A year from now, Lima, Peru will host the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). For Latin American Indigenous peoples—who make up a large proportion of the populations of Peru and neighboring Bolivia and Ecuador—COP20 is a pivotal chance to coordinate and leverage their influence on the international stage.
2010 was the last time Latin American Indigenous peoples had the opportunity air their concerns about climate and environmental inequities—albeit outside of the official process. In April of that year, the first World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was held in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The conference brought together over 30,000 activists from over 100 countries, largely as an alternative to the failures of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
Indigenous peoples fed up with the lack of results from the UN conference articulated their own vision of climate justice at the 2010 Cochabamba Conference. The resulting People’s Agreement aimed to construct a new system based on harmony and balance between humans and Mother Earth. They reconceived a series of rights that were overlooked during the official negotiations, drafting the landmark Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.
What has happened to Indigenous people’s voices since then? Few Latin American Indigenous groups are able to travel to far-flung conference locations like Doha and Warsaw. Indigenous peoples continue to struggle for recognition and fair access to the closed intergovernmental negotiations.
Amazonian and Andean Indigenous groups have minimal say in critical decisions that affect their livelihoods. For now, they are limited to non-governmental organization observer status, with restrictions that permit only a few registered conference entrants per organization. Thus, their impact on the tone and course of the central negotiating process is limited, especially in moments of tough deal-brokering.
Indigenous peoples continue attempting to influence the process from the inside. Rodolfo Machaca Yupanqui was representing Bolivia at this year’s COP19 in Warsaw as an Aymara Indigenous person and rural farmers’ union leader. He identified a sad misalignment in outcomes between the Cochabamba Conference and the COPs—for example, the difficulty of inserting ideas about Mother Earth as the ultimate provider of life into the vast G77 negotiating group. However, he reiterated the consistency in principles between the Cochabamba Conference and Bolivia’s official negotiating positions.
The few Indigenous representatives at this year’s COP seemed somewhat reluctant to express views that reflect poorly on their government leadership. In a process where Indigenous peoples lack direct influence, governmental representatives often become their only link to closed decision-making sessions. Cutting off engagement could mean losing their diplomat spokespeople.
As Latin American Indigenous people work to ensure that their interests are incorporated and protected in future climate agreements, Peru must create the conditions necessary for the Lima COP to be reinvigorated with the spirit of the Cochabamba Conference. This means allowing Indigenous voices to be heard directly—not merely through the actions of a few official delegation leaders and regional blocs, as in Warsaw.
For Indigenous people to protect their interests in Lima, the Peruvian government has a role and responsibility to facilitate an equitable process as hosts and ensure moral leadership that recognizes the broad ramifications of climate change for Indigenous and marginalized peoples worldwide. If the answer is not another World People’s Conference, then Peru must play a very active role in setting new precedents for inclusiveness in Lima.
Domestic recognition of Indigenous people’s legal autonomy and self-governance (such as in Articles 57 and 171 in Ecuador’s Constitution) is seldom effectively enforced and protected. However, it is even more of a shame that Indigenous groups struggle with these same representation issues at the UN, by being denied the sovereignty that would give them a seat at the negotiating table.
For the world to finally witness a more inclusive COP, Peru and the UN must begin planning now to open the channels for Indigenous participation and make closed negotiations accessible to non-diplomats. The equity issues raised at the Cochabamba Conference should be at the heart of the debate. Article 6 of the UNFCCC Charter guarantees “public participation in addressing climate change…and developing adequate responses,” but Indigenous people contend that the UN process shuts them out.
The next major opportunity for Indigenous inclusion will be in Lima, where facilitation by the COP20 host could be crucial. Fortunately, Peruvian Minister of the Environment Manuel Pulgar-Vidal has shown signs that he is committed to an inclusive process by recently signing a joint commitment with WWF International to collaborate at the COP20.
Still, details about the proposed setup and participative format in Lima are only slowly emerging. Being equipped with more information will enable Indigenous groups to organize and have a voice in the proceedings. With the COP20 now less than a year away, the stakes could not be higher for Indigenous peoples.