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New web tool aims to help indigenous groups protect forests and navigate REDD+

A new online tool, dubbed ForestDefender, aims to help indigenous people understand and implement their rights in regard to forests. The database, developed by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), brings together vast amounts of legal information—both national and international—on over 50 countries.

“CIEL created ForestDefender to empower indigenous peoples and other local communities to defend their rights and their forests,” Allison Silverman, a staff attorney with CIEL’s Climate and Energy Program Program, told, adding that, “It can also be used as a guide to understand how to hold violators of these rights accountable through the various human rights and international financial institution mechanisms.”

The website will be especially useful for indigenous groups and communities dealing with the implementation of new REDD+ policies, according to Silverman. REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, has been one of the landmark global changes to forest issues over the last decade. The budding program, developed under the United Nations, seeks to compensate developing countries for keeping forests standing as a part of the global effort to tackle carbon emissions responsible for climate change. REDD+ was finally approved last year at the annual UN Climate Summit after seven years of negotiations.

A member of the Dani tribe in Indonesian New Guinea. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

A member of the Dani tribe in Indonesian New Guinea. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The world’s tropical forests have been lost at staggering rates over the last century due to agriculture, livestock, mining, logging, roads and other infrastructure. Yet, increasingly, experts are recognizing the important role of indigenous people and other local communities in keeping forests standing. Yet in many parts of the world’s indigenous people lack legal title to their traditional forests, leading to conflict between locals, industries, and governments.

Yet, one of the REDD+’s open questions is how it will be implemented in regard to indigenous people. REDD+ includes basic safeguards for indigenous communities, but Silverman says locals will need to remain vigilant to make sure their rights are respected.

“It is important to note that there are risks to forest rights and land rights with REDD+, especially if REDD+ is not implemented properly,” Silverman explained. “Progress on forest rights depends on how REDD+ interacts with a country’s national forest governance. For example, if REDD+ provides funding to national governments who were unable to manage forests beforehand due to a lack of resources, then with these new funds, governments may try to seize and thus centralize the forests and take forest rights away from the indigenous peoples and local communities who had been protecting these forests before money for carbon offsets were inserted into the picture.”

Currently, the ForestDefender database targets those already familiar with legal language, however CIEL is also developing another online tool for a more general audience, described by Silverman as a “community pocket guide.”

“[The guide targets] community members and leaders who would benefit more from a tool that ‘translates’ some of the technical language found in the international treaties, declarations and decisions included in ForestDefender,” said Silverman. “This guide provides community members with questions to ask their trusted allies who have a better grasp of this material and who can then use ForestDefender as guidance to respond.”

Forest rights are very different across nations and regions, but Silverman points to some countries as especially positive examples.

“The countries in Mesoamerica have made good progress in recognizing community forest rights, such that the majority of the region’s forest are either owned or managed by forest communities and indigenous peoples,” she said. “Lessons learned from these experiences should continue to be shared at the global level.”

Logging in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Logging in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

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