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COP26 and nature-based solutions: Continued injustice for Indigenous peoples

NUWAO Masters Student back from Rarotonga field work

COP26 and nature-based solutions: Continued injustice for Indigenous peoples

June 2022

By Alison Anitawaru Cole (South Taranaki Ngāruahine, Ngāti Ruanui, and Taranaki Whānui)

After COP26 in 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland[1], it became clear that ‘nature-based solutions’ (NbS) are now seen by some as a Trojan horse of sorts, synonymous with false solutions to the climate crisis, meaning those that don’t actually address or challenge the underlying ways of thinking that have led to the climate crisis.[2] ‘Nature-based solutions’ are being deployed by some as the new weapon-of-choice in the arsenal of neo-colonialist tactics that underpin our carbon based economy.[3] Such a form of capitalist economy is problematic and best and disastrous at worst for many Indigenous peoples.[4]

The need for global systems revolution was never more palpable than at the COP26 negotiations consolidating the global market for trading carbon-credits.[5] The approach was to use a set of capitalist-based mechanisms which effectively allow richer countries to avoid the consequences of their unwillingness to reduce emissions locally, by offshore offsetting. Such an endeavour, allowing national governments, often largely non-indigenous, or corporate or individual owners to make money from so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ found for example in the carbon sequestration abilities of a forest, has the effect of commodifying Indigenous homelands. It transforms the forest into the vehicle for an extractive model of finance and is not a solution, particularly within Indigenous ways of seeing relationships between people and the living world. This kind of commodification model is a manifestation of the problematic thinking that has led us collectively into the climate and biodiversity crises. It creates problems that “will likely undermine indigenous peoples’ collective rights, including full ownership rights to land and natural resources and the right to self-determination.”[6]The negotiator for Bolivia, for example slammed nature-based solutions at COP26 saying that the final text “assumes that nature is only in service of people’s needs. But nature has an intrinsic value. It is sacred. That must be reflected. ‘Nature-based solutions’ was never negotiated here.”[7]

Many Indigenous groups and representatives at COP26 pointed out that the term ‘nature-based solutions’ does not mean the same thing to all people. When the term is used in relation to climate change mitigation in particular (i.e. carbon capture, storage, and other sequestration strategies), it becomes no longer nature-based but market-based. A forest no longer is a forest. No longer a home. No longer a source of the life-sustaining power of biodiversity. No longer a living entity. Now a forest is simply a carbon credit, a source of financial wealth. Something richer countries, corporations, or individual people can ‘buy’ in the process of sending offshore their negative externalities which are themselves a consequence of the broken economic capitalist system. This is absolutely the same thing as colonialism, which at its core, was and still is a capitalist economic venture, based on an imperial view of the globe, aiming to maximise extraction and exploitation of everything deemed a resource, including nature, people, and even concepts. It is this world view and the tangible consequences of it which have led to the interlinked climate and biodiversity crise; and it is exactly this system that can no longer be utilised if we humans are to sustain suitable living conditions for us and most of all other life on earth[8].

This is not to say that all nature-based solutions fall into this category. Despite the distortion of nature-based solutions through extractive neo-colonialist models and the hijacking of nature-based solutions during the COP26 negotiations on Article 6[9], there are positive examples of working with nature to adapt to climate change, and of Indigenous-led projects and ones undertaken in genuine partnership (see full report). A strong determinator of positive impacts is when nature-based solutions are community and/or Indigenous initiated and locally led and are participatory. By ensuring nature-based solutions are as close to nature as possible and are centred on human-nature relationships as determined by those who live with nature and protect ecologies, in-built processes can work to monitor whether nature-based projects effectively support or challenge neo-colonial carbon-capitalism.

Systemic revolution is a big challenge. Indigenous communities came together at Glasgow to demand a seat at the table, but instead Indigenous rights were moved out of the legally binding provisions and into the non-legally binding preamble.[10] Indigenous peoples were largely left with token gestures of “participation” relating to the mechanism of trading carbon credits.[11] In response, at COP26, Indigenous communities hosted several side-events highlighting the urgency needed to build financial infrastructure for direct payments to Indigenous communities, as opposed to State governments, in order to maintain true Indigenous guardianship over nature and to ensure the protection of Indigenous communities’ human rights.[12]

Over and above any financial remedies, Indigenous communities made it clear at COP26 that the urgency for “concrete measures” in relation to Indigenous rights, wellbeing and climate change has yet to be taken seriously.[13] Indigenous knowledge is increasingly leading innovative thought-leadership on building meaningful contributions to change.[14] It is certainly time for systematic analysis of Indigenous-led solutions [15] and world-wide systems revolution.

