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Resilience in a time of uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change Print

Resilience in a time of uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change, 26 - 27 November 2015, Paris

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Background note

Climate change poses risks to all societies across the globe – however these risks are disproportionally distributed. Those who do least to accelerate climate change are those who are particularly threatened by its impacts. These include the over 400 million indigenous peoples in the world.

Indigenous peoples are a wide and diverse group of peoples who share a distinct set of characteristics including self-identification as indigenous peoples; historical continuity with pre-colonial or pre-settler societies; strong links to territories and surrounding natural resources; distinct social, economic and political systems; distinct language, culture and beliefs; and resolve to maintain and reproduce ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities (UNDP HDR, 2014). International recognition of indigenous peoples and their collective rights to self-determined development and management of their resources can be found in declarations such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

Many of the world’s indigenous peoples live in territories that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – these include small islands, high altitude zones, desert margins and the circumpolar arctic. Rising sea levels, melting glaciers and prolonged droughts are some of the challenges threatening indigenous peoples’ lives and ways of living. At the same time, indigenous peoples have not been passive but have been coping and responding to the changes that are happening around them. Observations of indigenous men and women, alongside their knowledge of managing the environment, can provide important inputs to understanding local level impacts of climate change and how to respond. This knowledge may also be gender specific, reflecting women and men’s different but complementary roles, for instance in environment and natural resource management. While the environmental transformations caused by climate change are expected to be unprecedented, indigenous and local knowledge and coping strategies may nonetheless provide a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation measures. (UNESCO-UNU, 2012)

At the global level, science and policy have started to recognize the role of indigenous knowledge in addressing climate change. This global acknowledgement has yet to translate into assessments and policies that reinforce, rather than undermine, the resilience of indigenous peoples and local communities. Understanding how the perspectives and observations of indigenous peoples and local communities can be taken on board in a respectful way is of utmost importance for ensuring that climate change action promotes the well-being of communities everywhere. This notion is echoed in the Summary for Policymakers of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report:

Indigenous, local, and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change, but these have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts. Integrating such forms of knowledge with existing practices increases the effectiveness of adaptation (IPCC, 2014).

Within the UNFCCC, indigenous and traditional knowledge (ITK) is recognized as part of the knowledge foundation principle of the Cancun Adaptation Framework. In discussions on REDD+, indigenous peoples are recognized as a distinct group. The UNFCCC recognizes that ITK has improved observations of climate change and its impacts, and that it has been mobilized for assessments of  vulnerability. There is little evidence, however, of the integration of ITK into the implementation and monitoring of adaptation. Moreover, existing approaches and tools serve primarily to increase the participation of indigenous peoples and local communities in decision-making processes without recognizing the knowledge that they bring to the table (UNFCCC, 2013).

The conference

As the world comes to Paris for COP21, UNESCO and the French National Museum of Natural History, together with Tebtebba and Conservation International is organizing an international conference on indigenous peoples and climate change. Indigenous peoples, governments and scientists are invited to engage in a transdisciplinary dialogue to understand the impacts of a changing climate on communities and how climate change policy, programmes and tools can be developed to support local resilience.


To create a transdisciplinary exchange of knowledge and experiences amongst indigenous peoples, governments and scientists,

02 To understand the contributions that diverse knowledge systems, such as indigenous knowledge, can make to reinforce the climate change knowledge base;

03 To highlight practical community-based solutions and initiatives to address the impacts of climate change;

To reinforce the links between cultural diversity and the sustainability of the global environment.

The themes

  1. Observing and understanding the impacts of climate change

Melting sea ice, changing weather patterns and the impacts of rising sea level are just some ways that the early impacts of climate change are being felt. Understanding a changing climate is based upon fundamental knowledge of the surrounding environment including its weather and climate. Projects/initiatives that seek to understand indigenous/local communities’ understanding of weather prediction, seasonal changes are also of interest.

  1. Adapting traditional livelihoods in the face of uncertainty

The livelihoods of many indigenous peoples and local communities are heavily dependent on renewable resources. For generations, indigenous men and women have been hunting, fishing, herding, and cultivating food from systems as diverse as tropical forests, Arctic tundra, temperate woodlands, alpine meadows, and coral systems, to name but a few. Global change, including climate change, puts great pressure on these traditionally sustainable livelihoods. Yet over the centuries, indigenous peoples have always been adapting their livelihoods to changing conditions through a continual renewal combining strategies such as diversification, modern technologies such as GPS, drawing information from science, and perhaps even resurrecting age-old sustainable practices. Presentations may speak to either the impacts of climate change on livelihoods or strategies – either based on indigenous knowledge or reinforced through other knowledge systems – to adapt traditional livelihoods.

  1. Mitigation and indigenous peoples' responses

Additional mitigation measures are needed to avoid the high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts of climate change. Many mitigation proposals, however, have implications for indigenous peoples’ territories and resources. Over the last years, indigenous peoples have been actively responding to these proposals, including REDD+ by insisting on safeguards and participation in REDD+ decision-making. They have also proposed their own carbon emission offset initiatives based on indigenous forms of natural resource management. At the same time, many indigenous peoples have responded against the expansion of non-renewable energy industries. Finally, indigenous peoples have also been asserting that their ways of life provide cost-effective mitigation options so presentations can also focus on indigenous initiatives to promote sustainable lifestyles.

  1. Strategies for resilience

Many factors can contribute to continued resilience at the community level. Sustainable livelihoods. Reinforcing the links between different communities through cultural exchanges. Ensuring that indigenous languages are not lost so that traditional knowledge can continue to be passed down from generation to generation. The inclusion of marginalized voices within an indigenous community, including those of the women. Presentations under this theme provide the link between understanding how and why cultural diversity matters in the protection of the environment and climate.

  1. Understanding and responding to extreme events and disasters

Certain extreme weather events including droughts, floods and cyclones have been linked to human influence. Presentations to this panel may consider how communities respond to the impacts of these extreme events. Experiences from disaster management in communities hold crucial lessons for adaptation planning. A second set of presentations, while more focused around disasters, will demonstrate the lessons learned from these experiences and how these could feed into and overlap with adaptation planning.

Expected outcomes

  • An overview of current knowledge on climate change impacts and responses on indigenous peoples and local communities, from perspectives of indigenous peoples and scientists. This overview and recommendations will be presented through a report, a summary of which can be disseminated at COP-21.
  • An exchange of knowledge and experiences between indigenous peoples and other experts, including between and within different regions and ecosystems. This exchange will be reflected in a collation of presentations into a global database that can be made available to the UNFCCC Nairobi Work Programme.
  • Creation of a broad international network including indigenous peoples and local communities, and scientific experts.

Programme outline and participation

The two day conference will consist of plenaries, parallel sessions and ministerial level keynotes, opening and closing ceremonies. Distinguished experts from indigenous peoples, national governments and scientists will be invited to deliver keynotes. The parallel sessions will be enriched by a selection of panelists representing the best testimonies, case studies, projects and initiatives from around the world. Participation on the panels will be juried by a scientific selection committee consisting of experts from indigenous peoples, scientists and the presidencies of COP 20 and 21. The call for presentations for the panels is here.

The conference is open to the public on a first come, first served basis. Pre-registration is required. Interpretation will be available in French, English and Spanish.

No fees are charged for speakers, panelists or participants. Limited travel funds are available for panelists.