Let the people protect the forests
What’s the best way to restore the world’s forests – and slow the climate crisis? While policymakers at climate conferences argue about forestry carbon markets or complex offsetting schemes for giant polluters, the method that has been proven to work time and again is much simpler: to respect and uphold the rights of the people who live there.
But governments and corporations in the world’s most forested countries have been using the Covid-19 pandemic as cover to do exactly the opposite. According to a new report by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), indigenous and local land rights are being undermined and rolled back across the world – with potentially grave consequences for the climate.
At least 50 per cent of the world’s global land mass falls into the traditional territories of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, and other traditional communities. After years fighting for greater control, communities now have legal rights to 10 per cent of this land, and partial recognition for a further 8 per cent.
Much of this progress is now under threat from extractive projects. According to research collated by FPP, the governments of the world’s five most tropically forested countries (Brazil, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Peru) have been using the lack of scrutiny due to the global pandemic to actively undermine local people’s rights and strip away forest protections. FPP board member Cathal Doyle has referred to the current situation as ‘business as usual on steroids’.
In Brazil, between March and May 2020, Jair Bolsonaro’s government passed 195 executive acts that weakened environmental protection and made it easier to carry out illegal land grabbing in indigenous territories.
In Peru, corporations have escaped largely unpunished for a wave of new oil spills in indigenous territories while the government continues to champion the hydrocarbon and mining sector as key to economic recovery, and has relaxed regulations to help these industries expand.
In Indonesia, a so-called ‘job creation’ law, passed in October 2020 under the premise of post-pandemic economic recovery, designates indigenous territories as ‘abandoned land’, ready to be exploited by mining, logging or agricultural companies.
‘This law is designed to facilitate investment in Indonesia and reduce the few existing safeguards to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and our only Mother Earth,’ Rukka Sombolinggi, Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), reported recently at a webinar hosted by Land Portal.
She lamented the fact that global programmes designed to support the forests and the climate have yet to significantly benefit indigenous peoples.
‘We provide what are known as “environmental services” – biodiversity protections, watershed protections, and keep massive amounts of carbon in our forests,’ Sombolinggi explained. ‘Yet we continue to be invisible.’
The legally recognized segment of indigenous peoples’ lands includes 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, according to the World Bank. Those areas where local people’s land rights are recognized have less deforestation, more biodiversity, and store carbon more successfully. Yet they are being sidelined, ignored or violently suppressed.
In all five of the world’s most tropically forested countries, indigenous peoples have actively opposed these measures – and been met frequently with state violence, harassment and criminalization.
With major UN conferences due this year on climate and biodiversity, we need indigenous peoples to have not only a seat at the table but for the defence and expansion of their rights to be at the centre.