Why indigenous voices are vital at climate summits

leshan sikorei, climate change, cop27

Leshan Sikorei representing youth and indigenous communities at COP27.

Photo credit: POOL

What you need to know:

  • Over the years, the world has learnt that these indigenous people's  traditional knowledge on taking care of nature should be shared at international climate summits.
  • 'Healthy Nation' met a few of them who were part of the just concluded COP27 in Egypt

Their astounding flashy coloured clothes make them pop from a distance. They embody rich history and hold on to culture with pride that goes beyond their attire. Despite being the new generation of first inhabitants of most lands in different countries, only a fraction of their historical background has faded - they still wear a badge of being indigenous and will protect their crown till the next life.

History may not repeat itself, but it will for sure be a reminder of lessons we need to pick from the past. In most countries, including Kenya, indigenous people still live in what some people may consider archaic ways; but in a real sense, they exemplify the need to hold on to irreplaceable treasure troves that is in a culture.

“Indigenous people occupy the sites of precious natural resources and it is they who protect forests vulnerable to the encroachment of modernity. If indigenous communities are successful in maintaining control of their territories and can preserve their customs, their traditions and their way of life, they may be able to resist development and the deleterious consequences of modernity,” said a study published by the scientific journal Nature.

At climate conferences, their voices are now being amplified at a slow but sure pace. Erstwhile, they were blamed for encroaching in forests and protected areas, but gradually people have come to appreciate their vast knowledge in protecting biodiversity.

“It is precisely this knowledge that has protected their environment, and which may be useful in terms of their participation in global governance of the environment; before their incorporation into the modern world their contribution to environmental conservation was inadvertent as continues to be the case for those indigenous people who choose to live in voluntary isolation,” said the Nature study.

Adding; “It is the moment, therefore, for the world’s most powerful institutions—public and private—to support indigenous peoples’ efforts to be incorporated into decision-making with regard to measures that will secure their rights and which will contribute to combating climate change.”

At the just concluded 27th Conference of Parties COP27, Healthy Nation met with some members of Kenya’s Indigenous communities such as the Maasai and the Ogiek who represented their communities at different side events. 

We find Rosemary Nenini waiting for an event outside the pavilion set aside for indigenous people attending the climate summit. 

rosemary nenini, cop27, climate change

Rosemary Nenini of the Twala Tenebo cultural women while attending COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.


Her maroon attire and Maasai beads on her neck, hair and waist represents what her people in Kenya, about 1,900 miles from Egypt wear on a daily basis.

She is representing the Twala-Tenebo cultural women from Laikipia County. Twala is a maasai word meaning bell, and Tenebo means coming together as a community. Collectively, the two words represent a call to work together for a specific course. 

In Laikipia where Rosemary lives, drought has taken a toll on them and she travelled all the way, for the first time, to tell the world about the impacts of climate change in her community.

“We have had a prolonged drought that made us lose our livestock, the pastoralists are now poor, unlike before. Losing livestock, which is the main source of income, disables other things such as providing for children to go to school and even just to have a meal on the table,” she says.

“This has also led to gender based violence in a way, especially when a man cannot put food on the table,” she added.

For the first time this year, the COP had a Children and Youth pavilion and so people like Leshan Sikorei had a place to fall back on when the long strolls to different side events sipped energy out of them.

For sure, we find Leshan at the most vibrant pavilion. Unlike other youth there, he is the only one donned in a cultural attire; a maasai outfit. He is among the many Kenyan youth waiting to listen to Environment Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya speak to them on her plans for the first time since she assumed office. 

“I am here as a young person from an indigenous community. I'm here to speak to the world leaders and convince them why we need to address the issue of loss and damage. The truth is that we may avert the 1.5-degree Celsius target but we can address the issue of loss and damage. It's my hope that the government of Kenya and the whole world can heed to our call this time,” he said.

At the time, the issue was still a contentious debate and no one knew what the outcome of the Sharm El-Sheikh Implementation plan would be like. By Jove, Leshan’s wish came to pass since Parties agreed to create a funding mechanism for Loss and Damage confined in the United Nations Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Daniel Kobei from the Ogiek community was interested in telling the leaders the need for rehabilitation of their environment and learning from experiences shared by other indigenous people. The Ogiek community mainly lives around the Mau Forest Complex.

“We had never seen floods in some of our rivers in Mau, but now we have begun to see. It is not only the arid and semi-arid areas where climate change issues manifest. It is everywhere and we should be ready to see how we can adapt to these challenges,” he said.

“Already, we have started doing community land rehabilitation where we are planting indigenous trees and rehabilitating part of the Mau Forest so that we can be the change that is needed in the Mau,” he added.

Salina Sanou, a Pan African Policy and Advocacy Expert working with the FSC Indigenous Foundation told Healthy Nation that there is a need for capacity building, inclusion and amplifying indigenous people’s rights at climate conferences.

“In Kenya, we are now working in collaboration with the Ogiek and we support them on the issues of their rights, especially on their lands. We are trying hard to bring the indigenous people’s voices to the forefront, especially the women. Here, we want to find out what happened to the 1.7 Billion pledge that was raised in Glasgow.”

Salina also says it is important that the COP gives recognition to women as the custodians of the traditional knowledge within the indigenous communities since they have been the protectors of landscapes for years.

This story was produced courtesy of the Climate Tracker Fellowship.