Half of the world’s land is home to indigenous peoples and local communities, but they have legal rights to only about 10 percent of the world’s land area. This gap in legal land ownership contributes to conflict in and against these communities and imperils world forests with far-reaching consequences.
“There are cascading repercussions,” says Jamie Kalliongis, a spokeswoman for the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a Washington D.C.–based initiative spearheading a digital summit on the topic at the upcoming GLF Bonn conference. RRI estimates that there are up to 2.5 billion people worldwide who rely on community lands for their livelihoods. “Without secure land rights, indigenous peoples and local communities whose lands are coveted by others often experience a pattern of harassment, conflict and violence.”
Population pressure; illicit land grabs; and land appropriation by loggers, miners, palm oil growers, and others have all increasingly encroached on indigenous and local communities, resulting in an uptick in violence and crime, malnutrition and social marginalization. Even the expansion of government-protected areas such as national parks has sometimes resulted in the displacement of locals, a chain of events that gave rise to the term ‘fortress conservation.’
“Indigenous Peoples making use of forests and natural resources in a sustainable way for their food and livelihoods are criminalized through the enforcement of restrictive laws and policies,” says Joan Carling, a longtime indigenous rights activist from the Philippines and co-convener for the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development.
The local ecosystems can lose out as well, with research showing that indigenous peoples and communities are often the best caretakers of forests due to their deep knowledge of local landscapes. As competition for the world’s remaining timberlands continues, the foothold communities have on the land is increasingly vulnerable unless changes are made. This threatens rare species, unique woodlands and rainforests, and an important bulwark against a warming climate as forests provide a key way to absorb carbon emissions.
In response, multiple international agencies have partnered to advocate for local community and indigenous rights. “Recognizing community land rights is critical to defending our climate and to ensuring a more peaceful and equitable world,” says Kalliongis.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz authored a 2018 report on the criminalization and violence faced by indigenous peoples. Among its findings, the report said that “intensified competition over natural resources led by private companies, at times with government complicity, has placed indigenous communities seeking to protect their traditional lands at the forefront as targets of persecution.”
Tauli-Corpuz herself has been labeled a terrorist by the Filipino government for her advocacy, as has Carling. According to the Global Witness, an average of nearly four people per week died defending their land or the environment in 2017.
Yet, there has been progress. According to one estimate, forests legally recognized as belonging to indigenous and local communities have grown by nearly 40 percent since 2002. Governments in India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mali, Liberia and Zambia have also been part of a promising trend of stronger legislative protections for the communities in the past four years.
Says Carling, “There needs to be a change of mindset in viewing indigenous peoples as destroyers of forests and instead see them as invaluable partners in sustainably managing and protecting the world’s resources.”