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Respect for Indigenous land rights key in fight against climate change

New brief details roadmap for reshaping environmental strategies
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River in San Martin, Peru. CIFOR/Bruno Locatelli

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Although research demonstrates the benefits – for people and forests – of secure land and resource rights, these rights remain unrecognized for many of the world’s estimated 476 million Indigenous Peoples.

Not only do secure land rights generally translate into greater socio-economic benefits, but they are also vital for effective management of the climate crisis, according to a recent informational brief jointly produced by the International Land Coalition (ILC) and the Global Land Programme.

“The brief recognizes that respect for Indigenous knowledge and cultures contributes to sustainable development and sound environmental management, while mitigating poverty and inequality, said Anne Larson, a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which currently holds a seat on the ILC council and played a key role in developing the publication.

“Serious consequences arise from the lack of political will over granting formal land rights,” she said.

For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, territories managed by Indigenous peoples were subject to less than 10 percent of the deforestation experienced in the rest of the region, she said, citing the brief, which focuses on one of 10 commitments made by the ILC.

And while titling Brazilian forests to Indigenous and local communities would cost just a few dollars per hectare, the predicted benefits are estimated to be worth between $523 billion and $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years in carbon emission reductions for that country alone.

An international alliance of civil society and intergovernmental organizations, ILC advocates for rights established in both the International Labour Organization convention 169 and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Despite international agreement on these rights, as of 2016, only 21 countries had made transparent commitments to implement land and resource tenure initiatives to Indigenous Peoples and local communities in their Nationally Determined Contributions under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Research published by the Rights and Resources Initiative shows that these countries represent only 13 percent of tropical forest area and do not include those with the highest rates of deforestation.

Indigenous Peoples’ land rights are often the most precarious: combined with other local communities, they are estimated to hold at least 50 percent of the world’s land area, but only a fifth of that is formally recognized and owned.

“In a lot of traditions, the ownership of land is foreign in general,” says Janene Yazzie, the co-convenor of the U.N. Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development and a member of the Dine (Navajo) nation in what is now the southern United States.

“In our language, we don’t have a word for rights,” she adds. “We don’t have language for the formal recognition of ownership of individuals to pieces of the earth, and the ecosystems they support.”

Since colonization, complex and reciprocal Indigenous relationships to soils, seas, organisms, landmarks and other elements of the natural world have been severed.

Rights-based approaches that align with international laws and agreements, such as UNDRIP, have proven particularly effective in some situations for Indigenous peoples seeking to protect and restore their relationships with ancestral places – despite the lack of recognition from many countries.

“We’ve had to adopt those types of legal frameworks and property demarcations in order to be able to hold on to what little there is left of traditional territory,” says Yazzie. “It’s a bit sad that we live in a world where this is seen as one of the most important strategies we can employ to be able to survive, and to exercise the freedom and the self-determination to take care of our ecosystems.”

SHIFTING POWER STRUCTURES

That freedom and self-determination could well bring about better environmental management, and lead to broad environmental and socio-economic benefits, according to the brief. The World Resources Institute estimates that around 80 percent of all terrestrial biodiversity sits on Indigenous lands – and on average, biodiversity is declining less rapidly on those lands than in other areas.

Unfortunately, the cause of conservation – creating protected areas in places with high biodiversity, for example – “continues to be used as a justification for the evictions of Indigenous Peoples and local communities around the world, despite their recognized contribution in protecting our planet’s biodiversity,” says Michael Taylor, director of the ILC secretariat.

“The bottom line is that we need to hold accountable those who harm our environment and give decision making power to those who are protecting it, so they can live in dignity and peace,” he says. “Although it may take longer, it will be more sustainable for the long haul and of course, better for our planet.”

While it’s important not to romanticize or homogenize Indigenous people’s relationships with nature, it’s equally key to attend to the growing body of evidence that “a lot of indigenous stewardship practices have larger benefits than were previously understood,” says Yazzie.

Securing land and territorial rights offer peoples the possibility of maintaining and/or restoring such practices – as has been seen, for example, in the revival of traditional Aboriginal burning practices to mitigate bushfires in Australia.

“So this is not just [important] in relation to protecting ecosystem functions from the obvious negative effects of modern development, but also in understanding how stewardship at a large landscape scale is so important,” says Yazzie. “I think that there’s a value beyond just conservation in those types of management practices, that deserves equal weight.”

As the brief highlights, recognizing Indigenous rights is an extremely complex process, including elements such as working within and between diverse systems and structures; navigating conflicting claims to land; managing conflicts between Indigenous communities, and with other local communities and migrants; and ensuring the right people benefit from reforms – including often-marginalized groups such as women and youth.

As such, Larson says it emphasizes the importance of seeing land titling for Indigenous peoples not as an end in itself, but as part of an ongoing process of building sovereignty, security and sustainable resource management and livelihoods.

“It tends to be that where governance is strong, the forest is in good condition,” she says of her experience of land titling processes in the Peruvian Amazon.

“That doesn’t mean that every Indigenous community can perform magic, and save all our forests,” she adds, “but they definitely have a pretty good start – if they have the support that they need to continue doing it.”

With thanks to the International Land Coalition for developing the brief. See https://www.landcoalition.org for more information. 

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For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at a.larson@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
This research was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM)
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