According to the World Bank, there are between 370 and 500 million Indigenous Peoples worldwide, in over 90 countries. Although they make up just 5 percent of the global population, they account for about 15 percent of the extreme poor.


Indigenous peoples are known for most of the world’s cultural diversity. Their distinct ways of life vary considerably from one location to another. Of the estimated 6,000 cultures in the world, between 4,000 and 5,000 are indigenous. Approximately three-quarters of the world’s 6,000 languages are spoken by indigenous peoples.

The United Nations Earth Summit (The Kyoto Protocol), held in Brazil in June 1992, recognized unmistakably the rights of indigenous peoples related to the environment.  It was also acknowledged the fact that indigenous peoples and their communities have a critical role to play in managing the environment.  Besides, the importance of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and practices was acknowledged, and the international community committed itself to promoting, strengthening, and protecting the rights, knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples and their communities around the world.


Consequently, some countries, such as Canada, Australia, Finland, Brazil and the Philippines, have adopted legal measures that acknowledge indigenous land rights or have established legal procedures for indigenous participation in land-related issues.

Unfortunately, there is no generally accepted definition of indigenous peoples in a global milieu.  Some countries refer to indigenous peoples as the people who were there first at contact. Others refer to indigenous peoples as the nomadic peoples within their borders.

 According to the Canadian Encyclopedia:

  • Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 defines “The aboriginal peoples of Canada” as the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples. Historical and legal differences of the past, however, complicate the question of definition.

On a global level, indigenous people also referred to as First People, First Nation, Aboriginal People, Native People or Autochthonous People.  These are culturally distinct ethic groups who distinct ethnic groups who are native to a place which has been colonized and settled by a later ethnic group.


Indigenous Peoples have been leaders in environmental stewardship, sustainable development, and the management of natural resources on their lands since time immemorial. Indigenous guardians are engaged as the “eyes on the ground” in Indigenous territories.

Indigenous peoples in Canada have practiced environmental stewardship since time immemorial. For example, Anishinaabeg have sustainably harvested manoomin (Northern wild rice) for hundreds of years. Wild rice seeds are sown in water of a certain depth then tended to by the individual or family who planted them. Stewarding wild rice stands often involves tasks such as removing competing vegetation like water lilies. In turn, wild rice stands support the biodiversity of the boreal forest. For example, the stands are important habitat for millions of migratory and resident birds.

Sadly, environmental stewardship changed with the fur trade and white settlement. 


According to an International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and International Labour Organization joint report noted in 2021 – Indigenous peoples were responsible for protecting an estimated 22 percent of the planet’s surface and 80 percent of biodiversity. 

Biodiversity refers to the variety of living species on Earth, including plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi. While Earth’s biodiversity is so rich that many species have yet to be discovered, many species are being threatened with extinction due to human activities, putting the Earth’s magnificent biodiversity at risk.

Since the first COP was held in Berlin in 1995, international climate policies have mostly ignored or violated the cultural and territorial rights of indigenous peoples – despite them being recognized in 2001 as a formal constituency, one of nine broad thematic clusters (that also include business groups, environmental NGOs, women and youth groups and trade unions) permitted to observe and lobby negotiators.

Indigenous Chicme Ladies in their Evening Dresses at COP26 Source:

While COVID-related travel restrictions and funding gaps kept many key indigenous leaders at home and despite the fact that they managed to get explicit mentions in the final text and articles of their rights, the value of their traditional knowledge, and the need to include indigenous groups in climate solutions, there’s uncertainty on how nations will bring those words into reality.


Nonetheless, indigenous peoples arrived in Glasgow as a united front:

  • Demanding the inclusion of indigenous and sovereignty rights in every single climate action being made at the conference.  They were eager to ensure any climate agreement affecting them or their lands would only take place after a process of prior and informed consent, as well as a clear path to present grievances in case their rights were violated by a project; and
  • Securing mechanisms so that funding would flow directly to them and recognition of both the material and cultural losses that climate change is already driving.

For the first time in COP history, indigenous people found themselves in direct and constant contact with the inner decision-making circle:

  • “Twenty years ago, we were relegated to the general public areas,” said Sánchez, who went to Glasgow representing Mexican Indigenous and local communities. “This has been the COP where we have had more high-level meetings and where we have found more opportunities to talk about our perspectives.” 

Recognizing the fact and as a part of funding initiatives in the interest of forest protection at UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) climate talks in Glasgow in November 2021 , twelve donor countries pledged a total of $12 billion in public funds, with private co-financing worth $7.2bn.  The funding supports a pact signed by more than 100 countries to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.

