Finding a voice for indigenous peoples at COP16

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I was part of a ``historic’’ moment in Xcaret, on the Mayan Riviera of Mexico, earlier this month. Here representatives of indigenous organizations worldwide had gathered together with government representatives of various governments, including Bolivia, Panama, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Bangladesh, and Peru to prepare a strategy for giving voice to the concerns of the indigenous groups in the COP-16 negotiations in Cancun in November.


This was the first time a country has supported indigenous peoples in preparing for a COP, normally dominated by policy wonks and government negotiators. Historically, relations between indigenous groups and states have been confrontational in nature; in Latin America in particular, there has been a history of violent events, including the long civil war in Chiapas. The process of inclusion, however, is fundamental in many Latin American countries, as indigenous peoples form a significant demographic group─15 million in Peru, 12 million in Mexico, and about 6 million in Bolivia and Guatemala.


Against this backdrop, it was heartening in Xcaret to see, indigenous leaders and government officials,  jointly preparing a strategy to voice their preoccupation and concerns over issues that will come with climate change and have the potential to affect all groups. In the meeting, indigenous peoples presented themselves as first and foremost “citizens” of those countries, even though different from the mainstream. This time, the governments were actually listening to their voices. It is becoming increasingly recognized that indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable to climate change, due to their dependence upon, and close relationship with, the environment and its resources. Climate change is expected to exacerbate existing inequity faced by indigenous communities in the form of political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, and ultimately their distinct ways of life.



This process of productive, concrete, and positive engagement may not sound like a big deal, but in reality it represented a huge step forward in the relationship between the two parties. To hear an indigenous representative thanking the Guatemalan Government for the support provided at the UN Human Rights Council would have been considered impossible just a few years ago. Similarly, having the Mexican authorities taking the lead in supporting the voices of indigenous peoples in their struggle to adapt to climate change would have seemed unlikely if one remembers the Chiapas events of a decade ago.


Though the Mexican chair of the meeting did a phenomenal job in mediating among the parties, in reality the search for a common─not middle─ground was aided by a convergence of interests and a softening of tone. This allowed indigenous peoples to draft a document that focused on specific requests such as an effective mechanism for technology transfer, ways to be represented at COP-16 (given that they are not one of the “parties” of COP), and concrete ways to seek culturally-appropriate solutions to mitigate their vulnerability as distinct people within a state.


Kudos should go to the Government of Mexico and its team that promoted this effort and financed it jointly with civil society organizations and the World Bank. The road will still be bumpy but going forward we should see the glass half full, and possibly more, at times.


Fabio Pittaluga

World Bank Senior Social Development Specialist for Latin America and Caribbean

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