Conservation news

Climate mitigation has an ally in need of recognition and land rights: indigenous peoples in tropical countries

As global warming continues to outpace the tepid international response, a range of environmentalists are raising their collective voice to demand full rights and recognition for those long associated with land stewardship connected to climate mitigation: indigenous peoples.

On Monday, September 10, researchers released what they called “the most comprehensive assessment to date of carbon storage” on forested lands occupied by indigenous peoples and local communities in 64 tropical countries. One of the main findings of the research is that indigenous peoples are far better stewards of the land than their countries’ governments.

Indigenous communities often work to keep forests intact, which, in turn, keeps carbon locked in trees, vegetation, roots, and soil instead of seeing it released into the atmosphere through deforestation and soil disturbance for ranching, mining, or timbering.

In fact, the study, led by Rights and Resources International (RRI), found that indigenous peoples manage nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon stored above and below ground on their lands. That sequestered carbon, the study found, is equal to 33 years’-worth of worldwide emissions, given a 2017 baseline.

The findings came the same day United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decried the paralysis of global leadership on climate action as impacts — extreme weather, sea-level rise, wildfires, ocean degradation, deforestation — continue to accelerate. He called on all nations to intensify their efforts after lackluster negotiations in Bangkok, Thailand last week.

The RRI-led study aimed to emphasize the role indigenous peoples can play in their own countries when it comes to climate action through enhanced land and forest protection and management. The authors note that deforestation rates are significantly lower on native-occupied lands but that governments often fail to recognize indigenous peoples’ legal claims to their land, thus jeopardizing their ability to manage it. This situation can also undermine those countries’ pledges to reduce carbon emissions and deforestation under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Evidence from the last decade shows that developing-country governments and the broader international community are not moving fast enough to recognize and strengthen the rights of forest peoples,” Alain Frechette, an author of the carbon analysis and RRI’s director of strategic analysis and global engagement, said in a statement. “At least one-third of carbon managed by communities in tropical and subtropical countries lies in forests where the primary stewards lack legal titles, putting them, their forests and the carbon they store at great risk.”

Out of the forest, into the spotlight

The study’s release is timed to coincide with the September 12 opening in San Francisco of the three-day Global Climate Action Summit hosted by California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Brown and Bloomberg are co-founders of the We Are Still In coalition, a collection of states, cities, universities, and corporations that have promised to make certain the U.S. meets its emissions-reduction pledges under the Paris Agreement even as the Trump Administration has brought federal climate action to a halt.

Woods Hole Research Center ecologist and remote-sensing expert Wayne Walker instructs indigenous technicians affiliated with COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin) on the tools and techniques used to measure and monitor forest carbon near Puyo, Ecuador. Photo by Dylan Murray.

International progress, plans, and obstacles of these so-called sub-nationals regarding climate action will be the focus of the San Francisco summit. The connection between indigenous rights and environmental protection is expected to be a summit highlight.

On September 11, for example, governors from 38 jurisdictions across five continents will join indigenous leaders to unveil a planned collaboration to slow deforestation rates and uphold native land rights. Major U.S. foundations, including the $13-billion Ford Foundation, are expected to join the fray for the first time by directing millions of dollars to forest protection and climate-action project financing.

The context for such action is urgent as 2017:

• Became the second warmest year since such measurements began in 1880.
• Saw greenhouse gas emissions reach an all-time high.
• Ranked as the second-worst year ever for deforestation, with an area the collective size of Greece cleared of forests.
• Witnessed 207 environmental defenders in 22 countries murdered trying to stop illegal activities such as mining, logging, poaching, and drilling on their lands.

This is why advocates say the RRI-led study of the stewardship of indigenous lands is both timely and vital.

“Economic analyses make it fairly clear that indigenous peoples’ lands that are titled and secured, especially in Latin America where the data is most abundant, have deforestation rates that are three to four times lower than similar lands not held by indigenous peoples,” Peter Veit, director of the Land and Resource Rights initiative at the World Resources Institute, told Mongabay. “Having title to the land is critical.”

Veit contributed to the study as part of a research group called LandMark. The study also had research input from the Environmental Defense Fund, Woods Hole Research Center, and three indigenous organizations. Studying maps and boundaries revealed that just 15 percent of indigenous lands is titled to those living in the forests in the countries evaluated.

No guarantees of protection

Wake Forest University law professor John Knox recently completed six years as UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment. He said titling land to indigenous peoples — often land that once belonged to them — is not a guarantee of permanent protection or conservation, nor should it be.

“Indigenous peoples have a right to control the territory that they traditionally occupied based on their legal rights,” Knox said. “It’s not something that should be given simply because we think they will be good environmental stewards. They have underlying rights based on their human rights. Like other property owners, they may decide to develop the land in certain ways.”

Examples of this are evident in Brazil, where six native communities were recently fined by the government for farming practices that are banned on reservations. Meanwhile, in the Peruvian Amazon, an indigenous tribe in Madre de Dios is clearing large swaths of jungle for its gold-mining activities. The tribe does cooperate with environmentalists to help reforest their land after mining moves to another location.

Knox said such examples are neither surprising nor common. He said as titled landowners, indigenous peoples should be subject to government regulations and restrictions.

“My experience with indigenous peoples is that they are not itching to tear down trees and put up heavy industry,” Knox added. “The reason they are better stewards of the land is because they live there and place a greater value on the long-term sustainability of the land than people who come in from the outside and see the land mainly as a source of natural resources that can be exploited.”

At Woods Hole Research Center, ecologist and remote-sensing expert Wayne Walker contributed computer modeling to the study. He said the conclusions that call for legal indigenous control of the forests they occupy is “a no-brainer” for national governments eager to fight climate change.

That said, Walker acknowledged that developing nations, often beset by government corruption, struggle to balance conservation with the pressure to monetize their natural resources.

“What we can do now is shine a light as brightly as possible, quantitatively, on the role that indigenous peoples play in climate mitigation,” Walker told Mongabay. “There isn’t going to be some grand tipping point where all countries in the world buy in at the same moment. But hopefully, little by little, sooner rather than later, change begins to happen.”

Patrols work to control a small forest fire in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. Photo by Jaye Renold.

Justin Catanoso is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University and a regular contributor to Mongabay. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso.