Deforestation and climate change: Why rights-based approaches to mitigation matter

Francesco Martone, Forest Peoples Programme

Deforestation and climate change are human rights issues. Indigenous peoples must be at the forefront of future mitigation and adaptation actions.

Forests have been at the centre of climate change negotiations for many years now, in particular in negotiations on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD+. The Cancun agreements finalised in 2010 at COP16 acknowledged the importance of forests in mitigating climate change, and the role of indigenous peoples in conserving and managing forests, as well as the need and obligation to respect their rights. This was a significant step towards building a rights-based approach into a multilateral environmental agreement such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In spite of announced commitments to curb deforestation and forest degradation, however, deforestation has increased, and with it the ensuing violation of human rights and destruction of indigenous lands has intensified. The expansion of infrastructure, monoculture plantations, logging, and support for mitigation actions such as biofuels, natural gas or large scale hydropower development are all driving this trend. Parallel to that, the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples have also intensified, in terms of restricted access to water, food, drought, alteration of ecosystem balances, loss of knowledge systems and cultures.

These worrying developments emphasise the obligation for countries to adopt a rights-based approach to climate change mitigation. Gains achieved in Cancun risk being lost at COP20 in Lima, unless parties take a bold stance and acknowledge that climate change is a human-rights issue.

COP20 is expected to deliver a footprint for future negotiations that will lead to a global binding agreement on climate to be adopted at COP21 in December 2015 in Paris. So far, discussions and negotiations on land-based mitigation – including forests – have only paid lip service to respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and forest-dependent communities. There is a high risk that mitigation actions designed in COP20, and beyond, may only centre on the urgency to reduce carbon emissions, and will fail to ensure a holistic approach to forests and related social and human rights implications.

It is time to urge governments and the United Nations (UN) to fully acknowledge the role of indigenous peoples in mitigating climate change, both by defending their lands, forests and resources, and by managing these sustainably and in accordance with their traditional livelihoods and knowledge. It is time for parties and the UN to concretely address the human rights impacts of climate change, as well as the human-rights impacts of mitigation policies and actions. Indigenous peoples must be at the forefront of future mitigation and adaptation actions.

In March 2014, 60 representatives of indigenous and other forest communities from Africa, Asia and Latin America came together at the International Workshop on Deforestation and the Rights of Forest Peoples, in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. They discussed the unrelenting destruction of forests around the world and the risks to forest peoples’ rights, well-being and cultural heritage. The Palangka Raya Declaration, issued by delegates at the close of the workshop,
states: ‘When our peoples’ rights are secured, then deforestation can be halted and even reversed. We call for a change in policy to put rights and justice at the centre of deforestation efforts.’

Forest Peoples Programme will be in Lima along with a delegation of representatives of indigenous peoples, to support the efforts and demands of indigenous peoples' organisations at the COP20. Alongside Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP), we will be organising a hearing at the Museum of Arts of Lima (MALI) on December 8, 2013 to present the Palangka Raya Declaration and to share testimonies of indigenous leaders from Peru, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Panama in the presence of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.


Francesco Martone is policy advisor for Forest Peoples Programme.  He has been working on REDD+ and UNFCCC negotiations for many years in support of the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change.