Inuit person on a dog sled
Photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Editor's note: We are featuring this piece that was originally published in "The Global Environment Facility: Delivering solutions for a sustainable future," the September 2017 issue of UN Environment's "Our Planet" magazine, to celebrate the contribution of traditional knowledge towards the GEF’s mission. The GEF Secretariat held a virtual event - Consultations with Civil Society on Traditional Knowledge - on December 4, 2020 in the lead up to the 59th Council meeting in collaboration with the Indigenous Peoples Advisory Group (IPAG), the GEF Small Grants Programme, and the GEF CSO Network. 

Indigenous people are disproportionately represented among the destitute; they constitute approximately five percent of the world's population, but make up 15 percent of the world's poor. The majority of them have historically faced social exclusion and marginalization. Their levels of access to adequate health and education services are well below national averages. And they are especially vulnerable to the consequences of environmental degradation.

Yet they have much to offer the world. For centuries they have lived a life that they believe is God-given. It is a life full of resources that need to be protected, a life with structures that ensure ownership of a cultural heritage. They also are holders of valuable traditional knowledge which can make an important contribution to sustainable environmental, social, and economic policymaking. Environmental destruction and the disappearance of species are very significant for their livelihoods. Climate change and other natural disasters can be blamed, but they also see development as one of the key drivers of destruction.

They have long engaged with partners, especially those focusing on the environment and human rights. The Global Environment Facility – which has opened its doors to working with indigenous peoples – has been an important one, funding three conventions that directly impact them: the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. The GEF's objective of ensuring sustainable use of biodiversity in particular resonates with those who have been managing their indigenous territories for generations.

There have been challenges to indigenous peoples' engagement with the GEF, mostly due to their lack of institutional capacity to develop, manage, and monitor projects according to its requirements. The GEF has made efforts, and has continuing initiatives, to increase their involvement in its operations. These include establishing the Indigenous Peoples Advisory Group and developing its policy of engaging with them, in consultation with indigenous organizations.

The IPAG continues to engage with different stakeholders involved in the GEF's work, for instance in the Global Environment Facility Civil Society Organization Network and working groups concerned with gender, stakeholder engagement, and access to information. This helps indigenous peoples to continue contributing on different policy issues. Indigenous participation in GEF Council meetings and other key processes, such as Expanded Constituency Workshops, helps to enhance the GEF's regional work and to keep indigenous peoples' issues visible and well understood.

The GEF Small Grants Programme, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, has directly provided more than 15 percent of its projects to indigenous peoples and is implementing dedicated financing for them under the Indigenous Peoples and Communities Conserved Areas and Territories program in partnership with the German government. More recently, four global fellows from Africa, Latin America, and Asia with expertise in biodiversity conservation and climate change were selected through its Indigenous People’s Fellowship Initiative. The fellowships aim to develop a higher capacity in select representatives to take leadership roles in critical management and advocacy work on global environmental and sustainable development concerns. And the selection of several national fellows is under way to enhance leadership skills on global environmental issues.

The IPAG and the GEF secretariat are working on more funding commitments to help increase financing arrangements and expand the number of projects improving indigenous peoples’ capacity to participate in projects and processes. They also plan to improve measuring, monitoring, and evaluation, while strengthening indigenous peoples' understanding of the GEF so that they can engage with it better and take initiatives to address environmental issues. They emphasize respect for indigenous peoples and for their members’ dignity, human rights, and cultural uniqueness – and stress that project activities should be carried out openly and transparently, with full documentation, making available an indigenous peoples focal point and the conflict resolution commissioner whenever possible.

Indigenous peoples' economies have long sustained their livelihoods and should not be sidelined or threatened by national development strategies closely tied to private sector investments and extractive industries. States should involve women and indigenous peoples in leadership and decision-making processes and take the opportunity to strengthen their right to participate in implementing and monitoring the post-2015 agenda. We need to explore their alternative economic models and ask what they may have to offer to a more equitable and sustainable global economy.

This article originally appeared in "The Global Environment Facility: Delivering solutions for a sustainable future," the September 2017 issue of UN Environment's "Our Planet" magazine. The magazine was launched at the GEF-7 2nd replenishment meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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