Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change: A Call For Action to Build Resilience Post-COVID


September 14, 2020
  • Céline da Graça Pires

    Former Manager, BSR

  • Samantha Harris

    Former Associate Director, BSR

From the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 to extreme weather events like the wildfires in Australia and the Amazon, 2020 severely tests the resilience of Indigenous Peoples across the globe. On the commemoration of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), we recognize that there is still much to be done to prevent, mitigate, and remedy the current and forthcoming adverse impacts of climate change to which Indigenous Peoples are particularly vulnerable.

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement targets requires a just transition to a net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions economy—with the involvement of all stakeholders. To align with those goals and the corporate responsibility to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples stated in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all companies have a role to play in achieving climate justice by embracing a human-centered approach and safeguarding the rights of Indigenous Peoples that are now particularly threatened. Resilience to future shocks can only be achieved by putting people, in particular Indigenous Peoples, at the core of long-term COVID recovery strategies.

Climate Impacts on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Are Exacerbated by COVID-19

Climate change and Indigenous Peoples’ rights are inextricably linked. Depending on geography and location of living (i.e. small islands, high altitudes, coastal regions, deserts, polar areas etc.), they are vulnerable to climate change because they sit on the frontlines of the physical effects of the climate-driven extreme weather. Rising global temperatures create a series of impacts (i.e. wildfires, heatwaves, storms, flooding and drought and sea level rise) felt disproportionately by Indigenous Peoples, magnifying the systemic inequalities they already face.

Indigenous Peoples’ fundamental rights to life, health, water, food, adequate standard of living, land, cultures, and traditions are undermined both by the climate crisis and by the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Right to water and sanitation: In some regions of the world, climate impacts continue to drive water scarcity, preventing access to clean water and sanitation for Indigenous communities which is crucial for handwashing and containing the spread of the virus.
  • Right to land, natural resources, and preservation of cultural heritage: Environmental destruction from climate impacts, soil degradation, biofuel plantations (soy, sugar cane, jatropha, palm oil, etc.), illegal land seizure during lockdowns, among others, has affected Indigenous Peoples’ right to land and natural resources resulting sometimes in their livelihoods, cultures, and traditions being destroyed, thus increasing their vulnerability during the pandemic.
  • Right to food and adequate standard of living: Indigenous Peoples are heavily dependent on lands and natural resources for their basic needs and livelihoods, but due to a combination of loss of biodiversity caused by extreme weather and deforestation, their food security and traditional livelihoods are now highly threatened.  

To Build Resilient and Inclusive Business Strategies to Address the Climate Crisis in Post-COVID Planning, Put Indigenous Peoples at the Center

Business contribution to climate justice can only be achieved through the implementation of inclusive mitigation and resilience measures in post-COVID- planning. These measures should aim to reduce GHG emissions, while minimizing vulnerabilities of Indigenous Peoples to the adverse effects of climate change by building on their traditional knowledge and practices.

1. Ensure protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights in times of crises when building post-COVID recovery plans

Climate change and COVID-19 crises exacerbate the underlying systemic injustice faced by Indigenous Peoples. The vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples to social, economic, and environmental shocks linked to climate change can be significantly reduced by recognizing and securing Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights to lands, natural resources, culture heritage, and free, prior, and informed consent to prevent land grabbing. Companies should consider conducting human rights due diligence to identify potential adverse impacts of climate change mitigation projects on Indigenous Peoples’ rights, in particular in the context of renewable energy expansion, biofuel production, large-scale agriculture, or construction of hydroelectric dams.

2. Support the active and meaningful participation of Indigenous Peoples

To ensure respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and protection of their already fragile livelihoods, business strategies and programs to mitigate climate change impacts across their value chains should be designed and implemented following a strong and inclusive consultation process with the affected Indigenous communities and need to consider including them in the decision-making of climate change solutions. Companies can play a key role in setting up permanent dialogue spaces and strengthening the access to mechanisms for participation that take into consideration Indigenous Peoples’ languages and traditions as well as equitable gender representation.  

3. Consider Indigenous Peoples as key partners and agents of change

Companies should consider Indigenous Peoples not simply as victims of climate change but also as active partners and agents of change who are able to offer effective solutions for the climate crisis thanks to their specific knowledge and techniques.  Their traditional lands guard over 80 percent of the planet's biodiversity and their capacity to adapt to environmental change is rooted in traditional knowledge and in-depth understanding of the land. Indigenous Peoples may therefore be uniquely positioned to help enhance the resilience of biodiversity and soil quality in some regions while at the same time contribute limiting material climate risks to businesses. This is particularly important for climate change mitigation and adaptation for which companies can build on Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and climate-smart agriculture techniques to increase the effectiveness of the corporate solutions to major environmental changes.

Looking Ahead

As the UNDRIP turns 13 and the virus continues to wreak havoc worldwide, it is clear that for companies, the pandemic can be a turning point to better prepare for crises—including climate change and future pandemics. Business can use this inflection point as an opportunity to build back better by securing Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights and strengthening indigenous traditional knowledge and ecosystems, further contributing to building inclusive business strategies that are more resilient in the face of an uncertain future.

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