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Indigenous Peoples and climate change: human health and territories

Updated: May 3, 2023


Los Pueblos Indígenas y el cambio climático, la salud humana y los territorios
Photo 1: Tamara Herman, Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The 22nd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) ends today.


The planet is currently experiencing the harmful effects of climate change and biodiversity loss, along with the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the indiscriminate extraction of natural resources, the war in Ukraine and the looming global economic recession. This scenario also affects Indigenous Peoples, who must also endure the increasing extractive activities threatening both the ecosystem they inhabit and their lives.

These and other issues were addressed at the 22nd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), which took place at UN headquarters in New York in mid-April. This year's central themes were: "Indigenous Peoples, Human, Global and Territorial Health and Climate Change: An Approach Based on Rights."


The issues discussed at this year's Forum have been worked on steadily since 2022. On this subject, there have been meetings of experts and Indigenous representatives from the seven socio-cultural regions of the world, and as a result several reports have been produced, according to Myrna Cunningham, vice-president of the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), to Colmena Lab.

During the Forum, the discussion revolved around the six areas of the Permanent Forum's mandate - economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights, relating to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.



Photo: Mursi Elder, Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The role of Indigenous Peoples


Up until the beginning of the 21st century, Indigenous Peoples have been considered as victims of the effects of climate change, rather than as agents of environmental conservation. In fact, since 2008, their representatives have actively engaged in the fight against climate change by participating in international environmental conferences, through activism and political engagement at the local and national levels.


Hindou Omarou, coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, said that in this session they continued to demand climate justice and developed strategies to arrive at COP28 strengthened on the issue of loss and damage.


In an interview for Colmena Lab, Tarcila Rivera Zea, president of the International Indigenous Women's Forum (FIMI) mentioned that for the past 10 years, representatives of Indigenous Peoples have been collectively involved in lobbying for their inclusion in intergovernmental negotiations on climate change, as a strategy to gain decision-making power at the United Nations. "We have presented proposals related to the experiences of Indigenous Peoples and climate change."


According to a report by FAO and the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC) on forest governance by Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, they play a fundamental role in fighting deforestation, conserving forests and biodiversity, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Along the same lines, a study by the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon Basin (COICA) and the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) indicates that Indigenous Peoples will be crucial in protecting 50% of the world's territory by 2030.


During an interview with Colmena Lab, David Kaimowitz, Program Coordinator for the Tenure Facility, said, "There has never been greater recognition worldwide of the contribution of Indigenous Peoples and their traditional knowledge to climate action and the preservation of nature. Yet the threats to these peoples are also greater than at any time in recent decades."


"We cannot talk about human health if our environment is not healthy; nor can we talk about a healthier environment if the human being - who must protect the environment - is not healthy.", Hindou Oumaru Ibrahim.

Human health, planetary health, Indigenous rights


Human health, planetary health and territoriality are interconnected and essential to Indigenous Peoples. Recognizing their rights is essential to guarantee these issues are addressed effectively and fairly. To ensure a sustainable future for all, safeguards are needed.


A separate article published in Nature highlights the importance of Indigenous tenure security and forest monitoring for climate mitigation and biodiversity conservation, and shows that Indigenous Peoples also protect public health. The authors point out that indigenous territories in Brazil help prevent 15 million cases of respiratory and cardiovascular infections per year, saving Brazilian citizens and taxpayers US$2 billion in health care costs. This occurs thanks to the low risk of forest fires and thanks to the absorption of air pollutants through forests.

Oumarou, an indigenous woman from the Mbororo people of Chad, stressed in an interview with Colmena Lab the intimate link between human health and the planet's health: "The relationship (of Indigenous Peoples) with the environment has shaped their culture and has been essential for their survival."

Indigenous peoples have developed a unique relationship with their environment, essential for their physical and cultural survival. For them, territory is not only a geographic space, but also a lifespace and a source for resources, cultural and spiritual identity, and historical memory. The loss of territory and limited access to natural resources have serious consequences for peoples' health. Infectious and chronic diseases are a latent risk, due to the lack of access to clean and safe water, traditional foods and medicines.


To this end, it is important that their rights are recognized, including the following:

  • Self-determination, essential for Indigenous Peoples to be in control of their lands and natural resources, and make decisions that affect their communities.

  • Meaningful participation in decision-making processes, to ensure their participation in discussions and decisions affecting their health and well-being.

  • Free, prior and informed consent and consultation, as a basic requirement for any project that impacts Indigenous Peoples and their territories.

  • Health, which includes access to quality health care services, clean and safe water, traditional foods and medicines. Not to mention the promotion of the traditional and cultural practices of each people.

  • Healthy environment, to ensure that Indigenous Peoples have access to an environment that supports their physical and spiritual well-being.

  • Preservation, revitalization and promotion of Indigenous Peoples' languages, integrating aspects of linguistic diversity and multilingualism into sustainable development efforts.

Kaimowitz stressed during an interview for Colmena Lab that it is vital to recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples so that both they and their resources are protected from external threats. Along the same lines, Cunningham asks governments to take into account the deliberations of the peoples, who contribute their knowledge and wisdom to water governance and management. "There is no political will, there is no legislation, there are no public policies that incorporate us."

Indigenous environmental defenders continue to be threatened, intimidated and attacked for defending their lands and territories. They have emphasized over the urgent need to recognize that the foundational causes of social and health inequalities lie in oppressive and unsustainable relationships at the global level. Therefore, they have a critical role to play in providing solutions to the climate crisis. Their knowledge, practices and systems must be respected and promoted in all our climate action efforts.



Según la FAO, hay 476 millones de pueblos indígenas en las siete regiones socioculturales del mundo, en 90 países, pertenecientes a más de 5,000 grupos diferentes
Foto: Joe Piette, Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Indigenous Women


The 22nd session also provided an opportunity to implement the General Recommendation No. 39 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) regarding the rights of Indigenous women and girls. This is the most comprehensive and progressive binding international instrument concerning the human rights of all women and girls, obliging ratifying states to guarantee equality between women and men in norms and laws, as well as in deeds and results.


"The CEDAW is the fundamental charter of women's rights and compliance with it is mandatory for countries that ratify it. We will seek to contribute to the recognition, protection and promotion of the rights of Indigenous women and girls. We must make contributions and recommendations for physical, emotional and spiritual health care, since violence against us is very harmful to the emotional and spiritual health of girls, young women and indigenous women," said Rivera.

In an interview with Colmena Lab, Cunningham mentions two types of challenges, related to the organization of sexual and reproductive health programs and internal challenges: "We have gained a lot in the recognition of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America, and in some of our communities we have gained autonomy. At the same time, we face internal challenges and national challenges, because in some of our communities, sexuality is not addressed, it is seen as something that should not be talked about."



About UNPFII


The UNPFII was established in 2000 with a mandate to discuss Indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights. Since 2002 it has met annually for 10 days or more, providing an opportunity for Indigenous Peoples from around the world to engage in direct dialogue with members of the Permanent Forum, member states, the UN system, including human rights and other expert bodies, as well as academics and non-governmental organizations. The session concludes with a report containing recommendations and draft decisions, which is submitted to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).


This session was the first face-to-face session after the COVID-19 pandemic, and follows the latest release of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


Watch the closing session, of the 22nd sessions of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues:

Video: UN Web TV




Written by: Alberto Ñiquen.

Journalist specializing in climate change, sustainable development and Indigenous Peoples; member of The Climate Reality Project, Parents for Future Latam, Parents for Future Global and former editor of La Mula.Pe.


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