For Indigenous Communities, The Fight Against Climate Change Is a Fight For Human Rights

In a protest in Brazil last spring, indigenous people held funeral processions with hundreds of symbolic coffins to represent those from their communities killed in land conflicts. Photo Courtesy Rogério Assis / Mobilização Nacional Indígena
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BONN, Germany—For Mina Susana Setra, there are scenes. One of her playing in a canoe with her brother in the river behind their old house. Another of the time her mom sent her on an errand and she got lost following the birds. Many of playing in the forest barefoot, memorizing the names of flowers, sampling fruits, learning which plants were medicines.

Setra, who is of the Dayak Pompakng indigenous group in Indonesia, can still visit these scenes, but only as memories. The actual settings, from her childhood in West Kalimantan, Borneo, are gone. The river has dried up. The birds have left. The flowers, fruits and medicines have disappeared, along with the rest of the forest.

Bulldozers from the palm oil companies began arriving in her youth. Some indigenous communities were offered money, clinics, and schools in exchange for land. Others had their land taken by force.

People were given jobs as low-wage laborers to help plant oil palm. But because they had no seeds or pesticides—a requirement for growing oil palm trees—they had to borrow money from the palm oil companies. Soon, they were in debt to people making a profit off of land that, for generations, had belonged to them.

No one told them that after about 20 years, oil palm plantations stop yielding much product. The companies moved on, but Setra’s people remained. No longer able to hunt their own meat or pluck their own fruits and vegetables from the forests, they needed cash to buy groceries from the market.

When other indigenous communities tried to defend their homes from palm oil, wise to the destruction it brings, their members were sometimes intimidated, harassed or killed.

This is the story Setra tells me when we meet at the recent UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany. But it doesn’t end there—she and other community members won’t let it. Indigenous leaders came to the conference from around the world to fight for their peoples’ protection and empowerment. The effort to save our planet, they assert, must include them, its original peoples.

Doing so is imperative for human rights. It is also a strategy for fighting climate change.

For two decades, indigenous peoples have engaged with the UN climate talks, pointing out that the world’s climate mitigation strategies have omitted their knowledge systems and, in some instances, actively harmed and displaced their communities. This year, indigenous representatives managed to make important strides, including gaining approval of a platform that finally opens the door for their active participation in global climate negotiations.

At the same time, much work still needs to be done. Indigenous peoples and local communities are stewards of as much as 65 percent of the world’s land, yet only 10 percent of this land is officially owned by these collective groups. Without recognition or enforcement of their territorial rights, indigenous communities around the world face the constant threat of having their land taken for extractive activities, agribusiness, and infrastructure mega-projects. Community members are regularly threatened, charged with crimes or murdered for refusing to relinquish their homes.

On the way to Bonn, a group of more than 20 indigenous leaders from Latin and Central America, Southeast Asia, and Africa met with politicians and civil groups in cities across Europe. They toured the continent by eco-bus to share stories of their people’s struggles, along with five key demands: the official titling of indigenous lands, a halt to violence against their people, direct access to anti-deforestation financing, the incorporation of their knowledge in combatting climate change, and their right to self-determine what happens to their lives, land, and resources.

The story of the delegation, which calls itself “guardians of the forest,” goes back to 2014, during the UN climate summit convened by former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York. There, leaders of local forest communities met and started discussing their experiences. It quickly became clear how much they had in common.

“We realized we were all being criminalized, assassinated, pursued and pressured by huge megaprojects. We were not being consulted at all, even in countries that had agreed to consult us as part of free, prior, and informed consent,” said Marvin Sotelo, executive secretary of the Nicaragua-based Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests.

The indigenous leaders decided to join forces, assembling at subsequent UN climate conferences in Lima, Paris, Marrakech, and most recently, Bonn. “We wanted to show up in places where decisions were being made, about policies that would have an impact on all of us,” Sotelo said.

The bus trip preceding this year’s conference was important for the guardians, he added, because Europe is a big market for goods produced unsustainably in tropical countries. From 2000 to 2012, the equivalent of more than one soccer field of tropical forest was illegally cleared every two minutes to supply Europe with just soy, palm oil, beef and leather.