Inequity in power and privilege was evident around the exclusion of Indigenous and local communities from negotiations at COP26.[16] The climate injustice is established before COP even begins due to the inequality in access. The processes around attendance at COP are already heavily colonised and dominated by Western mechanisms that pose high barriers to entry such as the ability to finance travel to the venue. Even for those who surmounted barriers to access, the space for Indigenous participation at COP was largely reduced to tokenistic bureaucratic box-ticking. COP does not operate under majority vote like the UN General Assembly or the International Criminal Court’s Assembly of State Parties. It is a consensus model. Powerful countries can strong-arm their way to so-called consensus with the threat of their singular veto. COP26 did include a formal platform known as the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP), and its Facilitative Working Group.[17] This collective is comprised of both State and Indigenous-appointed representatives, and it does generate reports, but it is not permitted to negotiate any of the legal provisions at COP. This effectively renders it powerless. Equally troubling, this forum is anchored on an extractive dynamic, rather than one that is based on genuine relationship-building for mutual wellbeing. It is a colonial construct. For example, the terms of reference state that the LCIPP’s exists so that “through engaging directly with expert [Indigenous] knowledge holders during this meeting, parties [governments] can unlock sustainable and resilient ways to meet the Paris Agreement commitments and reverse biodiversity decline.”[18]

The problem with harvesting concepts from Indigenous peoples, is that the demand to share their knowledge is not matched by a respect for the knowledge holders, let alone genuine power-sharing partnerships. As Battiste and Henderson (2000)[19] point out: “The colonising peoples have done nothing to create trust or to build relationships with our [Indigenous] ecologies or with our knowledge… They have refused to have respectful relations with the forces of the ecologies… Now they are beginning to suffer the consequences implicit in their actions, and they look toward Indigenous peoples for help.” Rejection of a continuance of exploitative relationships was a recurring theme across Indigenous-led discussions at COP26.[20]

What played out at Glasgow, COP26, was nothing short of a global systems clash. The dominant neo-colonialist capitalist powers were challenged by Indigenous peoples and local communities disavowing the whole point of COP26, namely, the entrenchment of a carbon market. Brendan (2014) states: “[t]he pressures to divest Indigenous peoples of their lands in order to secure the benefits of this [carbon] trade are enormous.”[21] And yet, the legal process under COP is set up precisely to advance the views of the capitalist powerbrokers. The systems clash that played out at COP26 was actually a system capture which inevitably leads to the commoditisation of nature to maintain the status quo. Therein lies the ‘Trojan horse’.

We acknowledge Alison Anitawaru Cole (South Taranaki Ngāruahine, Ngāti Ruanui, and Taranaki Whānui), whose experience negotiating at COP26 as the representative for the Iwi Chairs Forum (the collective of Māori leaders who chair their respective legal entities established following grievance proceedings against the Crown) led to the writing of this article.

[1] COP26 was the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference, held at the SEC Centre in Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom, from 31 October to 13 November 2021.

[2] Gerretsen, I. ‘Nature-based solutions’ prove divisive at Glasgow climate talks. Climate Home News. 2021. Online: Date accessed: September 2022.

[3] Survival. Why nature-based solutions won’t solve the climate crisis – they’ll just make rich people even richer. Survival International. 2021. Online: Date accessed: September 2022.

Lakhini, N. ‘A continuation of colonialism’: Indigenous activists say their voices are missing at Cop26. The Guardian. 2021. Online: Date Accessed: September 2022.

[4] López, G. Reflections on disaster colonialism: Response to Yarimar Bonilla’s ‘The wait of disaster’, Political Geography, 78 (2020): 102170.

[5] Chandrasekhar, A. and Viglione, G. Q&A: Can ‘nature-based solutions’ help address climate change? 2021. CarbonBrief. Online: Date Accessed: September 2022.

[6] Abate, Randall S., and Elizabeth Ann. Kronk Warner. Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples the Search for Legal Remedies. Northampton, Mass: E. Elgar Pub., 2013. Print. Chapter 7 Leonardo A. Crippa page 124

[7]Thanki, N. Twitter post. 2021. Online: Date Accessed: September 2022.

