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Rising sea levels. Unbearable heat. Unbreathable air.
In December 2015, world leaders signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement and committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the dangerous consequences of global warming. But with the United States’ recent decision to pull out of the landmark agreement, concerns for the fate of the planet, and quality of life on it, have only intensified. Furthermore, given that deforestation is the second largest source of carbon emissions after fossil fuels, there is a glaring omission in national and international strategies to combat climate change: the role of Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous Peoples have consistently conserved forests around the world more effectively than governments or private companies. Research conducted by the World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative (my former employer) found that deforestation rates are significantly lower in in forests managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. In the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation is 11 times lower in community-controlled forests. In the Guatemalan Petén, it is 20 times lower. And in the Mexican Yucatan, it is a striking 350 times lower. Furthermore, Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ forests hold more carbon and have higher rates of biodiversity than forests managed by state governments.
Despite the prevailing research, Indigenous Peoples’ customary rights to collectively own, manage, and govern their traditional lands remain largely unrecognized. Countries have failed to include community land rights recognition as part of national climate change mitigation strategies. Only 21 countries have included forest communities in their plans for reducing carbon emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement. Given the fact that community lands and forests often overlap with valuable natural resources, economic pressures to capitalize off these resources through mining, logging, and agricultural plantations have trumped calls for social and environmental justice. Economic growth has regularly been the justification for the dispossession of indigenous communities from their lands, despite evidence of the myriad benefits of recognizing community land and resource rights.
Today, deforestation in places such as Brazil and Indonesia are often driven by commercial activities, with companies clearing large forested areas for agricultural plantations. When communities stand up to defend their traditional lands that are encroached upon by governments or private companies, they often face violence and criminalization, alongside the label of being anti-development. In 2016, 200 environmental defenders, including many indigenous leaders, were killed according to international advocacy organization Global Witness. By July 2017, 117 defenders had been murdered.
The palm oil industry has been specifically targeted by activists around the world for its role in deforestation, as well as in human rights abuses. In Indonesia, where palm oil has played a critical part in the economic story of the country, forest fires have been a perennial cause for massive carbon emissions and environmental degradation. In 2015, fires ravaged forests and peatlands causing historically severe air pollution, half a million respiratory infections, and more daily CO2 emissions than the entire US economy. Evidence, including satellite imagery, showed that there was considerable overlap with concession areas, where companies had cleared forests and drained peatlands for palm oil, as well as paper and pulp, plantations.
“The recognition of indigenous and other forest communities’ rights to manage their lands and resources would strengthen national efforts towards preventing forest fires. Forest communities have an inherent interest in protecting the lands which are intrinsically intertwined with their culture and survival. The benefits would be two-fold: it would prevent uncontrolled fires and help mitigate climate change,” says Myrna Safitri, Deputy of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency, a new government division created in in 2016.
While research shows the potential and promise for Indigenous Peoples to be part of climate change solutions, there is a larger acknowledgement of the need to recognize indigenous rights to self-determination. Ten years ago, on September 13, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which emphasizes rights to “maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.” The ability of indigenous communities to govern their traditional lands and forests is integral to living up to the spirit of UNDRIP.
“The UN Declaration was an important step for states to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights, as well as the historical injustices they have faced. However, governments and private companies continue to target indigenous communities’ resource-rich lands for extractive projects and conservation areas, resulting in violence and dispossession. We already know Indigenous Peoples conserve the earth’s forests and biodiversity better than state governments. Now states must put this recognition into practice by respecting indigenous rights to govern their territories and protect their resources, both for their own sake and to protect the planet,” says Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
For virtually any rural community, there is perhaps no more significant asset than land, which as one advocate put it is: “the source of food and water, the site of their livelihoods, and the locus of history, culture, and community.” It should be no surprise then that Indigenous Peoples, as well as other rural communities, have conserved forests better than most. Undoubtedly, mitigating climate change will require a multifaceted approach: curbing carbon emissions, shifting to renewable forms of energy, and confronting unsustainable consumption. However, if we are to be successful, the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ role in protecting ecosystems, and their rights to their land and resources, will have to be part of the plan.
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