FROM THE FIELD
Pasang Dolma Sherpa, Indigenous Peoples Representative to the U.N., Speaks With GlacierHub
Indigenous communities around the world are the most exposed and vulnerable to climate change, but historically global discussions of climate change have ignored their voices. Years of mobilization are finally bringing change, however. Indigenous peoples are gaining prominence in international discussions of climate change, including assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and policy deliberations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
GlacierHub spoke with Pasang Dolma Sherpa, co-chair of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIPP) of the UNFCCC and executive director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Research and Development. Sherpa has worked with and belongs to the Indigenous Sherpa community, the main ethnic group in Nepal’s mountain regions. Globally, she advocates for Indigenous peoples and brings their voices to international climate change negotiations, especially on loss and damage.
In UNFCCC discussions, loss and damage describes the significant harms to people, livelihoods and the environment caused by anthropogenic climate change. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage established in 2013 recognizes the need to address loss and damage by building communities’ capacity for adaptation and mitigation. The UNFCCC recently launched the Santiago Network to mobilize technical assistance, knowledge and resources for developing countries to combat loss and damage. Sherpa discussed her experiences, Indigenous peoples’ concerns, and her thoughts on the Santiago Network with GlacierHub.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GlacierHub: What inspired you to work with the UNFCCC and on loss and damage? What does loss and damage mean to you?
Pasang Dolma Sherpa: When I finished university, I started working in the national parks, with the Sherpa community in the Sagarmatha region of Nepal — where Mount Everest is — on the environment, our livelihoods, and our cultural practices. But I was not that exposed to climate change concerns until I started working with a global climate change partnership.
In 2009, I started working for Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities. They invited me to a workshop in Bangkok where I met Indigenous leaders from around the world. Hearing the stories of climate change and Indigenous peoples was an eye-opener for me. I developed a feeling of responsibility to contribute to this field because it connected my own work, my own existence and my own curiosity. I worked for eight years as a national coordinator, through which I understood climate change in depth and how it affects Indigenous peoples.
When I was working with Indigenous peoples’ communities, either in Nepal or abroad, I could feel the loss and damage feared by Indigenous communities. “Loss and damage” does not just refer to economic loss. It also includes the loss of Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and their spiritual, cultural, and social values. On top of that, Indigenous peoples sometimes even blame themselves or a curse because they are unaware that the loss and damage is because of climate change. Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and cultural practices in fact have been contributing to the sustainable management of natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity as well as climate change adaptation and mitigation. Studies show that Indigenous peoples, who form less than 5% of the world’s population, provide critical support to sustainability. They contribute to the protection of more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity.
No one was concerned about Indigenous peoples, so I felt our voice needed to be stronger, especially since we are the victims, not the perpetrators, of this loss. So since 2009, I have been closely following the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on behalf of the International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC). IIPFCC has been building a strong network around the world and advocating in climate negotiations for Indigenous peoples who are in urgent need of adaptation and mitigation.
GH: Could you share your experiences as a member of the Sherpa community in Nepal and the Sherpa diaspora and how that’s affected you?
PDS: Sherpa people live in the mountains, near rivers or close to forests, so they have experienced a lot of damage from landslides and avalanches. For much of their lives, nature was intact, but now they do not know when avalanches will come and cannot understand the changing patterns of the climate. They question themselves, or blame a curse, an evil spirit.
Because Indigenous peoples’ lives are at risk from the uncertainty of avalanches and climatic events, they migrate. When they migrate, they are uprooted from their land and their connection to their faith is lost. So they can’t pass on their spiritual practice, knowledge, culture and value system to the younger generation. State parties focus on economic loss, but the non-economic loss of our cultural values, our social values, our spiritual values is just as significant.
So it’s very important to include Indigenous peoples and their contributions to the management of resources, ecosystems, adaptation and mitigation in the discourse for solutions. But at the national level or global level, Indigenous peoples are hardly considered.
GH: How are the concerns of Indigenous peoples addressed by the United Nations? What steps can be taken to mitigate and address the impacts of climate change on Indigenous communities?
PDS: When the 2015 Paris agreement established the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP), for the first time in the UNFCCC’s history since 1994, it gave Indigenous peoples hope of having a platform to share their voices and be heard in climate change negotiations. At COP24 in Katowice, Poland in 2018, the UNFCCC then decided to have 14 members in the LCIPP, 7 appointed by Indigenous peoples and 7 chosen by the national governments that are the parties to the UNFCCC. By giving equal representation, the decision at this COP legitimized the role of Indigenous peoples and acknowledged that they should be respected.
