Indigenous land rights: an essential pathway to a livable planet

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Indigenous land rights: an essential pathway to a livable planet

Nicole DeSantis - March 21, 2019

The 2017 Equator Prize winner Associação Ashaninka do Rio Amônia Apiwtxa works with local communities in Brazil to protect the environment. © Kyrre Lien / Regnskogfondet UNDP Equator Prize winner


This post was first published on the UNDP Blog on March 20, 2019. You can see the original post here


Today is International Day of Forests, a perfect time to recognize the essential role of forests in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, including securing livelihoods, providing clean water, protecting biodiversity and meeting our climate goals. It is also a perfect time to recognize the critical importance of the role of indigenous land rights in this equation. 

Indigenous peoples have a long and rich history of sustainably caring for their lands and forests, utilizing centuries of traditional knowledge. Globally, there are more than 370 million indigenous peoples in 90 countries. Collectively, indigenous peoples maintain forests that are home to 80% of terrestrial biodiversity. These forests also represent some of the richest carbon stocks in the world - about a quarter of the world’s above-ground carbon, making these lands and their traditional management one of the most essential nature-based climate solutions available.

Addressing deforestation and protecting and restoring forests is critical to achieving the Paris Agreement. In 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests was launched at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit, with support from governments, companies, indigenous peoples and NGOs, all aligning around ten ambitious goals, including to protect, restore, sustainably manage and adequately finance forests, and to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. 

Nearly five years since the launch of the New York Declaration on Forests, we are not on track to meet most goals – the last five years have seen the highest rates of tropical deforestation since 2001. At the same time, it is becoming increasing clear that we cannot meet the goals of the Paris Agreement without securing forests. In many places around the world, that means first securing indigenous land rights, as a growing body of research shows that forests are best protected when they are managed by the communities who depend on them, and when those communities have secure rights.

The challenge, as noted by the NYDF Goal 10 Assessment report, is that weak recognition of land rights, combined with a growing demand for land, result in increased violent land conflicts with local land defenders. The murder earlier this week of Sergio Rojas, an indigenous leader advocating land rights in Costa Rica, is just one of many examples around the world of this escalating violence.

However, there is a glimmer of hope, led by indigenous peoples and local communities around the world. 

  • At the local level, 2017 Equator Prize winner the Associação Ashaninka do Rio Amônia Apiwtxa together with the Ashaninka of the Amônia River founded the Yorenka Ãtame Center (Wisdom of the Forest Center) in Marechal Thaumaturgo, Acre, Brazil. This Center works with local communities to protect the environment, and provides a space for dialogue, exchange and the dissemination of agroforestry skills with a deep respect for the traditional knowledge and local experiences of the diverse local groups.
  • At a national level, Colombia’s national initiative ‘Forest Territories of Life,’ supported by the UN-REDD Programme and other partners, provides a comprehensive process for engaging indigenous peoples in Colombia to integrate their forest project proposals, grounded in traditional forest knowledge. Recently, these proposals have been reflected in Colombia’s national development plans and part of these plans include a forest restoration program in indigenous peoples’ territories that follows traditional knowledge practices.
  • At the global level, indigenous peoples are at the forefront of bold ideas for forest conservation. At last year’s Convention on Biological Diversity conference, the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) presented a vision for the ‘Corridor of Life,’ which would become the world’s largest protected area and a sanctuary for people and wildlife, covering 200 million hectares in Latin America.  

As we look ahead to this September to the fifth anniversary of the New York Declaration on Forests, and to the 2019 UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit, it is time to recognize the immense contribution of indigenous peoples for forests, nature, and climate. One concrete way to do this is to recognize indigenous rights within each Nationally Determined Contribution – the definitive climate road map for each country – as only a tiny fraction of plans currently recognize indigenous land rights and traditional knowledge. As we look to 2020 and to the coming decade – our last best chance to tackle climate change – we must radically scale up ambition if we want to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees.  Defending indigenous land rights, and supporting local, national and international indigenous efforts, provides us with an essential pathway to achieve this goal. 


About the Author

Nicole DeSantis is Policy Advisor, New York Declaration on Forests Global Platform, UNDP

Follow her on Twitter: @nicoledesant

To find more blog posts, visit the NYDF Blog.


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