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Landmark filing from Indigenous communities and organizations from across the Americas asks the Court to set legal standards for States to address the climate crisis and protect their rights.  

December 19, 2023, San Jose, Costa Rica–This week, EarthRights International and 25 Indigenous and Tribal communities and organizations from North, Central, and South America submitted an amicus curiae to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights urging it to set legal standards to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples against climate change. The brief was submitted in response to a request for an advisory opinion submitted by the Republic of Colombia and the Republic of Chile on January 9 on the scope of the State’s obligations to respond to the climate crisis through a human rights lens. This is the first time the Inter-American Court will set legal standards for countries in the region to address the climate crisis. The amicus uniquely features direct testimonials from Indigenous and tribal communities on the harms of climate change. 

From mega-storms to sea level rise, wildfires, pollution, desertification, and more, the consequences of climate change disrupt the lives and livelihoods of millions worldwide. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly warned that we have a narrow window to avoid climate catastrophe. Indigenous communities–who steward lands and contribute the least to the climate crisis–experience its effects most acutely. Changing ecosystems undermine Indigenous peoples’ rights to life, food, health, shelter, water, and cultural self-determination, making it difficult for them to sustain their livelihoods and traditional ways of life. 

“This amicus presents testimonies from Indigenous and tribal communities showing that climate change threatens their very survival,” said Juliana Bravo Valencia, Amazon director for EarthRights. “In submitting this amicus, we are asking the Court to advise States to take the necessary steps to minimize the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities–particularly Indigenous and tribal peoples. We also call on the Court to reaffirm that States should adopt a human rights approach to the clean energy transition and prevent energy sources such as green minerals from imposing the same harms as fossil fuels.” 

The Amazon region is one of the planet’s most important ecosystems. It covers approximately 6.7 million square km, produces the largest river flow on Earth, is home to thousands of species, provides flora that serves as food and medicine and absorbs approximately 200 billion tons of carbon per year. Some 350 Indigenous communities live in the area, and more than 60 of them are isolated, with minimal or no contact with the outside world. However, deforestation driven by extractive development–mining, timber, oil extraction, and agribusiness–threatens these essential resources and those who live there, undermining their rights to clean water, health rights, and food security. 

The Wampis Nation, a community whose territory sits in the Northern Peruvian Amazon understands these threats all too well. Since October 2020, the Wampis Nation has denounced the illegal presence of loggers on their lands. The uptick in illegal logging has led to increased deforestation and threats against Indigenous defenders who oppose these activities. The Wampis Nation has also appealed to the government of Peru about the impacts of fossil fuel exploitation in their territory. Since 2016, a series of oil spills off the coast of Peru have poisoned water supplies for local communities but neither the government nor Petroperu, the company responsible for the spill, have effectively addressed the damages. 

“The Wampis Nation, based on our vision of good living (Tarimat Pujut), as our ancestors lived, are fighting to protect our territory from the pollution caused by oil activities, deforestation, and illegal mining,” said Galois Flores, Pamuk AYATKE Territorial of the Autonomous Government of the Wampis Nation. “For this reason, we want the States and all people to help us defend and conserve our territory and forests. We defend and protect biodiversity for the benefit of all the people of the world because from our ancestors we learned to protect and defend life. At the Climate Change COPs, it is always said that the work of Indigenous peoples is recognized, but on the contrary, large companies continue to pollute our territories. Climate funds continue to be concentrated in the cities, but do not reach the territories of indigenous peoples.”

Indigenous communities in the United States, where 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuel extraction on public lands, have also appealed to States for assistance in addressing the consequences of reckless fossil fuel development. Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada have repeatedly called on those governments to oppose and decommission the Line 5 pipeline, which crosses the territory of the Anishinabe peoples and transmits crude oil and methane gas. Line 5 is operating more than 20 years beyond its scheduled expiration date and threatens the human rights of communities whose land it traverses. A spill from Line 5 could have catastrophic consequences on the natural resources on which these communities depend while operating it increases gas emissions and worsens the effects of climate change. 

In the U.S., rising sea levels caused by a changing climate driven by extractive development also undermine the human rights of Indigenous and tribal communities by displacing them from their ancestral homes. Rising temperatures, melting ice in the waters off the coast of Alaska, and coastal storms damage infrastructure and lead to the loss of land that communities rely on for sustenance. The native village of Kivalina, located 160 km north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, is on an island whose land mass has shrunk by approximately 50 percent over the past 50 years. A 2003 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed the island had 27 acres of living space as opposed to 55 acres in 1953. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, residents of the native villages of Nunapitchuk and Netok report similar threats due to melting permafrost. 

