Seeing and Being Indigenous at COP-21: Who are indigenous people and what are they for?

George Byrne // International Development // Wednesday 22nd March 2017 // 3-4pm // Arts C 133

In the so called ‘middle grounds’, the mutually comprehensible spaces on cultural frontiers, some people who are indigenous apparently become something else. They continue to embody the biosocial fact of being indigenous, but also appear to internalise and project elements of a complex web of myths associated with it. Sometimes, then, there is a difference between being indigenous and being Indigenous.

Drawing on a multi-sited ethnography that includes observations of the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion at COP-21 in Paris, my research considers how and why a distinct category of Indigenous people comes into existence at the UN conference. It asks who they are and what, if anything, are they for?

This category of people, ‘made up’ both by and for the context in which it emerges, is a transient phenomenon; it exists only as long as the context itself. Indigenous people can appear, disappear and reappear quite suddenly, which for a researcher can be somewhat disorienting, especially when trying to pin down precisely who and what ‘is’ Indigenous.

This talk will focus on a selection of vignettes; snapshots from my observations and interactions in and around the Pavilion at COP-21. The intention is to illustrate some of the ways in which indigenous people are being Indigenous at the conference, as well as to reflect on the (sometimes uncomfortable) position of being a non-indigenous researcher who goes in to the field with the intention of seeing Indigenous.


George is in the final year of his PhD in International Development Studies at the University of Sussex. He holds a BA in Latin American Development Studies and Spanish, an MA in International Relations and European Studies, and an MSc in Social Research Methods. His current research focusses on the ways in which indigenous people, particularly those from the Amazon region, interact with the increasingly globalised attempts to mitigate climate change. His work, based on research conducted over the course of two years in Ecuador, Peru and Paris, seeks to contribute to the field of ‘Anthropology of Development’ by critically reflecting on the processes that govern who and what represents ‘indigenous’ people in international climate change negotiations.


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