[8] Folke et al, Our Future in the Anthropocene Biosphere Ambio 2021, 50:834–869.

[9] Article 6 of the Paris Agreement established a framework for countries to trade mitigation outcomes to achieve their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), using market mechanisms to incentivise cost effective reductions or removals of greenhouse gas emissions.

[10] International Indian Treaty Council. Combating the climate crisis, recognising indigenous peoples rights and knowledge. International Indian Treaty Council. 2021. Online: Date accessed September 2022.

[11]Johnston, A. Breaking Through Red Lines: Ways Forward for Loss and Damage in the Pacific. Oxfam Aotearoa: Auckland. 2021, page 20.

[12] For example, the event: A new vision of climate finance for indigenous peoples and local communities was organised by the Brazil climate action hub in November 2021 (

[13] Weston, P. Indigenous peoples to get $1.7bn in recognition of role in protecting forests. The Guardian. 2021. Online: Date accessed September 2022.

[14] Latulippe, N., and N. Klenk. Making room and moving over: knowledge co-production, Indigenous knowledge sovereignty and the politics of global environmental change decision-making. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 42 (2020): 7-14.

[15] Kiddle, G.L., et al. An Oceania urban design agenda linking ecosystem services, nature-based solutions, traditional ecological knowledge and wellbeing. Sustainability 13.22 (2021): 12660.

[16] Rashidi, P., Lyons, K., and Walker, K.J. Indigenous knowledge systems are vital to the design of solutions to climate change – so why are Indigenous voices so rarely included in deliberations? 2021. ABC News. Online: Date accessed: September 2022.

[17] United Nations Climate Change. COP26 Strengthens Role of Indigenous Experts and Stewardship of Nature.  United Nations Climate Change. 2021. Online: Date accessed September 2022.

[18] LCIPP. First annual gathering of knowledge holders. United Nations Climate Change. 2021. Online: Date accessed September 2022.

[19] Battiste, Marie, and James Youngblood (Sa’ke’j) Henderson. Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: A Global Challenge. Saskatoon: UBC Press, 2000. Page 11

[20] There were also events specifically addressing this problem of exploitative NbS. See for example this event organised by COP Coalition 26: Indigenous Traditional Knowledge and Nature-Based Solutions, November 7, 2021, Glasgow, UK. Date accessed: September 2022.

[21] Tobin, Brendan. Indigenous Peoples, Customary Law and Human Rights – Why Living Law Matters. London: Routledge, 2014. Web.138

[22] For more details of NUWAO and extended team biographies see:

NUWAO Masters Student back from Rarotonga field work

Sept 2022

By Jovaan Mataroa, Master of Architecture student, VUW, September 2, 2022.

Are (House) on the shore in Aitutaki, one of the outer islands

Kia Orana,

Over the past two months I was lucky enough to visit the Cook Islands to conduct some field work for my project. My thesis is set in Rarotonga and an important part of this trip was connecting back with my roots, with our Kuki Airani culture and values. While I was there experienced first-hand, a lot of the challenges that come with conducting ‘research’ in the Pacific, something which enabled a deeper understanding of my methodology, and the importance of local engagement when designing in Rarotonga. A highlight of my trip was the opportunity to create such meaningful connections within our community in Rarotonga. So many incredible humans were more than willing to share their opinions and knowledge and give their time to help me understand more about our people, our land and our culture.  

Having the chance to connect with our community, my genealogy, culture and environment was an incredible experience. It was filled with many trips up mountains, to reefs and within some of our traditional Are (houses). While I was there, Rarotonga had some massive king tides on a side of the island that is primarily untouched in these types of swells. To be on the island during this time was a very humbling experience, witnessing first-hand the power of Tangaroa. Thankfully, there were no fatal injuries because of these but many of the buildings along the shore didn’t fare as well. This event soon became a topic which enabled deeper conversations in my interview, regarding our current buildings and how they interact with our Moana. I think one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge that I gained while I was here is a deeper understanding of our traditional relationship with our environment. Everything is connected, with the individual making up one tiny part of a dynamic system which gives and takes throughout multiple ecosystems, communities, and our culture.

This trip to conduct interviews and community workshops was priceless, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to have made these connections in our community.

Meitaki Maata to everyone that participated!

Community Workshop in Rarorotonga, August 2022
View from Raemaru