Indigenous People at COP 27: The struggle to be heard

By Jeremy Gaunt

First the good news. Indigenous Peoples were present in large numbers during the COP 27 meeting in Egypt — there were roughly 300 alone in the Indigenous Peoples Caucus and many more among individual country delegations.

Then there was Lula. It wasn’t just that Brazil’s President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was greeted like a rock star at the global climate meeting. He came promising a complete reversal of Brazil’s recent Amazon deforestation policies and social justice recognising the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

There were also signs that some of the $1.7 billion pledged by various donors for Indigenous Peoples at the previous COP in Glasgow was actually flowing. In year one of the five-year programme, around 19 percent was distributed putting it pretty much on track.

But that was it. There was no mention of Indigenous Peoples in the official agenda, representatives spent most of their time struggling to be heard, and there was even some backtracking on previous commitments with a tendency to lump Indigenous Peoples into a generic “communities” grouping rather than recognising their explicit traditional rights and roles in land guardianship.

“The participation of Indigenous Peoples was marginal in the decision-making spaces,” said Cristina Coc, a Mayan leader and activist from Belize. “Yes, we were visible. But were we being heard?”

Some of the struggle can be gleaned from a presentation Coc made on behalf of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus to a high-level COP 27 ministerial meeting.

It took negotiators to task for failing to recognise the core demands of Indigenous Peoples in areas ranging from human rights through land rights to climate financing and within the new Loss and Damage agreement (a kind of climate reparations for developing economies).

“Indigenous Peoples have a body of recognised rights, an organised and steadfast constituency with livelihoods inextricably linked to nature and an undeniable stewardship,” Coc, who is also executive director of rights group the Julian Cho Society, told the ministers.

“There is no effective climate action without Indigenous Peoples,” Coc said.


Photo by COICA


At least part of the reason for the relative lack of progress at COP 27 was that world affairs are very different from what they were a year ago at COP 26 when a number of successes were racked up by Indigenous Peoples.

Different enough, indeed, that Tenure Facility Chief Programme Officer David Kaimowitz even wondered whether it was worth attending. All was likely to be overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, the global economic toll of rising energy and food prices, and host Egypt’s controversial human rights record.

“Initially, I thought we should just sit this out, that it would be, from our perspective, largely a waste of time,” he said. But in the end, Kaimowitz said the meeting exceeded his expectations, albeit that they were pretty low.

Perhaps most important for Indigenous Peoples and the climate, he said, was the arrival of Lula fresh from defeating President Jair Bolsonaro, who has presided over renewed Amazon deforestation and deliberately undermined indigenous rights.

“(With the) return of Brazil to the global climate community, Indigenous Peoples rights were front and centre, Kaimowitz said. “It was by no means accidental that many of the iconic photos of Lula from the COP are with resilient indigenous leaders. I think it sends a strong political signal.”

Partly as a result, countries such as Norway and Germany have signalled a willingness to renew giving to the Fundo Amazônia, Brazil’s forest fund that was designed to protect the Amazon, including its indigenous lands. The Bolsonaro years essentially made it redundant.

In the meantime, 13 philanthropic organisations with an interest in environmental protection formally set up the Forest, People, Climate collaborative and funded it with an initial $400 million.

The group will emphasise Brazil and the Amazon, Indonesia, and the Congo Basin. Much of the money is expected to go Indigenous Peoples, some of it to be managed by them directly.

Despite this, none of the money being considered for the new Loss and Damage fund — a vehicle for richer countries to compensate poorer ones for environmental suffering – is directly targeted at Indigenous Peoples. Presumably, it would be left to trickle down.

Attempts by the Indigenous Peoples Caucus to get wording in the Loss and Damage agreement to include Indigenous People in decision-making and to reference their human rights were unsuccessful.

Negotiators generally steered away from discussions of human rights, Coc said.

Photo by COICA


Some of what happened in Egypt — or, rather, didn’t – was in stark contrast to the experiences in Glasgow a year earlier at COP 27.

That meeting was by no means perfect, but Indigenous Peoples did come away with a view that they were listened to and, crucially, that financial support for them to protect their own lands from environmental degradation would be forthcoming.

Britain, Norway, Germany, the USA, and the Netherlands, along with 17 private and philanthropic organisationspledged an initial $1.7 billion of financing, through to 2025, to support the advancement of Indigenous Peoples’ tenure rights.

To a certain extent, the pledge is being met, although it is worth noting that there is no central fund, and that the money is allocated and distributed at the pace dictated by the individual countries and foundations.

An annual report published to coincide with COP 27 noted that some $322 million – or 19 percent of the total – was disbursed in 2021[1]. The largest portion of it went to Latin America, with the same amount going to global projects[2]

“We’re about where you’d expect to (be) one year in,” said Kevin Currey, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, one of the donors.

By mid-2022, the foundation had approved $68 million of the $100 million it pledged.

But despite the signs that the overall pledges are turning into actual cash, Currey noted an initial problem.

“The issue we’re facing is that most of that ($322 million) money is going to international NGOs, and to some extent, to national NGOs. Very little as going directly to Indigenous Peoples and local communities,” he said.

Currey estimated that only about 7 percent of the money distributed so far went out to Indigenous Peoples, who have argued that they should not be treated as mere beneficiaries, but have direct say in where they money goes and what it is used for.

“What’s not good is how little of the money is getting directly into the hands of communities. That’s what we need to work on in the next four years, developing systems that allow us to do more direct funding.,” Currey said.

It will be the topic of the next Land Dialogues co-sponsored by the Tenure Facility on December 1.


Jeremy Gaunt is a veteran correspondent and editor, with more than four decades of experience reporting, 27 of them for Reuters. Jeremy has written extensively on environmental and human rights issues and is a regular writer contributor to the Tenure Facility´s website.



[1] The pledge was made in November 2021, but some of the money had already been allocated or was in the pipeline to be allocated during the year.

[2] Around 7 percent was allocated to South East Asia and 16 percent to Africa (which the donors noted may have reflected funding and capacity challenges n the Congo Basin).


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