Nigeria, as well as in Ecuador on the other side of the world. Research has proven that indigenous communities are the best stewards of the land, keeping billions of tons of carbon in the earth and out of our atmosphere. Yet we consistently get pushed aside for oil and gas development, the most carbon-intensive industry, while the world ponders and debates the urgent crisis of climate change.

Indigenous peoples and local communities are on the front lines of this crisis. We bear the brunt of the industries that pollute, and the lands that are left to us bear the brunt of the changing climate. We need to be compensated for losses and damages from extreme weather changes. We also need direct access to these funds as well as assistance that would allow us to govern our own development while maintaining our territories. We need to manage our own way forward.

Any final agreement that emerges out of Paris needs to be legally binding for all countries, with no room for any government—including my own in Chad—to wiggle out of its commitments. We don’t need a contract on paper that acknowledges our existence but does not ensure our survival. It takes more than two paragraphs to address the concerns of indigenous peoples and local communities. Instead, we hunger to see a contract of solutions, one that includes us and protects our rights and our future.