Photo: Getty

Ever since climate change become a widely-recognized problem, international leaders have been looking at forests as one of the best opportunities for greenhouse gas mitigation. One thing that they overlooked, up until very recently, is that forests aren’t just full of trees.

Millions of people live in the world’s remaining forests, and evidence is mounting that indigenous communities are not only the best managers of the land, but are indispensable allies in the climate fight. Most of the world’s forest-rich countries have been battling with deforestation and land conflicts for decades. But only now, encouraged by mounting evidence, are international donors and leaders recognizing that when it comes to forests, climate action and land tenure are two sides of the same coin.

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“It’s absolutely clear that reducing deforestation and protecting forests, at least for the next two decades, is the only viable carbon capture and storage technology,” Penny Davies, forests program officer with the Ford Foundation, told Earther.

So far, advocacy has primarily focused on ensuring that indigenous people can keep living in their traditional forest homelands without being kicked out by the first company with permission to bulldoze. But today, real resources are being set aside to ensure these peoples also have the power to decide how their forests should be managed.

Protectors of the forest

In early October, the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility formally launched as an independent non-profit after several years of development, immediately becoming a focal point of the nascent effort to merge climate mitigation with indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ land tenure rights.

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The project was created by The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), and works in coordination with initiatives such as the Interlaken Group and MegaFlorestaisto to build support for land and forest rights. In its beta stage, the initiative has already started overseeing six pilot projects aimed at solving land disputes in countries at risk of forest loss or degradation: Cameroon, Liberia, Mali, Panama, Peru, and Indonesia.

While deforestation is the primary threat to forests, degradation, where the canopy thins and becomes less healthy, is a more subtle but equally serious issue. A recent study found that so much of the world’s tropical tree cover is degraded that these forests are becoming a carbon emitter rather than carbon sink on a global scale.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that people who have been living in and managing these forests for millennia are being forgotten.

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Indonesia produces over 70 billion dollars in gold a year and is home to the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world, the Grasberg mine, which is located at West Papua. According to reports, the Grasberg mine, owned Freeport McMoRan, dumps as much as 200,000 tonnes of mine waste directly into the Aikwa delta system every day, turning thousands of hectares of forest and mangroves into wasteland. Photo: Getty images

“Over 50 percent of the surface of the global land area is used by people, but governments recognize and grant them ownership of just 10 percent of it,” Andy White, a coordinator with the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, told Earther. “It’s this huge gap that explains a lot about conflicts and also deforestation, because historically governments in developing countries have seen those lands as empty and given them out to developers.”

A landmark study published last year showed that indigenous people manage more than 24 percent of the total carbon stored in the canopy of the world’s tropical forests. That’s more than 250 times the amount of CO2 emitted by global air travel in 2015, and it’s a conservative estimate, Alain Frechette, one of the authors with the NGO Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), told Earther. “We don’t know how many people live in the forests globally, because only a small part of their territory is recognized by the governments.”

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For that study, the researchers matched detailed datasets on how much carbon is stored in a given forest ecosystem with information on land tenure to estimate how many people live in and manage the forest overall. The findings add to an expanding body of evidence indicating that where communities have legal rights over their land, biodiversity is more robust and deforestation lower.

This makes sense, because for indigenous communities, the forest is home—the source of their livelihood and food, and a crucial part of their culture. “Their longstanding relationship with nature means that indigenous people have very sophisticated management systems,” Davies told Earther. “For example, in some tropical forests, indigenous settlements are dotted with well-tended jungle gardens. They cut little patches for rice that [after the harvest] regenerate into wild vegetation again.”

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Indigenous people, Davies said, “have the right to say yes, we are actually a climate solution. And if you don’t protect them, giving them tenure security, then we’ve got a major problem.”

Land rights are a justice issue

In recent years, indigenous people all over the world have embraced environmental activism as part of their efforts to assert rights to their land. In the United States, the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline grew from the defense of ancient tribal lands and local water resources to a countrywide battle against big polluters and corporate interests. The legal aspect of these recent fights often marks a shift from the antagonistic approach against the state that characterized many mainstream environmentalist movements of the past.

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Today, the protection of natural resources is becoming part of the wide range of human rights that indigenous people are reclaiming, not only in the forest, but also in court.

Photo: Associated Press

Indonesia is another example of a country where the battle for land rights and the environment is happening through legal means. With 30 percent of its area under industrial concession, between 2001 and 2012, the country ranked first for emissions from deforestation. After a 2013 court ruling declared that the state had wrongly appropriated indigenous land, the government committed to transfer management of 12.7 million hectares of forest back in the hands of indigenous communities.

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Identifying and reclaiming indigenous lands

“There is no empty land in Indonesia, but the government failed to acknowledge that for a long time,” Muh Arman, a lawyer with the Indonesian advocacy group AMAN, which in Indonesian stands for Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago, told Earther.

AMAN has already been working with the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility to facilitate community mapping as a first step for indigenous people to reclaim their rights to own and use the land. Measuring and identifying borders is crucial to submit a successful, evidenced-based claim to a government.

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Dewi Sutejo, project manager of the Indonesia Community Mapping Networks, told Earther that the group has so far consolidated data about around 20 million hectares of land. The information it presents in its interactive online portal is particularly detailed because it is based on the work of local communities, trained to make maps with GPS on a mobile device.

“We only facilitate the work of communities that require our assistance, for example when they face landgrabs from the palm oil industry,” she said. “People know that mapping is the best way to protect their rights over the land, because the government will ask for evidence that a territory is inhabited before granting ownership.”

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Although much is already being done in Indonesia, growing international support could help ramp up efforts and create a model that could be replicated and adapted to other forest-rich countries.

“The only way to protect forests is to support these communities,” said Davies. “By securing tenure you protect the environment, and with that you will build a bridge into the fossil fuel-free future that we are waiting for.”

Lou is a science and climate journalist who reports on how environmental changes are reshaping our world in unexpected ways.

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