Are the tides turning for Indigenous Peoples and local communities?
15 February 2023
The evidence is becoming irrefutable: Indigenous Peoples and local communities are in many cases all that is preventing the irreversible loss of healthy tropical forests and their invaluable biodiversity. Their methods of forest management have proven to be more effective than alternative approaches.
Community members active in their community forest in Lao PDR
Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the traditional guardians and stewards of the forests and landscapes in which they live. Indigenous Peoples, for example, manage around one quarter of the world’s land and 80 percent of its biodiversity despite comprising only 5 percent of the global population.
The protection of forest ecosystems is essential to many Indigenous Peoples and local communities for cultural, spiritual and practical reasons. Forests provide them with food, medicines and ecosystem services, such as maintaining soil fertility, regulating water cycles and local climate and protecting against extreme weather events and other shocks.
But the preservation of these forests is also indispensable to all of humanity because the efforts to limit climate change and biodiversity loss depend on these landscapes remaining intact. Tropical forests, and peatlands in particular, store vast amounts of carbon and are home to a remarkable variety of biodiversity. At least 36 percent of global Key Biodiversity Areas are on lands belonging to Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
Despite their dramatically outsized contributions, Indigenous Peoples and local communities do not receive commensurate recognition or rewards. As a 2021 report by Rainforest Foundation Norway showed, projects supporting Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ tenure and forest management received the equivalent of less than 1 percent of all official development assistance for action to address climate change over the previous decade. And only 17 percent of those projects even named an Indigenous Peoples’ or local community organization in their implementation text. This indicates just how little of the international financing that Indigenous Peoples and local communities control.
At the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow (2021), donors pledged US$1.7 billion over five years to support efforts to secure and defend Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ rights to land and forests. But as a follow-up report by Rainforest Foundation Norway and the Rights and Resources Initiative warned in 2022, action is needed to ensure that the funding flows directly to them and serves their needs effectively.
A long-overdue paradigm shift is under way
International bodies increasingly insist that involving Indigenous Peoples and local communities is essential.
“Supporting Indigenous self-determination, recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ rights and supporting Indigenous knowledge-based adaptation [to climate change] are critical to reducing climate change risks and [to] effective adaptation.” -The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report (2022).
Ten months later, in December 2022, parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which included language relating to the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in seven of its 23 targets. The framework’s headline target, on protecting 30 percent of land and sea by 2030, specifies that indigenous and traditional territories could be recognized as ”other effective area-based conservation measures” alongside traditional protected areas. It adds that any sustainable use of biodiversity in such areas should recognize and respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities over their territories.
This paradigm shift in how the world sees Indigenous Peoples and local communities is long overdue and just. After a decade or two of grudging, tokenistic inclusion of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in climate and conservation initiatives, this shift to a new modality offers a glimpse of something truly game-changing.
It reflects a system in which Indigenous Peoples and local communities are not just included but are valued, respected and admired as the “owners” and managers of some of the most precious resources in the world: the forests that provide globally crucial ecosystem services, such as absorbing carbon, regulating water cycles and preserving biodiversity.
How RECOFTC is helping reroute financing directly to Indigenous Peoples
An economic principle holds that scarcity creates value. If their rights are upheld, Indigenous Peoples and local communities may find themselves in a unique position to reap the benefits of their long-standing role as forest stewards. There are growing instances of such communities receiving benefits, especially carbon payments, for protecting their forests and moving from poverty to relative wealth.
To help accelerate this momentum, RECOFTC has embarked on an exciting initiative with the Peoples Forests Partnership (PFP), launched in 2021 at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. The initiative emerged out of a frustration with climate and conservation projects in which Indigenous Peoples and local communities were simply asked to sign off at the end of an externally driven process. Instead, the PFP envisions high-integrity climate projects that are co-designed and led by Indigenous Peoples and local communities and likeminded project developers and with a view to channeling financing direct to these communities.
Since its launch, the PFP has developed overarching principles, criteria and indicators for its three classes of members: Indigenous Peoples and local communities; project developers; and non-government organizations. And since opening its call for membership, the PFP has become home to a flourishing, demand-driven community of Indigenous Peoples and local community groups from around the world.
Despite widely differing languages, locations and policy contexts, these groups are drawn together by shared factors and experiences: deep spiritual ties linking their lives and futures to their forests; historic discrimination and exploitation; and a desire to join forces with similar groups to negotiate more effectively for better terms, better processes and more projects that truly benefit Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
The PFP has also been responding to requests from Indigenous Peoples and local communities for knowledge and capacities that will enable them to better engage in the emerging carbon markets. Some members have joined not necessarily to develop projects but to unite with other Indigenous Peoples and local communities in better positioning themselves with respect to carbon and climate finance.
In parallel with the overdue recognition on the significance of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, there is an organic movement of such communities coming together from around the world and finding strength in pooling knowledge, resources and skills. It is now time to support these efforts and make sure that carbon markets, climate finance and conservation finance work for Indigenous Peoples and local communities and enable them to continue protecting their globally important forest landscapes.
Regan Pairojmahakij is a senior program officer on landscapes in a changing climate at RECOFTC.