As some of the most vulnerable communities in the face of global warming, Indigenous people are on the front lines of struggle against climate change and are most impacted by the extractive industries driving the world toward climate crisis. They are also the keepers of important ancestral environmental knowledge and key protectors of forests, waterways, and biodiversity.
And yet the landmark COP21 climate agreement reached in Paris last year and signed on Friday, widely praised by world leaders as a “historic” and “monumental triumph” for the climate, scarcely mentions the rights of Indigenous peoples and sidelines their important role as environmental protectors in the face of rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions.
COP21 Sidelines Indigenous Communities Central to Fighting Climate Change
One such Indigenous group hard-hit by the effects of climate change while contributing practically nothing to greenhouse gas emissions fueling the crisis is the Garifuna Afro-Indigenous community, whose ancestral territory stretches along the Caribbean coast of Central America, particularly Honduras.
Traditionally fisher peoples, the Garifuna have seen their coastal homelands ravaged by climate change in recent years, and recognize that without urgent action by global leaders and the worst climate offenders, their situation will continue to worsen.
“It was worrisome that in the COP21 they tried to exclude use of the term Indigenous peoples,” Miriam Miranda, a prominent Honduran social movement leader and coordinator of Ofraneh, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras dedicated to protecting Garifuna rights, told teleSUR. The final text of the COP21 was weakened after Indigenous leaders fought for the inclusion of their rights in the draft, ultimately falling short of a just climate deal concerned with human rights.
Miranda predicted that the COP21 deal will continue to promote “false solutions” to climate change and market-oriented approaches that greenwash ongoing inaction in the face of climate change, such as carbon offset mechanisms. Such schemes, including REDD, allow high-polluting countries to shirk their emission reduction responsibilities by buying up carbon sinks in forests and agricultural lands in the south.
These false solutions are what Miranda calls “tools of territorial dispossession” because they also fuel land grabs of Indigenous and campesino territories, further threatening vulnerable groups dubiously in the name of the environment. “The disdain toward campesino agriculture and the defense of common goods promoted by Indigenous people,” she said, “is part of the strategy of annihilation of the planet in the name of capital accumulation.”
Central America Already Feeling the Heat of Changing Weather
Despite contributing minimally to global emissions, Central America is one of the regions most vulnerable to changing weather conditions. It has already felt the burden of severe drought affecting millions of people across the isthmus over the past year, with a state of emergency over water scarcity recently declared in El Salvador. Across the so-called “dry corridor” of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, harsh drought conditions exacerbate already fragile food security and worsen conditions for millions of people living in poverty.
On Honduras’ north coast, the Garifuna are exposed to extreme weather events like hurricanes and cyclones, expected to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change, while the powerful El Niño effect this season is expected to rock the region with major storms.
WATCH: Garifuna Expelled from Ancestral Lands
“Hurricane Mitch demonstrated the vulnerability of the Central American Caribbean coast, especially in Honduras, a country where systematic deforestation destroyed watersheds,” said Miranda, referring to the 1998 tropical storm that killed 7,000 Hondurans and left at least 1.5 million more homeless in a country of less than 6 million at the time. “Now 18 years since Mitch, we can say that the situation is tragic in the absence of climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.”
Indigenous Peoples “Doomed” to be Displaced by Climate Change
The Honduran coast has eroded over the past two decades, Miranda explained, making the Garifuna and other seaside communities, including the Indigenous Miskito people, whose territory crosses into Nicaragua, particularly vulnerable to tides and extreme storms.
The decline of coastal biodiversity and the disappearance of native plants and ecosystems, like coastal mangroves, has been a huge factor in leaving communities unprotected by eliminating natural barriers that historically offered a shield from the sea.
“The inexistence of a state policy in relation to climate change mitigation and adaption increases the vulnerability of both the Garifuna and Miskito,” said Miranda, adding that Indigenous communities from the Maya of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula to the Warao of Venezuela’s Orinoco delta face similar challenges. “We can state that we are doomed to becoming environmentally displaced people.”
What’s more, Miranda predicted that national and international inaction in the face of increasing pressures from climate change could pave the way for repression under the guise of other pretexts to stem migration from affected areas. Rather than political will to fight climate change, she argued, it seems leaders are “preparing to avoid and control human displacement as a result of catastrophes” through ramped up militarization and the so-called war on drugs in Indigenous territories.
COP21 Fails to Lock Global Warming Below Catastrophic Levels
The widely praised goal of COP21 was for world leaders to commit to keeping the planet below 2 degrees Celsius global warming compared to pre-industrial levels, the threshold that scientists regard as the breaking point that will cause irreparable planetary damage and possibly bring an end to human life as we know it.
But the agreement puts the world on track to hit a catastrophic 3 or 3.5 degrees warming. And that is if countries live up to the voluntary national emissions reduction targets. Scientists argue that a limit of 1.5 degrees is crucial to protect the world’s most vulnerable.
Miranda dubbed the move by industrialized countries to minimize binding commitments a “suicidal attitude” that “puts at risk not only Indigenous peoples and campesino communities but inevitably all of humanity.”
What’s more, the non-binding global emissions reduction plan means the biggest climate offenders, emitters of the vast majority of greenhouse gases historically responsible for fueling climate change, including fossil fuel corporations, can continue to set emission reduction targets as they please with disregard for what is urgently needed on a global level.
Fighting for an End to “Carbon Colonialism”
In the face of crisis, action is urgent locally and globally. And Indigenous communities are acutely aware of the consequences of more climate negligence.
“To international leaders, we request stopping once and for all the carbon colonialism that has been practiced and take on the commitments of the COP21,” Miranda said.
At the national level, Miranda stressed that it is crucial for the Honduran government to accept the proposed law that would enshrine the Indigenous right to free prior and informed consent for all development projects on their land. The proposal, a “counter-project” to the existing so-called climate change law that promotes the “false solutions” Miranda criticized, was developed in consultation with Indigenous people, including recently murdered leader Berta Caceres.
The Climate Justice Struggle Continues
At COP21 in Paris, Central American leaders called for compensation from the historic culprits of climate change, wealthy industrialized nations, to pay their carbon debts to poorer countries. But the deal explicitly states that “loss and damage” related to climate change is not a basis for liability and compensation. Central America is far from seeing climate justice.
Indigenous communities are continuing to mobilize for just climate solutions. Nicaragua is boycotting the signing of the COP21 in protest, refusing to be complicit in an insufficient deal. Environmental movements around the world are rising up to demand an end to fossil fuels.
So while the COP21 may be a “step in the right direction” and “better than nothing” after the monumental failure of COP15 in Copenhagen, the widespread celebration of a relatively weak deal in the face of planetary crisis makes it increasingly clear that the fight for climate justice will and must happen in the streets and frontline communities, not the halls of global power.