Sustainable forestry inseparable from the question of Indigenous rights

Sarah Mekjian, Climate Alliance

While there is a tendency in climate negotiations to talk about forests as pawns to be traded for emissions caused elsewhere or as mere 'carbon sinks' – they are far more than this. A forest's value is hard to quantify. It goes over and above the simple capacity to fix carbon, although this too is important. Forests contribute to clean drinking water and air, provide nutrition and medication, act as important habitats that support an abundance of life, and contribute to key nutrient cycles, in addition to their aesthetic and spiritual value. These and a range of other ecosystem services are not only important on a global context, they form the basis for the livelihoods of many Indigenous Peoples, whose cultures and identities are inseparable from their forest homelands. Who better, then, to act as stewards of this precious resource than then those who call it home?

In today's world though, this would require legal recognition of Indigenous territories, for how can one protect an area that is not legally recognised as one's own? Without such legal recognition, these swaths of forest remain dangerously vulnerable to deforestation by infrastructure projects, large-scale agriculture and extractive industries. This is a problem. In the example of the Amazon Basin, some 1 million of the total 2.4 million km2 of Indigenous rainforest territories, an area almost eight times the size of Italy, have yet to be officially recognised. An estimated 20 per cent is at risk of being lost due to pressures including oil exploitation, infrastructure projects and large-scale industrial farming. These territories are not only home to entire populations, they are also of disproportional importance in the fight against climate change. A 2014 study entitled 'Forest carbon in Amazonia', points to the fact that over half of all carbon stored in the nine nation area of the Amazon Basin is found in Indigenous and protected areas, more than that stored in all the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia combined.

While Prince Charles, in his opening speech for the Lima-Paris Action Agenda Focus Event on Forests during this year's Climate Summit, emphasised the importance of Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous rights for forest protection, it is the UN Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) that is getting the bulk of the attention. The initiative, though, will not necessarily give Indigenous Peoples the legal recognition they need to protect their territories. Should the REDD+ mechanisms be built into emissions trading schemes in the form of carbon offsets, there could also be a real danger that governments of the Global North will water down their emissions reductions at home and buy offsets instead. This won't bring us any further in the global climate agenda, since offsets essentially amount to a license to emit and could lead to a reduced emphasis on local climate action in areas such as transport and buildings, among others. REDD+ mechanisms are also hard to monitor and – by placing a narrow focus on emissions – fail to address deforestation via mega-projects. While REDD+ is often hailed as an instrument for forest protection, this is not necessarily the main focus; forest plantations and monocultures, both destructive in their own right, are also very much part of the REDD+ strategy. Despite all this, it seems that many governments with tropical rainforests are looking to fulfil a large part of their carbon reduction duties via such mechanisms.

A socially acceptable alternative that would unite both climate action and sustainable development goals goes by the name of the Indigenous REDD+ or RIA, the REDD Indigena Amazónico. Originally conceived by COICA , the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin, for their area of influence but very much applicable to other forested areas, RIA is an approach to climate action based on the sustainable maintenance of Indigenous territories. The idea is as simple as it is cost effective: grant legal recognition to Indigenous territories and support the inhabitants of the land in doing what they have been doing for millennia – taking care of their forests. The plan not only averts greenhouse gas emissions, it brings widespread social and ecological benefits, safeguarding both Indigenous livelihoods and complex forest ecosystems.

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For more than 25 years, Climate Alliance member municipalities have been acting in partnership with indigenous rainforest peoples for the benefit of the global climate. With over 1,700 members spread across 26 European countries, Climate Alliance is the world's largest city network dedicated to climate action. climatealliance.org