Indigenous Knowledge and Epistemic Injustice in National Climate Planning
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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Exclusion and underrepresentation of indigenous peoples from national climate strategy deliberations is epistemic injustice.

Labeling the exclusion, silencing, and underrepresentation of indigenous peoples in these climate strategy deliberations “epistemic injustice” indicates that one of the main challenges to achieving SDG 13 (climate action) in indigenous communities, in particular, is one of representation and inclusion.

It is necessary to recognize the equal rights and voices of indigenous peoples as equal stakeholders in addressing climate change and to resist stereotypes of indigenous peoples and their knowledge as “primitive”.

This week, global leaders assemble for the 24th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 24) to the UNFCCC in the light of a groundbreaking report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In this report titled, ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C’ (SR15), the IPCC identifies several synergies between addressing global climate change and limiting global warming, on the one hand, and the realization of sustainable development in general and the SDGs in particular, on the other hand. By pursuing sustainable development it will be possible, in other words, to address global climate change, itself one of the SGDs (Goal 13).

Indigenous knowledge and indigenous peoples have been explicitly recognized as essential to achieving the SGDs. Indigenous communities often hold knowledge about the local socioeconomic circumstances and traditional adaptation practices that are essential for the successful adaptation to climate change. For example, while increased rainfall contributes to soil degradation by washing out essential minerals, indigenous Bolivian farmers, having faced this issue for generations, address it by planting their crops on raised farms, which protects them from seasonal flooding. Conversely, where indigenous knowledge has been disregarded, problems have commonly arisen. In the Andes, for example, the introduction of genetically modified potatoes threatens the diversity of crops that holds a significant cultural importance for the indigenous population.

Yet, as the influential ‘State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples’ report shows, while some countries, such as Canada and New Zealand, have made great strides to include indigenous peoples in national climate deliberations, indigenous communities have too often been excluded from or underrepresented within efforts to translate international climate policies at a national level in many other places where governments are less open to dissent from their populations.

We believe that this exclusion and underrepresentation of indigenous peoples from national climate strategy deliberations is epistemic injustice. Someone is subject to epistemic injustice when they are being unfairly excluded, silenced or not taken seriously within a decision-making process. Living in fragile areas that are likely to be impacted the most by climatic changes, such as mountain regions, rainforests, coastal regions, and small island developing States (SIDS), many indigenous communities are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Hence, they have a special interest in implementing sustainable and responsive climate strategies that take their knowledge and interests into account. Excluding or underrepresenting indigenous communities within national climate deliberation unfairly disadvantages them in that regard.

Labeling the exclusion, silencing, and underrepresentation of indigenous peoples in these climate strategy deliberations “epistemic injustice” indicates that one of the main challenges to achieving SDG 13 (climate action) in indigenous communities, in particular, is one of representation and inclusion. How can this challenge be overcome?

First of all, it is important to recognize that many indigenous communities suffer from additional social, economic, and democratic inequalities and injustices that negatively influence their epistemic power to influence the agenda on climate change and climate adaptation. Hence, one way to enable and empower indigenous communities to be part of national climate strategy negotiations is indirectly through addressing structural and socioeconomic inequalities (SDG 10). In this way, epistemic power and socioeconomic equality are mutually reinforcing.

Second, it is important for indigenous peoples to organize in order to increase their voice. At the international level, this has been achieved through the establishment of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP), which aims “to enhance the engagement of local communities and indigenous peoples in the UNFCCC process” through the exchange of knowledge and best practices on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Indigenous communities could use this example to create similar platforms and partnerships at the national and regional levels, which, in turn, could contribute to the achievement of SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals).

However, many governments actively seek to suppress indigenous peoples from protesting national policies that run counter to sustainable climate action. Consider, for example, the legal actions taken against the Ardoch Alonquin First Nation of Canada protesting against uranium mining on their lands or, more recently, the arrests of Native American and Native Canadian protesters of the Keystone XL oil pipeline that will run through indigenous lands and threaten contamination of essential and culturally important sources of water, putting the health of indigenous communities at risk. The third recommendation is therefore for the international community to put pressure on governments and businesses to end exploitation and oppression of indigenous communities through the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies through the strengthening of a rule of law (SDG 16).

Most fundamentally, fourth, it is necessary to recognize the equal rights and voices of indigenous peoples as equal stakeholders in addressing climate change and to resist stereotypes of indigenous peoples and their knowledge as “primitive.” One of the greatest challenges to harness indigenous knowledge for climate action is still the perception that indigenous peoples are less knowledgeable than, say, scientific experts. More effort through the means identified above must be put into breaking this misconception to show that indigenous peoples, while some of the most vulnerable to climate change, possess valuable knowledge about sustainable and responsive climate strategies, which can and should be utilized in the development of national climate adaptation strategies.

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This article was written by Morten Fibieger Byskov, a postdoctoral researcher, and Keith Hyams, associate professor with the Interdisciplinary Ethics Research Group at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, UK. Their project, ‘Remedying Injustice in Indigenous Climate Adaptation Planning,’ is funded by the British Academy’s Tackling the UK’s International Challenges programme (IC2\100139). The project looks at the kinds of injustices that are suffered by indigenous peoples in relation to climate change adaptation and how they can be addressed through national and international climate strategies.


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