Take five: “The dominant economic paradigms are at odds with the rights of indigenous peoples”


Victoria Tauli Corpuz. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine
Victoria Tauli Corpuz. Photo: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Victoria Tauli Corpuz, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and former Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, recently talked with UN Women about engaging indigenous women in climate action during the 16th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (24 April – 5 May, 2017). The Forum marked the 10-year anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and hosted a side event on indigenous women.

Ten years since the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, what is the status of indigenous women now? Where have you seen the most progress and where are the gaps?

The most significant change in the past ten years since the Declaration was adopted, is that indigenous women have strengthened their organizations and networks. They are more engaged—and more number of indigenous women are engaged—in UN and intergovernmental processes. For example, this year was the first time in sixty years that the UN Commission on the Status of Women—the largest intergovernmental gathering on women’s rights—focused on indigenous women’s issues.

While indigenous women have mobilized themselves at national, local, regional and international levels, glaring gaps remain in terms of resources allocated for their participation, and in terms of their access to adequate sexual and reproductive health services. Majority of indigenous peoples live in remote areas, and when there are cut backs on women’s rights, even lesser funds or services trickle down to these areas.

Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately impacted by violence, including trafficking. This is not a problem only in the poorer countries; it is happening even in richer countries like the United States of America. During my visits to the USA as the Special Rapporteur, I heard of many cases of trafficking and violence against women around oil exploration and fracking areas. When I was in Australia, I visited detention centres for women and found that majority of the incarcerated were aboriginal women.

How is climate change impacting indigenous women?

Many indigenous women are farmers, they work the land and rely on the land for food security.  Their ability to produce food and income for their families has been severely impacted by the intense climate variability that we see now. When I speak to indigenous women, they say how no one remembers such frequent and severe rainfall, floods or drought. In some places, the average rainfall they would expect to get in three months, now come in a span of three days.

I was in Peru recently, where growing quinoa is a major source of nutrition and income for indigenous women. Due to much lower than average rainfall, quinoa production has gone down.

Indigenous women live in some of the most fragile ecosystems—whether they are in the highlands or the arctic or the low-lying islands—and these areas are dramatically impacted by climate change. As disasters are on the rise, so is the care burden of indigenous women.

Why is it important to engage indigenous women in climate change mitigation and action?

Indigenous women possess intimate knowledge about their lands and are uniquely capable of mitigating climate change. In my community in the Cordillera region in the Philippines, women are breeding seeds that can withstand the frequent floods and drought.

Many Indigenous women are more familiar with the lay of the land since they are working on the land every day. They often know where the safe zones may be, when disaster strikes. Conversely, the levels and frequency of disasters these days are unprecedented, and when indigenous women are not involved in disaster risk reduction, they may be at a disadvantage. When disaster strikes, they are the ones in charge of getting the children, the elderly and the sick to safety.

How are indigenous women strategizing for action on climate change? Can you give us some examples?

It is crucial to engage women in both risk reduction and in disaster response, and get their views about how to mobilize the communities. We have partners who have worked with the Maasai women in Kenya who used to make and sell charcoal. But now they are earning better livelihood using their traditional bead-making skills, and reducing the cutting of trees to produce charcoal.

Similarly, in Peru, the Amazonian women have decided to develop and sell natural dyes, to reduce the pressure on the forest for their livelihood.

What policies and actions are needed to protect and empower indigenous women in climate action?

Effective implementation of the Declaration not only means protecting the rights of indigenous women, but enabling them to contribute towards the solutions of some of our present-day challenges. Most governments are still prioritizing large scale development and infrastructure that bring more revenue. But the dominant economic paradigms are at odds with the rights of indigenous peoples.

We need to enact policies that ensure equal involvement of indigenous women in climate action. Any climate change adaptation and mitigation discussion must involve indigenous women, because they have different perspectives than men, on critical issues, ranging from food security and safe water access to renewable energy and disaster relief.

*Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the Expert, and do not necessarily reflect the official UN Women position.