Building the Foundations of International Indigenous Environmental Law

Building the Foundations of International Indigenous Environmental Law

The salty marshes of Isle de Jean Charles

The Ninth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues wrapped up today, after two weeks of diplomatic negotiations and side-events on contemporary indigenous issues’specifically dealing with how development policies can work within the frameworks of indigenous culture and identity. I attended a workshop on Climate Change and International Indigenous Environmental Law, led by Lori Johnston of the South East Indigenous Peoples Center.

The South East Indigenous Peoples Center is leading the charge in documenting legal cases involving Indigenous communities and environmental damage. They hope to build an online repository for such lawsuits, thereby building the body of International Indigenous Environmental Law and giving Indigenous communities the tools to defend their legal rights. They are also looking to create a global map that pinpoints environmental destruction on Indigenous Peoples lands, documenting the events through photography and writing.

Throughout the workshop, as members from a handful of Indigenous communities spoke about how environmental degradation and climate change were affecting their land and lives, the connection between the climate, environment, and human rights was underscored time and again. Chief Randy Verdun from the coastal Bayou Lafourche Band of the Biloxi spoke of how offshore drilling companies built access canals on his tribe’s land, the dredging of which lets in salt water and destroys the coastal marsh vegetation, resulting in severe soil erosion, loss of wetlands, and encroaching waters. With the increasing severity and frequency of hurricanes in the region, members of his band who still live on the ancestral land of Isle de Jean Charles (only 25 families remain), have decided to relocate inland to higher ground. This decision will make the Bayou Lafourche the first climate change migrants in the United States, outside of Alaska.

In recent years, Indigenous Peoples have made their voices increasingly heard in the realm of environmental justice. Environmental protection was a central part of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Indigenous thinking played an important part in Ecuador’s 2008 decision to grant nature equal rights in its constitution. The fact that this year’s Permanent Forum coincided with Bolivia’s World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights, was not lost on anybody in the room, and the need for Indigenous Peoples to work from within Western legal and political systems, as well as to develop their own grassroots solidarity movements, was agreed upon by all.

Photo courtesy of New Orleans Lady