“No rights, nothing goes forward,” said Indigenous Amazonian leader Juan Carlos Jintiach, adorned in traditional decorations across his chest and a headdress of blue, yellow and red feathers.
In various versions, this message resounded throughout the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Bonn, Germany, which on 22–23 June assembled more than 600 participants from 83 countries, more than 14,000 on-line viewers and reached 14 million more through social media with research, stories and ambitions around the importance of rights as a solution to climate change and a fundamental necessity for life on earth.
The GLF first and foremost addressed the rights of the 350 million Indigenous peoples caring for over a quarter of the world’s land surface – at least 38 million square kilometers across nearly 90 countries or politically distinct areas. This intersects with 40 percent of protected terrestrial landscapes and includes 80 percent of all the world’s biodiversity.
“We have a mother, and that mother is our territories, our common home of all the Indigenous peoples and everyone who inhabits this earth,” said Maximiliano Ferrer, general secretary of the National Coordination of Indigenous Peoples of Panama.
Without secure land rights and certainty that their lands will not be taken from them, these traditional custodians not only struggle to care for their home environments, but they also have no incentive to do so.
Rights for gender equality, youth, environmental defenders – worldwide, at least 200 people were killed defending their lands in 2017, according to a study by environmental and human rights watchdog Global Witness – and nature itself were also brought into the discussions.
“The water has rights, the tree has rights, the storm has rights,” said Jintiach, who works with the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin to protect his native lands and its peoples.
Despite an increasing number of countries enshrining the rights of nature in legislation, these rights are often not implemented due to overpowering priorities of oil, mining and plantation development, mirroring the reasons for land-related human rights violations as well.
In response to this, the conference served as stage for the presentation of the first draft of a ‘gold standard’ on rights. Led by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development (IPMG), the standard will define the principles of secure and proper rights, to be applied by organizations, institutions, governments and the private sector in the implementation of projects, business, initiatives and law in global landscapes.
“Indigenous peoples have to find strategic alliances to have ancestral territories recognized legally,” said Lizardo Cauper Pezo, Native Communities Coordinator in Peru. “Those places are sacred. We contribute to the protection of those landscapes. It is very important to fight.”
The draft standard will be put forth to Indigenous groups after the conference to ensure its components align with the needs and priorities of those it seeks to help, and further consultations will be held at GLF conferences in Ghana and Chile alongside the Santiago Climate Change Conference (COP25) later this year.
“We wish to establish that the respect of our rights is non-negotiable,” said Joan Carling, co-convener of the IPMG.
“If you’re outside of the community you’re purporting to help, you need to be formally accountable for doing that,” said Tessa Khan, co-director of the Climate Litigation Network and human rights lawyer with the Urgenda Foundation, which in 2015 won the world’s first court case against a country for lack of action on climate change. In her work, she said it’s crucial to take precautions and ensure she properly understands the groups that she defends.
Over the two days, rights were examined from the perspectives of actors from finance, environmental research, advertising, journalism, art, advocacy, law, youth, the LGBTQ community and numerous Indigenous communities from around the world.
Conversations were balanced between stories shared about challenges and threats faced in communities of those who lack rights, and ways that different sectors can help secure and uphold the rights of the people they affect, such as land-using businesses ensuring their operations fund both profitable production and ecosystems services for the communities therein, said Bastiaan Louman, a program coordinator with sustainable management non-profit Tropenbos.
Repeatedly, the stage was given to voices often left on the sidelines of decision-making conversations and processes. Mayumi Sato, a 24-year-old Japanese representative of the Youth in Landscapes Initiative, described how at past conferences, her attendance has often been questioned. “People couldn’t understand why I was sharing the same space as them,” she recalled in a speech. “Is it because I’m small? Is it because I’m Asian? Is it because I’m a woman?” Rights, she said, must be intersectional and encompass the multiple identities of each person.
Sometimes, words were abandoned for other forms of language: Siberian throat singing, Mayan rituals, Inuk poetry, Filipino dancing to the beat of gongs and drums, traditional garments, tattoos and adornments.
The GLF concluded with a discussion on the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which was adopted by the General Assembly on 1 March 2019 and will be put into action from 2021–2030, and the role that rights and Indigenous peoples must play in the Decade’s success.
Two billion hectares of land worldwide need be restored back to proper health, and this can only be achieved if the rights of those who use and care for them are secured first, the speakers stressed.
“What will restore ecosystems?” posed Jeffrey Campbell, manager of the Forest and Farm Facility of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO). “Restoring rights.”