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From Paris: Indigenous People Rally For Voice At Climate Talks

A group of indigenous people from all over the world led a kayak flotilla through a canal in central Paris.
Tegan Wendland
A group of indigenous people from all over the world led a kayak flotilla through a canal in central Paris.

Indigenous people want their voices to be heard during the international climate talks. They are rallying in Paris, saying their communities and interests are not fully represented in the official negotiations. Indigenous groups want legally-binding language that protects their way of life in the wake of climate change.


Hundreds of indigenous people from all over the world held a public demonstration in central Paris this weekend. They worry that they will be pushed out of the forests and wilderness where they live, as those places are threatened by climate change. The group says indigenous people bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change – from a lack of clean drinking water to the damage to coastal properties, to the spread of disease and changes in traditional fishing.


After holding a prayer circle they dropped giant banners from a bridge from the river Seine that said “Defend the Sacred” and “Protect the Water.” They played drums and sang songs as a group paddled kayaks up the river, flying flags.


Dallas Goldtooth, with the Indigenous Environmental Network, or IEN, says indigenous people have contributed the least to global warming but are on the frontlines when it comes to the impacts.


He says, “Our relationship to mother earth is being impacted and our ability to live our traditional way of life is being destroyed.”


That’s true for Monique Verdin, a member of the Houma Nation in southern Louisiana who participated in the rally. She says her way of life has forever been changed by sea level rise and hurricanes.

“Indigenous people are on the frontlines when it comes to climate change and in my case,” says Verdin. “I live in the Mississippi River delta, where we’re losing land at one of the fastest rates on the planet.”


She attributes that land loss to damaged wetlands, and rising sea levels caused by global warming.


Verdin says many of her family members have had to rebuild or raise their houses after storms, and even relocate. She worries that before long, it’ll all be gone. She made a movie about her experience called My Louisiana Love, which she’s screening in Paris this week.


Clayton Thomas-Muller works with the environmental group and IEN. He says indigenous people live closest to the environment, and yet are underrepresented in the climate talks. “We have taken care of ecosystems for millennia and yet we continue to struggle to have a seat at the table of the United Nations,” says Muller.


That’s because technically, indigenous groups only have “observer status” at COP21. They can watch the negotiations but don’t have a formal representative to advocate for their interests. Without representation, they say they might lose the rights to live in their traditional lands.


Human rights attorney Alberto Saldamando says indigenous people want to be recognized as a vulnerable community in the official United Nations text. He says it’s a short and simple phrase: “‘Respect and observance of human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples’ in any climate change activity that arises from the convention.”


But that small text could make a big difference. Because it’s legally binding, it could open up the possibility for native communities to seek settlements from those that caused them to relocate – like oil and gas companies or governments.


Verdin is grateful for the strength in numbers. She says meeting indigenous people from all over the world gives her a sense of solidarity, but that alone won’t solve the problem. She says, “It makes me feel like we’re not alone, which is not something that makes me feel good. It just kind of reaffirms that my story in the Mississippi delta is the same story that is in North Dakota or Alberta or Ecuador or the Niger delta."


So far, the language that IEN is advocating for in the climate agreement is annexed, meaning it’s up in the air. They are hoping to send a strong message to the parties before they wrap up negotiations at the end of the week to include protections for native peoples in the text.


Support for the coastal desk’s reporting from Paris is provided by the Foundation for Louisiana.

Support also comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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