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Rights groups warn COP26 rules on carbon markets leave indigenous people exposed

by Megan Rowling and Laurie Goering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 12 November 2021 17:44 GMT

Sapara people in Ecuador's eastern Amazon region travel by boat in their territory. Credit: Ashden

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Paris pact rules for carbon markets, set to be decided in Glasgow lack protections to stop abuses of indigenous forest communities, human rights experts warn

* COP26 aims to agree outstanding rules for global carbon markets

* Activists say indigenous consent, complaint mechanisms left out

* Some indigenous groups reject carbon offsetting as exploitation

By Megan Rowling and Laurie Goering

GLASGOW, Nov 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the COP26 climate talks neared a close, environmentalists and lawyers warned rules for global carbon markets, due to be finalised in Glasgow, lack protections to stop abuses of the rights of indigenous peoples who rely on forests for survival.

Human rights and green groups, including Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), said the rules being firmed up at COP26 could lead to land being taken from indigenous communities without their consent.

They also pointed to the absence in the draft carbon markets text of an independent mechanism to fairly handle grievances around human rights issues.

Erika Lennon, a senior attorney in CIEL's climate and energy programme, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that unless those problems were fixed it would be preferable to postpone agreement on the rules, which remain an unresolved part of the 2015 Paris accord.

"I certainly think that not having an agreement here (on carbon markets) is a better outcome and more of a win than pushing through an agreement that doesn't properly ensure protection for human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples," Lennon said.

During a "People's Plenary" on the last day of COP26, which looks set to run past its Friday deadline, Ta'Kaiya Blaney, 19, a member of Canada's Tla'Amin First Nation, decried the summit as a "performance".

She called it "an illusion constructed to salvage capitalist economies rooted in resource extraction and colonialism".

"I didn't come here to fix the agenda, I came here to disrupt it," she said to applause and cheers. "Colonialism is what caused climate change and I am not going to my coloniser for solutions. We reject colonial solutions for climate change."

Her sentiments echo those of some other indigenous peoples who say they are the best stewards of the planet's dwindling forests and must be given a bigger role in deciding what happens to their lands and the natural resources they contain.

Many oppose the trading of offsets based on the carbon dioxide absorbed by trees on their land, to compensate for planet-warming emissions elsewhere.

Countries and companies making net-zero emissions pledges can fulfill them either by cutting their own emissions or paying others to absorb the climate-changing greenhouses gases.

With emissions cuts still far from steep enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, many countries and firms are turning to such "offsets" to make their carbon accounting add up.


David R. Boyd, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment and a professor at the University of British Columbia, warned on Twitter that in the rush to conclude rules on international carbon markets at COP26, human rights are "being largely ignored".

Governments should learn from the "multiple disasters" of such markets under the earlier Kyoto Protocol aimed at cutting emissions, he added.

Those included "brazen fraud and the eviction of indigenous peoples and local communities from their homes and livelihoods in forests", he noted.

The current COP26 text offers few assurances on rights, activists say.

It largely repeats the introduction to the Paris Agreement, which says countries should "when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights" and the rights of indigenous peoples.

A draft version of the Glasgow decision being negotiated on Friday recommended undertaking consultation with local and indigenous people when setting up offsetting projects in forest-rich developing countries.

But it said such consultations should be in accordance with "domestic arrangements" rather than international standards.

A view of Gloria Ushigua, the leader of Ashiniawka, an association of Sapara indigenous women in Ecuador's Amazon, at the COP26 U.N. climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 10, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Laurie Goering


As large numbers of countries and companies around the world sign net-zero emissions pledges, many hope to buy carbon emissions reduction credits from countries and forest communities that keep their trees standing.

Gloria Ushigua, the leader of Ashiniawka, an association of Sapara indigenous women in Ecuador's Amazon, said other indigenous groups near hers have taken such money.

The deals – like those with oil firms looking for fossil fuels on indigenous land – offer remote communities the chance to buy things that many of their young people now want, from sugar and rice to Western clothing, she said.

"A lot of indigenous people are signing up, because they feel they are benefiting," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the COP26 negotiations.

But Ushigua, wearing a long red macaw feather tucked into a patterned headband, said she strongly opposed indigenous groups taking payments to protect their forests – something they have long done well, often at huge cost, she said.

Over the past three decades, she has travelled repeatedly to Quito, Ecuador's capital, and as far away as the Chinese embassy in San Francisco to fight efforts to allow oil drilling on her community's land.

Ushigua said she feared accepting forest payments could, in the long run, lead to the loss of hard-won land rights and titles in indigenous communities.

"There is lot of money coming to this" effort to pay for forest protection, she said.

"It's a tricky situation but I feel I am doing the right thing" by refusing it in her community's 400,000-hectare territory in eastern Ecuador, she added.

She hopes instead to create ecotourism opportunities in her community of about 500 people, one of the smaller indigenous groups in Ecuador's Amazon.

By keeping indigenous control of the Amazon's forests, "we are not fighting just for indigenous people but for everyone," she said.

Amnesty International cautioned in a statement on Thursday on the COP26 carbon market negotiations that failure to include concrete human rights protection mechanisms could see indigenous peoples uprooted without their consent from their ancestral lands, to make way for carbon market projects.

A deal without rights guarantees could also pave the way for other communities to face forced evictions, and limit victims' ability to seek redress for human rights violations, it said.

On Friday, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told the COP26 conference the United States thinks it is "critical" that the new carbon market rules protect human rights and indigenous people.

But Amnesty and others insist the rules, as they stand, lack adequate safeguards and there has been too little involvement of indigenous peoples in drawing up the basis for such markets.

"Human rights should never be used as a bargaining chip. Affected people and their human rights must always be at the heart of climate-related decisions," Amnesty's statement said.


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(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling and Laurie Goering; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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