For many of these products, “we pay the price in terms of violence, and even murder,” Sotelo said. Last year, at least 200 land activists were killed, 40 percent of whom were indigenous, reported Global Witness, a human rights watchdog. Often indigenous people are murdered by those involved in illegal logging, mining, cattle ranching or land grabbing, who know they won’t be punished.

It’s not just “dirty industry,” either. Some climate change mitigation efforts —particularly those that put a market value on untitled indigenous land—have harmed indigenous people as well. In the 1990s, a Dutch company called the Face Foundation started planting trees in Mount Elgon National Park, Uganda, to sell carbon credits to eco-conscious consumers wanting to offset their travel emissions via another Dutch company, Greenseat. In the process, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) forcibly evicted hundreds of indigenous Benet people living in Mount Elgon, beating them, shooting at them, uprooting crops and confiscating livestock.

Other “green” projects, such as the expansion of oil palm plantations for biofuel production, or the creation of hydroelectric dams and nuclear waste sites, have also threatened indigenous and local communities.

Without indigenous perspectives in global climate negotiations, such violations are likely to continue occurring. Through the history of UN climate meetings, indigenous groups have only been allowed brief presentations at side events. But with last month’s approval of the “local communities and indigenous peoples platform,” things may be poised to change.

Crafted by a mix of governments, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs, including indigenous groups, the document emphasizes the need “to strengthen the knowledge, technologies, practices and efforts of local communities and indigenous peoples” in responding to climate change. For the first time, it also calls for the inclusion of these groups “in leadership roles.”

“In UN language, that is a quite strong signal,” said Penny Davies, a program officer for the Ford Foundation who specializes in climate change policy. She added that the platform empowers indigenous and local communities to engage with their governments “on a more level playing field,” and shifts the conventional locus of knowledge.

“The traditional narrative has been that these communities are victims of climate change,” she said. “Here, the language is not just ‘we’re victims of climate change, but ‘we’re actually solutions.’”

In recent years, formalized Western research has caught up to what indigenous people have long known: Their communities, when protected and supported, are the best forest managers in the world.

As countries remain far from meeting the emissions reductions needed to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2030, the reach goal set forth by the Paris accord, the world needs to take better advantage of forests, a time-proven carbon sink, said Richard Houghton, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Forests and other land vegetation also provide food, pollination and evaporative cooling, services for which “we don’t have any substitutes,” said Deborah Lawrence, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia.

The world’s 370 million indigenous people play a major role in maintaining these crucial services. Studies have found that more than one-fifth of the carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests lies in indigenous territories, and that indigenous-managed forests are significantly less likely to be cleared than the average tropical forest.

Last month, researchers reported that indigenous territories and protected natural areas represent 52 percent of forested land in the Amazon, but only 17 percent of deforestation that occurred between 2000 and 2015 took place in their boundaries. And a study in PNAS earlier this year found that awarding formal land titles to indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon reduced forest clearing by more than 75 percent.

Yesenia Carolina Alvarado Charez, one of the guardians of the forest who belongs to the Q’eqchi ethnic group in Guatemala, lives on land granted to her community in a protected area called the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Residing in an area called Uaxactún, the Q’eqchi create their own economy through the sustainable cultivation of products like gum and hardwood.

“We have traditional knowledge, learned through our generations, of how to protect forests,” Alvarado Charez said. For every mahogany or Spanish cedar tree they cut down, members of her community plant three more.

Households in Uaxactún can make up to $500 a month, a big leap from the $85 to $250 many other rural families make per month. The community also generates scholarships, educational programs, microloans, and other supports for its members.

The origins of the agreement that created the Uaxactún concession were less than ideal, Alvarado Chavez noted. Toward the end of Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war, the government offered a deal to her people: They could either manage a portion of the 154,000 hectares of forest that they claimed historically belonged to them, or they could forfeit all of their land. With no choice, the Uaxactún community settled for 83,000 hectares.

Their concession is set to expire in 2025, and Alvarado Chavez’s community is now preparing to fight for an indefinite extension. “This land belongs to us,” she said, adding that under indigenous ownership, “the management of the forest is guaranteed.”

