Global leaders must acknowledge that land and forests owned and managed by local communities are more likely to prevent deforestation and deliver greater carbon storage
In my native Colombia, the cloud forests of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have been described as holding the most important concentration of threatened wildlife on Earth. These forests are also the ancestral home of the Koguis, an indigenous group now numbering around 10,000 individuals.
In their cosmology, Koguis are the elders of humanity, living in the heart of the world, while outsiders are the “younger brothers” who were banished because of how they abused the land in the past – an accurate description of a planet where 160,000 acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed or damaged every day.
For centuries, the Koguis have strived to care for their land in a way that will preserve it for future generations. If we listen to them and other indigenous peoples, if we respect their rights and honour their traditions, I think we “younger brothers” still have a chance to get it right.
At the COP 22 climate conference in Marrakesh this week and last, governments are unveiling plans to meet their emission reduction goals – including switching to lower-carbon energy and transport. But it is imperative that these plans also include the vast, sparsely populated areas that are home to indigenous peoples.
In Latin America, for instance, there are around 40 million indigenous people. Altogether, indigenous and community-owned lands represent around 23% of the region’s total land mass. This is an immense territory, roughly equivalent to the combined surface of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Much of this land is still covered by forests and grasslands whose preservation is a proven and cost-effective way of reducing emissions. In my experience, there is no better way to ensure the careful stewardship of these assets – whether in the Amazon basin, the Andean highlands or the jungles of Central America – than to give indigenous communities full control over the land.
Indigenous peoples have encyclopaedic knowledge about the landscapes they live in. They also have the strongest possible incentive to ensure the sustainability of those ecosystems. The World Resources Institute conducted a study of 80 forest areas in 10 countries in south Asia, east Africa, and Latin America which found that community-owned and managed forests delivered greater carbon storage, as when local communities have no legal rights, or very few, their forests are more vulnerable to deforestation. Indeed, evidence suggests that strengthening indigenous forest rights is associated with both better communities and healthier forests.
When local communities have no legal rights, or very few, their forests are more vulnerable to deforestation. Indeed, evidence suggests that strengthening indigenous forest rights is associated with both better communities and healthier forests.
In the past, governments and policymakers tended to undervalue the link between climate change mitigation and indigenous land rights. But the Paris Agreement explicitly recognised this, and some governments – including Bolivia and Guatemala – incorporated such considerations into their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
Of course, land rights are no panacea. Even when they have control, communities need support when deciding how to most effectively use local resources, how to provide a decent livelihood for their people, and how to deal with illegal activities such as clandestine mining and poaching.
Donor nations and development banks must also help to strengthen the institutions responsible for land tenure and expand climate finance options for investments that promote sustainable landscapes.
Today, I hope our deeper understanding of the potential impact of indigenous land stewardship will lead to an ambitious inclusion of these communities in the national and global discussions on climate mitigation and adaptation.
Luis Alberto Moreno is president of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington