By Joan Carling, Co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development (IPMG)
The climate crisis is worsening, and report after report warns that we are running out of time to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. We also know that the world cannot replace fossil fuels fast enough to keep warming to 2 degrees, much less 1.5 degrees. Our only hope is protecting the forests and wetlands that sequester vast amounts of carbon and regulate the world’s ecosystems. And we cannot protect forests if we ignore the rights of forest guardians.
Indigenous peoples and local communities have stewarded many of the world’s great forests, wetlands and drylands for generations. For many of us, the land is part of who we are. We know how to read the rivers, the trees, the behavior of animals. We understand how to use our forests sustainably while keeping them intact to feed and shelter future generations. Indigenous and community women, in particular, play a critical role in managing and conserving community resources.
Western science has confirmed what traditional knowledge has long told us: where our rights are recognized, deforestation rates are lower and carbon storage is higher. Our lands sequester nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon – the equivalent of 33 times global energy emissions in 2017.
They are also vital to protecting the biodiversity on which all humanity depends. The latest Intergovernmental Science-Policy platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report found that over 1 million species are threatened, putting all humanity at risk. It points to Indigenous peoples and local communities as central to helping humanity quell this loss, and notes that our contributions can be strengthened if states recognize our land rights.
Secure rights also contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those on eliminating poverty and hunger. The livelihoods of up to 2.5 billion people are tied to community lands and forests, and securing rights improves incomes, reduces poverty and often goes hand-in-hand with stronger protections for women’s rights.
If the world is to achieve the SDGs and protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030, recognizing
Indigenous and community rights and supporting their contributions must be at the center of global climate and development efforts.
Yet while Indigenous peoples and local communities customarily own more than half the world’s land, they only have secure legal ownership to 10 percent. Women’s rights to Indigenous and community lands are particularly likely to lack adequate protection. This gap leaves our lands vulnerable to destructive mining, logging and agriculture. The companies behind these projects call it “development,” but this is actually driving the destruction of the planet. Our lands and resources are polluted. Our forests are cut down, and the animals who live there die.
And when Indigenous peoples are forced from our lands, we don’t just lose our homes. Our dignity – our very identity – is also sacrificed. If we resist, we are called criminals and sometimes even killed. Every year sets a new record for the number of land rights defenders murdered; there were over 200 killings in 2017, and thousands of Indigenous peoples are languishing in jail. We are being criminalized and murdered for defending the resources on which all of humanity relies. Even climate change solutions can put us at risk. Conservation has been used as an excuse to drive us from our customary homes, from the forests that are only left standing because of our stewardship.
We are not going to solve the climate crisis – or the inequality crisis – by perpetrating human rights violations against Indigenous peoples. What we offer is a different vision of climate protection and sustainable development: one that protects people and planet, one that feeds the world’s communities and protects resources for future generations. Let’s not simply commit to protect 30 percent of the world’s land by 2030. Let’s commit to 30 percent of the world’s lands recognized for Indigenous peoples and local communities by 2030 as the rights-based solution that will get us to our goal.
There is growing global support for this agenda, and we have seen the development of safeguards and standards. But to date there is no common set of principles, defined by Indigenous peoples and local communities ourselves, that upholds and protects our rights as owners and guardians of the world’s landscapes. To inform national and international policies, and all interventions seeking to conserve and restore the planet, we need more than piecemeal standards. We need more than the bare minimum – much more.
This is why the Indigenous Peoples Major Group is leading the development of a gold standard on right-based approaches for restoration and conservation. Drawing on lessons from the most advanced rights-based approaches in the world today, we are developing standards to:
- Strengthen respect, recognition and protection of the rights Indigenous peoples and local communities, including women;
- Bring an end to the criminalization and persecution of land and environment defenders
- Increase recognition of, and sustained support to, Indigenous peoples and local communities –including women – as stewards and bearers of solutions to landscape restoration, conservation, and sustainable use;
- Build partnerships to enhance engagement and support for rights-based approaches to sustainable landscapes across scales and sectors; and
- Dramatically scale-up efforts to legally recognize and secure collective land and resource rights across landscapes.
We hope this standard will be adopted by the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), its Charter Members, donors, and other international institutions and initiatives, including private sector investors and companies. And we hope that all these actors will encourage others to improve their standards, certification systems and commitments.
By implementing the gold standard, we can both prevent human rights violations and develop conservation and restoration initiatives that embrace the key role Indigenous peoples and local communities are already playing to protect our planet. This will pave the way for a more sustainable, equitable and just future.