In another region with even stronger Native autonomy, Guna Yala, Panama, the indigenous Gunas have their own sovereign territory, governance and economy, recognized by the Panamanian government since the Guna Revolution of 1925.

For any project to be allowed in Guna Yala, all 49 indigenous communities in the region must approve. Because of the Gunas’ deep conservation ethic, projects with a heavy environmental impact are almost guaranteed to be rejected, resulting in the maintenance of more than 80 percent primary forest cover. Over the years, the Gunas have accepted only a few large-scale projects, one being the installation of a fiber optic cable that helps deliver internet to all of Central America.

“We think about future generations,” said Olo Villalaz, a Guna and a guardian of the forest. “In the moment we might say ‘Oh, we can make money from this.’ But we think about the wellbeing of future generations versus the short-term economic gain.”

Stories like Villalaz’s and Alvarado Chavez’s show that indigenous narratives are not just of plight, but also of promise. But recognition of the knowledge, values, and power of indigenous communities must be paired with action, and a big test of the new UN platform will be whether countries put their money where their mouths are.

Theoretically, the platform should increase investment in local and indigenous communities. Historically, however, much of the money channeled through the Green Climate Fund has failed to reach intended vulnerable communities. A report published last month by environmental research foundation Prisma looked at the billions Germany has spent on forest aid in Mesoamerica, and found that less than 15 percent of funds were funneled to community-based initiatives, the rest mostly financing government-led projects with limited outcomes.

One country that has not always backed up its words with its wallet is Brazil, which helped develop the local communities and indigenous peoples platform. Having positioned itself as a leader in anti-deforestation efforts, Brazil has received $1 billion in forest aid from Norway, $28 million from Germany, and $7 million from Petrobras, a Brazilian oil company, as of this summer.

At the same time, protections for indigenous and local people have been rolled back over the country’s last several presidencies. During the UN meeting, indigenous, environmental, and human rights groups delivered a letter to the Brazilian government calling out the “contradiction” between the country’s statements at the climate summit and its actions back home.

Brazil, the letter noted, “has had its international credibility shaken by successive domestic measures that impose setbacks not only on the climate agenda, but also—and especially—on the human rights agenda.”

“Many times, traditional people have just been used to make propaganda” for state environmental projects, said Isaac Piyãko, the indigenous mayor of a Brazilian city called Marechal Thaumaturgo, at a press conference in Bonn.

Paulo Moutinho, co-founder of IPAM, an NGO researching sustainable development in the Amazon, thinks that politicians and businesses will only pay attention to indigenous rights once it makes sense to them monetarily. He and others at IPAM hope to publish peer-reviewed research that elucidates the links between healthy forests and productive agriculture. There’s mounting evidence that “the best agricultural investment you can do in the Amazon is protect the rights of indigenous people” who help safeguard ecosystem services, Moutinho said.

Slowly, this logic may be catching on. In Bonn, Germany and Britain pledged a combined $153 million to fighting deforestation in the Amazon, more than half of which is slated to go to a program in Brazil that pays indigenous people and farmers to maintain forest cover.

Across the world, indigenous Indonesian communities have claimed even bigger victories. In 2013, Setra was part of a group that won a landmark decision from the federal court, which removed government control over forest lands belonging to indigenous peoples. She and others are now in the process of designating millions of hectares of land to be titled to indigenous forest dwellers.

I asked Setra and other indigenous leaders whether they feel it’s unfair that indigenous peoples are expected to be part of the climate change solution when they have not contributed to the problem, pointing, in contrast, to the glaring absence of climate leadership by the United States in Bonn. But that’s not how they see things.

Olo Villalaz, of Panama, recalled how companies have come to his community’s elders with calculations of how much carbon each tree on their land contains, and how much money that carbon could earn them.

“Our grandparents don’t understand any of that,” he said. “To them, it’s a tree. It’s a living thing.” Ask any of these elders what forests mean to them, and they will tell you that forests mean everything. Forests mean animals, plants, and people. Forests mean water and medicine. Forests mean life itself.

“We have that wisdom of how sacred we all are,” Villalaz said, “and that is why we have to involve ourselves.”

Steph Yin is a science journalist based in Philadelphia.