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At U.N.'s COP26 climate summit, Indigenous voices are calling for more than lip service

"There are opportunities for Indigenous peoples to be recognized ... if only states and stakeholders are willing to listen and take action accordingly."
Climate Protest
Ira Francisco, of the Navajo and Ojibwe tribes, rallies with the "People vs. Fossil Fuels" at the Capitol on Oct. 15, 2021.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Ron Turney, a water protector of the White Earth Nation tribe, has been diligently photographing what he says shows the effects of drilling fluid spills and an aquifer breach in northern Minnesota, where a Canadian energy company finished replacement of a crude oil pipeline in September.

The Line 3 replacement project, first announced by Enbridge in 2014, had been fiercely opposed by Native American tribes, environmental activists and celebrities — who more recently urged President Joe Biden to yank its permits — arguing the pipeline would only aggravate climate change and threaten waters where the Ojibwe people harvest wild rice. Already, he said, he's seen chemicals and muck foul what should be pristine wetlands and water.

"It's really frustrating watching a river die out here in front of your eyes," said Turney, who is a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a coalition of grassroots groups and environmental justice activists.

Release of drilling fluid chemicals has been ongoing near the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.
Release of drilling fluid chemicals has been ongoing near the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.Ron Turney

He plans to bring his concerns to an international stage at a panel during the two-week United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, which starts Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland. After last year's annual conference was scrapped because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 event is drawing heads of state and world leaders, such as Biden and members of his administration, including John Kerry, the nation's first climate envoy, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American in that position.

At stake will be whether the nearly 200 nations can agree on cutting greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to a rapidly warming planet and catastrophic climate-related disasters, with the goal of reaching "net zero" emissions by midcentury. But while the issues that diplomats debate will have consequences for the entire planet, the lesser-heard voices of the Indigenous people, who have historically been excluded from conversations about managing their ancestral lands, plan to make their presence known through groups like the Indigenous Peoples Caucus and Cultural Survival, an Indigenous-led nongovernmental organization, and panels like the one in which Turney is participating.

Some groups had expressed difficulty this year traveling to Scotland amid Covid travel restrictions. One-third of small island states and territories in the Pacific region, where rising sea levels imperil their very existence, are reportedly planning to not send any government leaders, The Guardian reported last week.

"It's frustrating jumping through hoops, and they give us the lip service and some acknowledgment," Turney said of the conference, "but we want real policy change that truly acknowledges and respects our beliefs."

Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in an email from Glasgow ahead of COP26 that Indigenous groups will be making a point to say the emission-cutting targets that have been touted by governments are meaningless if dependence on coal and other fossil fuels is not abandoned.

Tom Goldtooth speaks in front of the White House during the "People vs. Fossil Fuels" week of action.
Tom Goldtooth speaks in front of the White House during the "People vs. Fossil Fuels" week of action.Ron Turney

"We will be demanding the rights of Indigenous peoples to be fully recognized," Goldtooth, who is of Diné and Dakota ancestry, said.

The struggle of Indigenous peoples, who are often on the front lines of the climate crisis, exemplified by the deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and wildfires ravaging tribal lands in the western United States, will be emphasized at COP26. Indigenous leaders and "traditional knowledge-holders" whose practices can be useful in mitigating and adapting to the effects of a changing climate will be featured at some events and at panels that are typically attended by climate activists, academic researchers and celebrities.

The Indigenous perspective can't be diminished, the groups say, with the U.N. highlighting that while some 370 million people define themselves as Indigenous, or nearly 5 percent of the global population, they occupy and oversee a substantial portion of land, about 20 percent.

In 2007, the U.N. adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a nonbinding resolution, that recognizes their human rights and fundamental freedoms. But advocates and academics warn that these groups throughout the world who are finding their own solutions in the climate crisis can't do it in a silo, especially when many of them don't have the power or financial influence to advocate for themselves.

"There are opportunities for Indigenous peoples to be recognized at COP26 — if only states and stakeholders are willing to listen and take action accordingly," said Kristen Carpenter, a professor and director of the American Indian Law Program at the University of Colorado.

Native American activists and environmental organizations say they are counting on the U.S. delegation to ensure Indigenous communities are at the forefront.

This month, when Kerry addressed a conference of the National Congress of American Indians, the nation's oldest and largest tribal organization, he painted a dire picture for Indigenous communities: The effects of climate change are threatening lands and livelihoods.

"Indigenous ways of life that have been sustained across the globe for thousands of years are also on the front lines," he said.

"Your resilience is critical for the world," Kerry said, adding the Earth's survival is "inextricably tied to having the leadership of Indigenous peoples in our voice."

"If countries don't get on board with us, leaving out the people who steward a lot of the lands, it's not just a moral issue anymore."

said Professor Kyle Whyte

That recognition, while important, needs to be backed up by action, said Kyle Whyte, a University of Michigan professor focusing on the environment and sustainability and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. He co-authored a report published Thursday in the journal Science that found centuries of forced migration of Native people by European and American settlers has left them on marginal lands more exposed to hazards posed by climate change.

He said tribal nations and Indigenous organizations' hands are tied from taking drastic measures or opposing projects on their territories, often getting pushback from government agencies and energy companies.

After the Line 3 replacement project was completed, snaking more than 300 miles in Minnesota and cutting across tribal reservations and treaty lands, Native American activists and supporters marched in Washington this month to demand Biden take a more aggressive stance against fossil fuel projects.

As the protests grew tense and led to dozens of arrests and an attempt to occupy the Bureau of Indian Affairs, calls escalated from demonstrators to amplify Indigenous leaders' voices.

It's an example of Native people being fed up — and a warning to the "current generation of privileged people who haven't learned their lessons," said Whyte, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

"If countries don't get on board with us, leaving out the people who steward a lot of the lands, it's not just a moral issue anymore," he added. "It will have a devastating effect on the speed at which the rest of the world will get to sustainability."