Indigenous communities in Louisiana also contend with displacement. Coastal Louisiana is losing ground to climate change faster than any region in the U.S. Every 100 minutes, the state experiences a loss of land approximately equivalent to that of a soccer field. Since 1932, approximately 20 percent of the surrounding wetlands in the Terrebonne Basin, which includes the native territories of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, Jean Charles Choctaw Nation, and the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe have disappeared. Experts predict that by 2040, one-third of the remaining wetlands will have eroded. Several locations where tribal citizens once lived are submerged under water, forcing families to relocate. 

It’s important that Indigenous people remember that we are all connected. We have to live the ‘we’ because we are all involved. Issues on a planetary level concern all of us. If we let geography separate us we fail to put our collective knowledge to work. So we need to live the ‘we’ and embrace the ‘we,’” said Elder Rosina Philippe of Grand Bayou Indian Village, Atakapa Ishak Chawasha Tribe.

A report by Soledad García Muñoz, former Special Rapporteur for Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, released in August affirmed that fossil fuel extraction, the growing climate crisis, and the discriminatory policies and practices of U.S. government agencies contributed to the crises facing native Alaskan and Louisiana communities. She urged the U.S. government to adopt urgent measures to guarantee human rights protections and the effective participation of Indigenous peoples in decision-making processes, among other measures. 

“The impacts of climate change are already felt in our territories,” added Everildys Córdoba Borja, legal representative of the Community Council of Black Communities (COCOMASUR). ”In the face of them, States must take measures, but always guaranteeing our right to decide how we want to continue living in our territories is based on consultation processes that are free, prior, and informed. States need to engage in real dialogue with communities that are already adapting to climate change in the absence of support from governments.” 

The groups that submitted the amicus curiae are urging the Inter-American Court to recommend that States: 

  • Take measures to protect the Amazon as a strategic ecosystem within the framework of the climate crisis. 
  • Monitor, mitigate, and prevent environmental threats caused by activities that destroy or degrade ecosystems and exacerbate climate change, including by phasing out the use of fossil fuels. 
  • Recognize and protect the collective rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples. including indigenous peoples in isolation as a measure to address the climate crisis. 
  • Adopt a human rights approach to energy transition policies and legislation to prevent the transition to clean energy from causing new human rights violations. 
  • Guarantee the right to free, prior, and informed consultation, and consent as an exercise of self-determination for Indigenous and tribal peoples. 

The groups that signed on to the amicus curiae include: Akubadaura – Comunidad de Juristas (Colombia); Asociación de Autoridades Tradicionales y Cabildos U´wa – ASOU’WA (Colombia); Asociación de Cabildos y Autoridades Tradicionales Indígenas del departamento de Arauca – Ascatidar (Colombia); Bay Mills Indian Community (United States); Comuna Morete Cocha (Ecuador); Comunidad Ancestral Indígena Piwiri (Ecuador); Consejo Comunitario de Comunidades Negras de la Cuenca del Río Tolo y Zona Costera Sur – COCOMASUR (Colombia); Consejo de Mujeres Indígenas y Biodiversidad – CMIB (Guatemala); Coordinadora de Organizaciones Populares del Aguán Copa – COPA (Honduras); Federación Nativa del Río Madre de Dios y Afluentes – FENAMAD (Perú); Grand Calliou/Dulac Band of  Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw (United States); Grand Bayou Indian Village, Atakapa Ishak Chawasha Tribe (United States); Gobierno Territorial Autónomo de la Nación Wampis (Peru); Jean Charles Choctaw Nation (United States); Movimento dos Atingidos pela Base Espacial de Alcântara – MABE (Brazil); Nacionalidad Kichwa del Pastaza – PAKKIRU (Ecuador); Nacionalidad Shiwiar del Ecuador (Ecuador); Native Village of Kivalina (UNited States); Native Village of Nunapitchuk (United States); Newtok Traditional Council (UNited States); Organización de Jóvenes y Estudiantes Indígenas de Madre de Dios – OJEIMAD (Peru); Plataforma Agraria (Honduras); Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe (United States); Resguardo Indígena Chidima Tolo (Colombia); y, Resguardo Indígena Pescadito (Colombia).

Read the brief.  

Elaine Godwin (they/them)
Communications Coordinator, EarthRights International