At COP25 in Madrid in 2019, the LCIPP created a two-year work plan with 12 activities to achieve the platform’s three functions: knowledge, capacity for engagement, and policy and action. These activities enhance Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices and share it with state parties, negotiators and relevant stakeholders. Because of COVID, it could not move as anticipated. However, the activities we can do virtually are moving ahead. For example, Activity 9 maps how countries are engaging Indigenous peoples and incorporating their concerns in their National Adaptation Plans, so that survey has already started.
Activity 4, capacity building, includes building state parties’ awareness of the contributions of Indigenous peoples. We have planned regional-level capacity-building for state party negotiators, but eventually we would like to have platforms at the national and local level as well, so that Indigenous peoples’ concerns can be conveyed from the ground up for the development of policy. It’s important to build the awareness of state parties so that the local contributions of Indigenous peoples are heard by the negotiator and addressed accordingly. Our mapping exercises will help us understand the status of Indigenous peoples at each level. All 12 activities will be completed by 2021 and then reviewed for further action ahead.
The UNFCCC in short is in a progressive phase, but it has not been enough. Indigenous peoples left the last COP in despair because the text that was decided upon did not approve a human rights–based mechanism to raise funds for loss and damage. It was more focused on capitalist views. Indigenous peoples have also been calling for a separate funding mechanism. They note the complexity of the process of accessing funds in the UNFCCC’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) led by the National Designated Authority (NDA) of the country in which they are located, since the NDA is the key gatekeeper for all funds in each country. In many cases, they have found it very hard to access the GCF resources despite the approval of funds for Indigenous peoples. Therefore, Indigenous peoples are demanding a separate dedicated funding mechanism within the GCF for them to access and use for the promotion and protection of their customary institutions that play a crucial role in the sustainable management of natural resources and climate change resilience. We have a climate change policy, but it’s not accessible to Indigenous peoples.
GH: How can we include Indigenous perspectives missing in the conversation on climate change so that Indigenous peoples’ concerns are heard and addressed?
PDS: This is our goal. The IPCC report and different international agencies including UNESCO have declared that Indigenous peoples’ languages, our values, our knowledge, and our practices are disappearing. The disappearance of Indigenous knowledge and culture is the disappearance of a connection to conservation and management of resources and ecosystems, so it is important to bring Indigenous peoples into the discourse and policy planning.
But Indigenous peoples’ engagement is not happening at the national level in Nepal or any part of Asia. The feeling of responsibility to bring diverse voices, including Indigenous peoples’ voices, to promote engagement and to address concerns accordingly, is absent. In my experience among all the top people, you don’t even see women—forget about Indigenous people. In Nepal, sometimes government agencies bring Indigenous people in just to fulfill requirements from some donor or international organization; they do not really wish to hear the battle, the experience, the cry of Indigenous peoples on the ground.
That is why the LCIPP is focusing on the state party negotiators in our two-year plan I mentioned earlier. We hope that if negotiators hear and internalize Indigenous concerns, they will bring Indigenous voices to the national level. But that may take time because political leaders have been shaped for a top-down approach—and to think Indigenous peoples are not important.
GH: The UNFCCC has just launched the Santiago Network, which has the potential to bring resources to Indigenous communities. What do you hope it can accomplish, and how can it benefit Indigenous peoples?
PDS: Loss and damage issues are crucial for Indigenous peoples. We in the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change have been closely following discussions, but in our experience, loss and damage discussions—especially regarding capacity building and technology transfer—hardly include Indigenous peoples. At COP25, Indigenous people protested for their rights to be respected and included in loss and damage talks.
The Santiago Network was created to understand how the UNFCCC can support developing countries in addressing loss and damage. Indigenous peoples believe that the Santiago Network could address our concerns; however, there is no explicit space for Indigenous peoples to be able to share their battles, experiences and knowledge. When I was filling out the Santiago Network’s survey, no part of it addressed Indigenous peoples. Loss and damage is connected to our livelihoods and existence, so without Indigenous peoples’ engagement I think the Santiago Network should not move ahead.
At the end of the interview, Sherpa shared a story. We include it here, because it speaks both to her connections with the people of her own community, and to the issues which Indigenous peoples around the world face because of climate change.
I know one Sherpa woman, whose daughter’s education I support, from the mountains in Solukhumbu. In the middle of the night, she went out because she sensed some noise from her cowshed. She was so lucky that she went out because while she was in the cowshed, her house was suddenly swept away by a flood. She rushed to collect her children, some of whom were injured, and ran from the mountains. Now she’s in Kathmandu, and she’s lost her lands. She received some money from the government, but it’s not enough to build a house. Now her family is struggling with homelessness in the city. Losing her home is economic, but she’s collecting and trying to maintain traditions, spiritual practices, values. However, the domination of other cultures in Kathmandu has made this a challenge.
GlacierHub is a climate communication initiative led by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Columbia Climate School. Many of GlacierHub's writers are Climate School students or alumni.