At the same time, the UK, Norway, Germany, US, and the Netherlands, along with 17 private and philanthropic organisations earmarked a $1.7 billion pot for indigenous and local communities to help them preserve forests. This came with a promise to include them in the decision-making and design of climate programmes and finance instruments.  In a statement, the group committed to:

  • “Recognize and advance the role of Indigenous peoples and local communities as guardians of forests and nature” in the face of “rising cases of threats, harassment and violence against them”.

However, indigenous peoples are wary of hailing another promise to protect the world’s tropical forests and deforestation – a pledge that many countries already made in 2014 and then did little to enact.

Here are some facts about the pledge made in 2014:

  • In 2014, more than 200 governments, companies, civil society and indigenous organisations signed up to the New York Declaration on Forests, promising to halve tropical deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030; and
  • A progress report on the declaration found that a majority of forest nations have not embedded those goals in their latest climate pledges to the UN.

The report analyzed the climate plans of the 32 countries with the greatest potential to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through three activities: curbing deforestation, improving forest management and restoring or planting new forests. Twelve of the 32 countries had signed up to the NY Declaration. Just 10, including Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, set explicit targets for forest protection.

Members of the Crow Nation perform in the Memorial Amphitheater during a centennial commemoration event at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Arlington National Cemetery, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool).

While the use of the land has been changed, including deforestation and degradation which accounts for around 10-12 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The bad news is that around 12.2 million hectares of tropical forests were lost in 2020, an increase of 12 percent compared to the previous year, according to data from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch.

The good news is that during the last 20 years from 2001 to 2020 forests removed up to 7.35 gig tonnes of CO2 a year from the atmosphere, according to the report. Additionally, forests managed by indigenous communities in Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia are net carbon sinks and can play a key role in helping these countries meet their climate goals.


Furthermore, there have been some successful policies, such as moratoria on timber exports and palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Laos, but much bolder reforms are needed to prevent further forest loss, the report says.  Unfortunately, these positive steps have not been able to curb the powerful drivers of unsustainable land use.

As world leaders inside the COP26 conference centre in Glasgow boasted about pledges to slash greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and end deforestation, indigenous delegates gathered across the river Clyde to commemorate activists killed for trying to protect the planet from corporate greed and government inaction.


They were concerned as at least 1,005 environmental and land rights defenders have been murdered since the Paris Accords were signed six years ago in 2015, according to the international non-profit Global Witness. One in three of those killed were indigenous people.

The dead include Berta Cáceres, winner of the prestigious Goldman prize for environmental defenders, who was shot dead at her home in Honduras in March 2016 for opposing the construction of an internationally financed dam on a river considered sacred by her Lenca people.

As the names of the murdered defenders were projected on a large outdoor screen, indigenous activists from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and the Philippines implored political leaders to listen to their struggles.


Indigenous communities went to COP with a clear set of demands. But they leave with a few symbolically significant, yet vague commitments:

  • Some 141 countries committed in Glasgow to end deforestation by 2030 and restore degraded woodlands. But pledges to protect oceans — huge carbon sinks and home to many Indigenous communities, particularly from small Island nations in the Pacific — were once again sidelined in the negotiations and financing conversations; and
  • “There’s not a clear guide on how our participation will become more active and effective,” said Eileen Mairena Cunningham, who represented the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, or IIPFCC, at COP.  The agreements reached in the past two weeks acknowledge the need to respect Indigenous rights, she said, but they don’t lay out a clear path on how governments and companies need to act to ensure no rights are violated in the name of fighting climate change.

Yet, indigenous people remain hopeful – Looking forward:

  • Perhaps one of the biggest wins was the last-minute inclusion of explicit recognition of indigenous rights in the text of Article 6, the article of the Paris Agreement that regulates carbon offsets markets. For years, indigenous peoples had been denouncing that these projects could end up displacing communities or altering their ways of living without their consent; and
  • Indigenous peoples want to have direct access to the financing promised to support them, explained Sánchez. The Alianza Mesoamericana de Pueblos y Bosques, from Central America, just launched the first Indigenous-driven financing mechanism hoping to channel funds directly to their communities.

Conversely, a seat on the negotiation table remains the ultimate goal. “None of the official negotiating nations are tribal nations,” Bagey said. “And I think that’s a failure of the UN recognizing Indigenous peoples’ rights.”

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 29 November 2021