Indigenous Peoples may not have had an official vote in the world's recent landmark deal to protect nature, but years of organizing across borders have given nations around the globe more of a voice in international negotiations.

For many years, Indigenous Peoples remained isolated and disempowered in the “straitjacket” of nation states, Lars-Anders Baer, a longtime Indigenous activist and advocate for the Saami Council, said in an interview.

But once they began to co-operate, both at the national and international levels, things slowly started to change, Baer said, including in his home in Scandinavian Europe.

“Now, we are recognized as a peoples.”

At the United Nations’ COP15 biodiversity conference, Indigenous Peoples did not have a seat at the negotiating table or voting power, but they were in the room to hear nation states discuss the final COP15 agreement. Because it was an international deal, Indigenous Peoples could use the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity to lobby UN-recognized nations to include their rights and territories in the final agreement. It was a victory, although with some caveats.

For Vyacheslav Shadrin, chief of the Yukaghir, an Indigenous Peoples in Siberia, more work needs to be done. Indigenous Peoples still only hold “conciliatory status” at negotiations like COP15, which must change given Indigenous Peoples' oversized role in stewarding biodiversity, he said.

Eighty per cent of the world’s biodiversity is on Indigenous lands, despite Indigenous Peoples only making up five per cent of the global population, according to the UN.

“The voice of Indigenous Peoples is the voice of nature … which is why our voice must be equal to other parties,” Shadrin said.

It’s a slow process, but the pathway to greater participation for Indigenous Peoples is possible at the UN, even if they are not completely on the same footing as countries. Indigenous nations are seeking a role that allows them to talk, suggest and negotiate as peers with nation states at high-level conferences like COP15, Baer said.

Once Indigenous Peoples began to co-operate at the national and international levels, things slowly started to change, “in the UN and other places,” Lars-Anders Baer, who is a representative of the Saami people, said.

For now, it remains an ongoing challenge for Indigenous Peoples to find their footing in the system.

At COP15, Indigenous Peoples relied on civil society groups or, if they were lucky, their nation’s official delegation to communicate their views on the negotiations. Canada recognizes its Indigenous populations and their rights, but not all countries do, Baer said, citing Russia, China and Taiwan as examples.

As distinct peoples, Indigenous Peoples have a right to speak and make decisions for themselves, Baer said.

“We are somewhere in the between now,” he added. “But it is on the way.”

Baer describes the gains Indigenous Peoples have made as “sneaking into” the UN system. It’s incremental progress at the international level that involves making headway where they can but not pushing too hard to upset some states, he said.

Indigenous Peoples have collaborated internationally as far back as the 1970s, with the International Indian Treaty Council becoming the first Indigenous Peoples organization recognized by the UN. However, it wasn’t until 2007 that the intergovernmental organization adopted its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Lars-Anders Baer and Vyacheslav Shadrin in a meeting room for global Indigenous Peoples at COP15 in Montreal. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Co-operation among Indigenous Peoples is essential, particularly for those in Russia, which has become an international pariah for its invasion of Ukraine. Five or six years ago, Russia said it recognized international legislation like UNDRIP; now, Shadrin says, the country doesn’t.

In recent years, Russia’s crackdown on civil society has suppressed the Indigenous movement. Even Yukaghir people have fallen victim to Russian propaganda, which blames foreign meddling for their low socio-economic conditions.

Shadrin says his people are “double victims” because of the influence of propaganda and the low quality of life they endure.

“The situation is very sad, but our people don’t understand this.”

International solidarity between Indigenous Peoples helps “raise our competency,” Shadrin added. “We see and receive experiences (from other Indigenous Peoples abroad) and we try to put it into our regional legislation.”

International standards can push countries to respect and recognize Indigenous rights and territories, in addition to creating a forum for the global Indigenous movement to organize.

“That’s why all (international) decisions must respect Indigenous rights.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative