Indigenous Cultural Property Law is important for Climate Change Policy: Lessons from Indigenous Communities at COP 27

Indigenous Cultural Property Law is a complex and evolving area of law that encompasses a wide range of issues related to the protection of Indigenous knowledge. The laws in this area are designed to recognize the unique relationship that Indigenous peoples have with their cultural heritage and to ensure their rights to their cultural heritage are respected and protected. I developed a particular interest in Indigenous Cultural Property Law at COP 27, which was often mentioned in conversations with Indigenous leaders and environmental activists.

In many countries, Indigenous Cultural Property Law is closely linked to laws related to protecting archaeological sites and managing cultural heritage more broadly. This can include laws that regulate the excavation of archaeological sites, the treatment and preservation of cultural artifacts, and the repatriation of cultural objects that have been removed from Indigenous communities. In addition to addressing issues related to the physical protection of cultural heritage, Indigenous Cultural Property Law also addresses the intangible aspects of Indigenous cultures, such as traditional knowledge, spiritual practices, and oral histories.

In international law, Indigenous Cultural Property Law is supported by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which is the key reference for the promotion and protection of Indigenous rights around the world. Importantly, this declaration affirms the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination and recognizes their right to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures, and traditions. It also recognizes the right of Indigenous peoples to the lands, territories, and resources they have traditionally owned and occupied.

As the UNDRIP recognizes, Indigenous peoples should take a prominent role in decision-making that affect their rights and lives. At COP 27, however, Indigenous communities’ claims were notoriously absent from negotiation rooms and the cover text. In large part, thanks to the events happening in the Blue Zone and the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion, I had access to indigenous voices who shared their knowledge and solutions to the climate crisis. As I reflect on the critical takeaways from COP 27, I decided to amplify a set of claims using Indigenous Cultural Property Law as a framework.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from Indigenous communities at COP 27:

  • We are urged to protect traditional ecological knowledge. Indigenous peoples deeply understand their local environment and the impacts of climate change on their lands. Traditional forms of knowledge ought to be understood as scientific and empirical, with important lessons to support policymaking in the era of climate change. Indigenous Cultural Property Law can be used to recognize and protect this traditional ecological knowledge, which would inform decisions related to environmental law and policy.
  • Climate Policy must ensure the preservation of cultural sites and landscapes. Many Indigenous cultural sites and landscapes have significant ecological value and are often located in areas particularly vulnerable to climate change. Indigenous Cultural Property Law can help protect these sites and landscapes, which would preserve critical habitats that are essential for biodiversity.
  • The recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights is critical for climate governance. Climate change can have a significant impact on the rights of Indigenous peoples, including their access to land, water, and other resources. Indigenous Cultural Property Law can be used to recognize and protect these rights and to ensure that Indigenous peoples have a meaningful role in decision-making processes related to climate change.
  • We need increased consultation and participation of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous Cultural Property Law can be used to ensure that Indigenous peoples are consulted and participate in decision-making processes, especially when energy and water projects impact their lands. This can include the assessment of the potential impacts of projects on Indigenous cultural heritage and the development of protection, monitoring, and mitigation measures to address these impacts.
  • Promoting climate justice also calls for the repatriation of cultural heritage. Climate change can threaten cultural heritage and the disappearance of sacred components of Indigenous cultures. Indigenous Cultural Property Law can be used to support the repatriation of cultural heritage that has been removed from Indigenous communities, which can help ensure that these objects are protected and preserved for future generations.

It is important to note that the Indigenous Cultural Property Law alone is not enough to address the challenges of climate change; it should be combined with other measures related to protecting people and the environment. The adoption and development of Indigenous Cultural Property Law should involve greater participation and consultation of Indigenous peoples in decision-making related to protecting and managing their cultural heritage in all of its forms. This should include recognizing and supporting Indigenous peoples’ rights to control access to their cultural heritage and determine the use and management of their lands and resources.

If you’d like to learn more about Indigenous perspectives at COP 27, read here. For more on Indigenous Cultural Property Law, check out this article.

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