Author: Suanne Segovia, December 2019

PhD student in International Relations, Dept of Economic History and International Relations, Stockholm University

Indigenous communities’ participation in global adaptation governance is of central interest to the research group of the GlocalClim project (Globalizing Climate Governance) at Stockholm University, and hence to my doctoral dissertation which analyses the role of indigenous communities in global climate adaptation activities. During the 25th United Nations Conference on Climate Change, better known as the COPs (the Conference of the Parties), this blog discusses indigenous peoples’ experiences with and views on climate adaptation, their interactions with international institutions, such as development agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and their participation at the COPs. 

The COPs are part of the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In this international institution, experts and practitioners worldwide gather to discuss the actions and implementation processes to slow down major climate change and manage associated risks for human security. Effective adaptation to climate change is essential as human security will be progressively threatened as the climate changes. 

At the COPs, aside from the negotiations among the Parties, several side-events are carried out, where non-party organisations such as development-related and human rights organisations, think tanks, universities, religious organisations, indigenous communities, farming alliances, public-private coalitions, scientific and technological centres participate. Some events are organised by the UN itself and others by some of the non-party organisations. All side-events, in contrast to the Parties discussions, are open to the public. This blog post is based on interviews I conducted with nine indigenous representatives from Peru, Guatemala, Chile, and some Pacific Islands like Fiji, Thailand, and Tanzania, at the side-events. These confidential interviews were held during December 2-6.

Indigenous communities at the front-line in the fight to climate change

The sub-title above is taken from one of the side-events of the COP25, where indigenous representatives discussed their role being at the ‘front-line’ of experiencing and adapting to climate change. Most of the interviewees emphasised this idea, explaining that they consider themselves as key actors in the fight against climate change, due to their traditional knowledge of their natural environments which provide them with food, natural medicine and are seen as living entities in their cosmovision.

Food security, water scarcity and land rights

Climate change is a major threat in the eyes of indigenous people, as it contributes to degrading the natural resources they need for their survival, reducing their possibilities to produce food and access to water, and endangering their health because of the previous two reasons. Reducing those potential risks is key for adapting to those changes. 

Migration and Climate Change

Indigenous representatives explain that many people from their communities have decided to migrate to cities, neighbouring countries, or even make transnational movements because of the lack of opportunities in their hometowns which is exacerbated by climate change. In some cases, as in the Pacific Islands, migration is not an adaptation alternative as described by indigenous people from other geographies, but a necessity to survive. For some islands, it is too late to mitigate or adapt. Due to sea level rise, inhabitants are forced to move as there is no more land on which to live. 

Gender and indigenous women

Women’s contemporary fights are usually for emancipation and gender equity, which means to have access to the same opportunities and rights despite their gender. However, according to their comments, indigenous women usually have a role in their communities, one that they would like to preserve, as they consider themselves as a key piece of their communities for their relation with nature and their knowledge of traditional medicine, and because they are usually the ones in charge of planting and cropping. They do argue, though, that violence and exclusion from decision-making processes are a part of their reality that they do want to change and they are already looking for ways to do it.

Indigenous communities and their ‘alliances’ with international institutions

Although the indigenous people interviewed recognised themselves and their communities not as ‘victims’ but as “change agents’, they also admitted that this is not an endeavour they can pursue on their own, for three reasons:

1. Whilst in many indigenous languages words like ‘climate change’ or ‘adaptation’ do not exist, their daily struggle with changes in their environment have made them aware of changes in the climate, for instance, longer droughts seasons or severe water phenomena such as floods; 

2. Through their relation with external organisations (either grassroots groups, development agencies or international non-state organisations) they have been informed that ‘big companies’ are generating the major pollution on the ‘Mother Earth’, as they call it, and that fact makes the climate change problem a worldwide problem which has to be addressed by as many people as possible; 

3. Within their communities, even when they have the will and knowledge to cope with changes in their environment, they consider that ‘alliances’ or ‘collaborations’ with other organisations such as development agencies and NGOs give them the tools to accelerate their opportunities to improve their lives, and stop urgent risks such as food scarcity or land loss. 

All except one of the indigenous representatives describe external organisations as trustworthy entities, but only a couple draw a distinction between aid/ development agencies and NGOs, the majority see them as ‘international organisations’ no matter their nature. They do make a distinction between ‘international organisations’, and local or national governments, in which the latter generally give them little space to raise their claims and also provide very limited to no contribution to improve their situations. In many cases, they have also detected that corruption within the government may affect the way international funding for climate action is distributed domestically.


During the COP25, negotiations among parties and discussions in side-events sometimes had different perspectives on the processes to combat climate change. States pledged to deal climate change joining efforts with different industries. Indigenous representatives especially emphasised that industries like the mining sector are causing environmental degradation. Both states and indigenous representatives agree that the risks and consequences of climate change are increasing the environmental vulnerability experienced by local populations, and therefore, those changes in the environment have turned climate change into an emergency to act on.  

It is clear that international forums and conferences, and especially those related to climate change, such as the COP, have opened a window of opportunities for grassroots organisations in general, and particularly for indigenous communities, to voice their concerns to the international community. Those concerns are often related to the environment. But they are sometimes triggered by problems such as food insecurity and water pollution, not directly by climate change. Indigenous communities frame such problems within the broader concept of environmental and natural problems. 

In summary, representatives of some indigenous communities have voiced their concerns at the COPs, and now they look to the extent to which states incorporate indigenous demands to prevent nature degradation in their national agendas.