indigenous women in international climate policy

by flo roughton, 3rd year politics philosophy and economics at LSE

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There is a sore injustice when it comes to the distribution of the benefits and burdens of climate change.

It is a familiar notion that those contributing least to climate change are those worst affected (IPCC 2014). Women are more likely to be in poverty and face climate change burdens, but also less likely to have the social, economic and political power to change climate policy (Prior and Heinämäki 2017). Despite this, we have seen that women are often more active in environmental activism, with two glaring examples in recent news being Greta Thunberg’s call to action, encouraging millions of children globally to strike against the slow progression of climate change policy, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed Green New Deal (alongside Ed Markey - although AOC is far more vocal).

But something both these women had was the advantage of a platform in the West. Indigenous women on the other hand normally don’t have this same opportunity. They are also more likely to face an intersectionality of discrimination; through both their gender and indigeneity. This can be put down to long-standing colonial and patriarchal histories that leave indigenous women with a lack of social, economic and political rights. Whilst women’s rights are protected under international policy such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and indigenous groups’ rights under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), the rights of indigenous women are nonetheless systematically violated. International agreements split into don’t recognise the unique experience of indigenous women so fail to protect their human rights in the process. Indigenous women often have very different experiences to men due to barriers to participation (Kuokkanen 2014), and furthermore can contribute to climate change in different ways including by imparting traditional knowledge already being used to adapt to a changing climate (Kuokkanen 2000).

In order to avoid generalisation across the diverse and varied indigenous groups, which make up 5% of the global population (World Bank 2018), I will focus on the Sámi indigenous peoples in Finland, the only indigenous group in the EU. Their way of life has become threatened due to reindeer populations depleting. Reindeer are central to the Sámi people as they use the animals to make food, clothes and weapons, and to some Sámi peoples those who herd reindeer define who is a member of the group.

Traditionally, Sámi women and men owned land and herded reindeer equally, and inherited on an equal basis. But assimilationist government policies have imposed patriarchal ideals, side-lining women’s roles by, for instance, forcing them to register land under their husbands’ names (Kuokken 2009). Now, Sámi women are more greatly burdened due to the intersection between their indigeneity and gender. Their indigeneity means that they are geographically isolated and face discrimination and racism by the Finnish people and government, and their gender which means they are less likely to be able to participate in decision-making, have fewer land rights and face added discrimination due to patriarchal structures (Prior et al 2013). This cross-section of rights violation presents a lack of power of indigenous women to influence policy.

The Sámi people are being further threatened by the Finnish government, who are using the opportunity of sea ice melting to create a railway. The train will go through Sámiland to a port in Norway to set up a new trading route from Europe to Asia, creating jobs in the region but criticised by many of the Sámi population. The new project is expected to cause deforestation and disruption to the reindeer herding according to herder Jussa Seurujärvi as “[r]eindeer follow migration paths through forests. If they can’t, there will not be enough food to feed them all.”

President of the Sámi Parliament, Tiina Sanila-Aiko, sees the railroad as merely an extension of previous discrimination by Finnish authorities that have eroded the groups’ land rights, religion and language. Media coverage of the story has been incredibly biased against the group, the President telling the Guardian that when she first saw it reported, “[t]hey didn’t even mention the Sami people”. A meta-analysis of the media coverage confirmed Sanila-Aiko’s view: “locals have been marginalized by policymakers and continue to hold largely negative views of such mega-projects. There have been significantly fewer articles reflecting the Sami voice than those describing the opinions of officials” (Taksami 2018).

The threat to the Sámi people is just one example of countless incidences. A lack of consistent international climate change policy, protecting the rights and interests of indigenous groups and women, can lead to systematic discrimination against their way of living and in fact even their lives. If we believe this violation of basic human rights is wrong then it is imperative we listen to and raise up the voices of these women, and help them reshape the international agenda.


“Indigenous Peoples.” World Bank, (Accessed 16 Mar. 2019)

Kuokkanen, Rauna. "Indigenous Women's Rights and International Law: Challenges of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." (2014).

Kuokkanen, Rauna. "Indigenous women in traditional economies: The case of sami reindeer herding." Signs: Journal of women in culture and society 34.3 (2009): 499-504.

Kuokkanen, Rauna. "Towards an “Indigenous paradigm” from a Sami perspective." The Canadian Journal of Native Studies20.2 (2000): 411-436.

Olsson, L., M. Opondo, P. Tschakert, A. Agrawal, S.H. Eriksen, S. Ma, L.N. Perch, and S.A. Zakieldeen, 2014: Livelihoods and poverty. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L.White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 793-832. (Accessed 16 March 2019).

Prior, Tahnee, et al. "Addressing climate vulnerability: promoting the participatory rights of indigenous peoples and women through Finnish Foreign Policy." Tahnee Prior, Sebastien Duyck, Leena Heinamaki, Timo Koivurova and Adam Stepien. Addressing Climate Vulnerability: Promoting the Participatory Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Women through Finnish Foreign Policy, Juridica Lapponica 38 (2013).

Prior, Tahnee Lisa, and Leena Heinämäki. "The Rights and Role of Indigenous Women in Climate Change Regime." Arctic Review 8 (2017).

Taksami, Natalia. "A Survey of Finnish Media Debates on the Arctic Corridor Railway Planned to Connect the Silk Road and the Polar Silk Road." (2018).

Wall, Tom. “The Battle to Save Lapland: 'First, They Took the Religion. Now They Want to Build a Railroad'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 Feb. 2019, (Accessed 16 Mar. 2019)