28th October 2021
By Katherine Everest
In the lead up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), to be held in Glasgow from 31st October, I spoke with Alejandro Mayoral-Baños, Indigenous activist and developer, about the intersecting issues of digital decoloniality, climate change and international action within the UN
As the world becomes further embedded within the digital realm, we are now being forced to question how inclusive digital platforms are for Indigenous Peoples and marginalised groups.
Questions of data sovereignty, digital self-determination, and online inclusivity are now intersecting with Indigenous Peoples’ common struggles for territorial sovereignty, political self-determination, and a long-term desire to be included in international climate action.
Historically, the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in global climate policy has been questionable at best, as identified by the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) in the lead up to the United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) Climate Action Summit held in 2019.
“The commitments put forward by Indigenous Peoples were developed in response to the call for proposals for climate action from the UN Secretary-General. Indigenous Peoples have been raising concerns regarding the environment, climate and our unique rights for decades, to no avail.”
Indigenous and local peoples from around the world have partnered with the UN to institute the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP), established to enable the engagement, strengthening and sharing of knowledge, technologies, practices, and efforts of local communities and Indigenous Peoples in the international fight against climate change.
The platform was established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the legally binding parent treaty of the 2015 Paris Agreement of which 196 countries adopted at COP21.
The Facilitative Working Group (FWG), a subcommittee of the LCIPP, is currently overseeing the operationalisation of a web portal designed to help Indigenous and local peoples share information not only amongst themselves and with the UN, but with also the wider global community and national governments to include in their national climate policy.
Originally scheduled for launch in 2021, the portal is currently undergoing finishing touches after a prototype was designed and presented to the FWG.
Once this stage is complete the portal will then be translated into at least six different languages, and leaders will be asked to share the portal with their communities and begin populating it with documents.
Alejandro Mayoral-Baños, a Mixtec and adopted-Totonac academic, developer and activist from Mexico City, is one of the experts working on the portal.
Alejandro’s career background is in digital decoloniality and decolonial computing.
“Commonly what I have seen with all the digital technologies is someone from the outside coming to a community and saying, ‘This is what you need’. But what about when the solution comes from within? Actually answers that the locals need.”
“My role was to assess the portal. This portal is being created to share resources to local communities in order to be more accessible. They weren’t accessible, which means a different thing for every single community,” added Alejandro.
To increase accessibility Alejandro says focus needs to be put on on expanding the number of languages available for use, ensuring accessibility across different devices, securing validation of identity, building trustful relationships, and simplifying the submission process.
“One of the challenges within Indigenous communities is around language. For a lot of Indigenous leaders, it’s difficult to speak the national language, and more importantly if you are going to have these type of feedback sessions, for many of them it’s difficult to speak English because this is a third language they need to learn, or even a fourth language they need to learn.”
Making the portal accessible from mobile phones is extremely important as most Indigenous members “don’t have access to a laptop”, added Alejandro.
“This is huge, because if this is implemented correctly, any local member from any community can send information to the UN.”
The portal must also be fitted with a mechanism capable of confirming the identity of those submitting, safeguarding they are the true representative of the community they claim to be acting on behalf of.
Another challenge facing the UN is the establishment of trust amongst Indigenous leaders and local community members in the platform, and the end use of information submitted.
“Even if the platform and the technology is perfect, you also have the challenge that they [Indigenous community members] are sometimes hesitant to share this information because they don’t know who is going to be on the other side receiving the file. Is it going to be the national government that is trying to kill the members of my community? Local representatives are being killed, so it’s not just as easy as, ‘Oh yes please, upload your file’.”
Alejandro’s final recommendation for the portal specifically involves simplifying the document submission process.
When submitting documents to the UN, he stated there is a myriad of signatures required and checklists that need to be completed.
“Of course, you need to provide a certain level of information”, but for the most part, Alejandro has been working to streamline the process into ‘two clicks to submit a document’.
Challenges facing the UN extending beyond the digital world have also been discussed at previous meetings of the LCIPP FWG.
At the FWG’s most recent fifth meeting, important points raised included introducing regional gatherings to encourage greater numbers of localities included in the LCIPP process, empowering Indigenous educators, extending the number of languages able to be translated beyond national languages to include local languages, and strengthening the committee’s focus on gender inequities in climate action.
Building on these, Alejandro believes the UN must also assess who exactly is attending UN meetings on behalf of Indigenous and local communities.
In the past there have been certain people who have not had the privilege to attend such meetings.
Now that a digital platform has been established, extending the reach of the UN, the organisation must take advantage of this to include a greater number of voices.
“Commonly at the UN level- and especially this was very obvious before the pandemic- you could see that your certain leaders, or certain representatives were going to the UN. So, they have a certain political power level. Commonly there is a political arrangement in who is talking to the UN. Commonly it was older men. We want local leaders to connect to these meetings, Instead of being the political people that are in the office, that are safely in a desk, there can be the people that are in the frontline facing the consequences of climate change.”
“Of course, probably that will change the agendas. That will change the priorities. That will change even how their meetings are conducted. But that is what is needed. We need to have those conversations, and even though this is not going to be suitable for a lot of structures of the UN, this is one of the main objectives for the next few years.”
There is also a feeling amongst Indigenous communities, that alongside the contribution of their knowledge to international climate discussions, there must also be a recognition of, apology for, and form of renumeration for the past exclusion of Indigenous Peoples from such negotiations.
The international community, and world governments alike, must acknowledge not only the challenges Indigenous Peoples have had to overcome to be heard in climate discussions, but also the ongoing struggles they face to gain custodianship over their land, and the cultural and social implications the ignorance of such plights has had on Indigenous communities.
“A lot of people mentioned, that is, a lot of communities, especially with centuries of colonisation, and violence, they are very sceptical to share a lot of things with others. They are like, ‘Oh, now because climate change is affecting everyone, now they want us to provide all the information’,” said Alejandro.
“How are you going to pay for the damages? And pay, I’m not talking about the money, it’s like, how this can [help] craft the policies, and especially the committees at the UN.”
If Indigenous communities do decide to contribute information, there is also no guarantee recommendations shared will be integrated into national climate policy frameworks of governments who are Parties to the COP.
According to Lawyers Responding to Climate Change (LRI), an organisation of lawyers established by Oxfam GB and WWF-UK to help translate and make more accessible official documents and proceedings from the UNFCCC, there is no legal binding obligation of Parties under the COP to the recommendations made by the LCIPP.
“There are minimal mandatory commitments or requirements for Parties (very little use of language such as ‘shall’, ‘must’ or ‘will’ be undertaken or achieved as part of the LCIPP). Decision 2/CP.23 [of the Report of the Conference of the Parties on its twenty-third session] generally uses aspirational language (eg. “should”),” states the LRI on its website.
Alejandro is a Mixtec and adopted-Totonac academic, developer and activist from Mexico City. He’s the founder & firekeeper of Indigenous Friends in the north (Canada) and Magtayaní in the south (Mexico) of Turtle Island.