Published: October 3, 2017

[Photo: Tenure Facility]

A new center is using mapping and legal services to help establish that indigenous people are rightful owners of rainforests around the world, in turn protecting those forests so that they can keep sequestering greenhouse gases.

By Ben Paynter

Tropical rainforests controlled by indigenous people currently store 25% of the world’s carbon emissions. At the same time, “controlled” is usually something of a misnomer. While indigenous communities claim ownership of up to 50% of the world’s land, they’ve only legally secured about 10% of it.  Many aren’t able to prove–with evidence accepted by courts–that the areas they’ve occupied for generations are technically theirs, giving industries the ability to work out claims or annexations of ancestral territories for mining, hydropower plants, or palm oil plantations, all of which destroy the land.

The result has become something of an ecological and financial disaster. An analysis of 73,000 recent developments on supposedly uninhabited land around the world found that indigenous people lived in 93% of them (see the video below). Many of those conflicts remain ongoing, with at least 61% currently unresolved. And when the projects do go forward, cutting down trees in the process, the deforestation destroys a natural stopgap against global warming. By some estimates stopping the practice and allowing regrowth could give these areas the ability to absorb up to 37% of our annual carbon emissions. Plus, conflict with indigenous people is, unsurprisingly, bad for business: Trying to build on occupied indigenous land is, on average, 29 times more expensive than expected.

The International Land and Forest Tenure Facility aims to fix that by offering grants and technical assistance to help indigenous people secure their rights and resources, in part through better mapping and legal services. The group, originally started in 2014 by the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global network for land and forest policy reform, has completed a series of pilot projects, that led to the securing rights to nearly 2 million hectares of previously embattled territory across the world, including helping local communities in Indonesia, Mali, Peru, Cameroon, and Liberia. (For reference, one hectare is about the size of a track infield.)

The goal isn’t always to stop commercial land use projects, but to ensure that communities are actively involved in their size, scope, and duration to ensure that what’s taken may also be eventually restored, and that no development encroaches on areas that communities might otherwise need to grow food, access water, or preserve as sacred space. But the first goal is simply to get land titles in the right hands so those decisions can be made, a complex process considering many groups are remote.

According to a preliminary report from the Tenure Facility about early pilot projects, that’s generally accomplished by working with NGOs that may already be active in the region, or existing advocacy groups, which can identify the right stakeholders to gain community support.  “In Indonesia, the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) facilitated the titling of over 1.5 million hectares of land belonging to 450 indigenous communities,” notes the report. “AMAN’s achievement helped to convince local authorities of the feasibility of securing indigenous people’s land and forest rights using legislative tools at their disposal, igniting a movement that is rapidly spreading across the country.”

Another major effort will be to ensure the land rights, when they are secured, are available to rural women, which gives them more power and stature in their own communities, lessening inequality.

Early donors to the group include the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and Ford Foundation. While their exact contributions aren’t specified, the report estimates that spending at least $10 million over the next 10 years would officially protect over 40 million hectares of indigenous land. For comparison, about 13 million hectares of forest are cleared annually, according to a 2014 report from Rights and Resources, and World Resources Institute, an environmental research group. They analyzed land-use trends in forested areas across Latin American, Africa, and Asia, noting correlations between indigenous controlled areas and the environmental impact of those places. Simply put, when locals actually have the rights to their lands, those areas remain great at carbon sequestering. When they don’t, the lands were often stripped and ended up generating carbon emissions.

[Photo: Tenure Facility]

“We know all too well that climate change and inequality are inextricably linked, said Ford Foundation president Darren Walker at a kickoff event in Stockholm. “The people who will and always suffer the most are those who have the least power, the least wealth, the least opportunity, and the least justice. We see an impact in reducing conflict and promoting peace as one of the outcomes of this facility, but we also believe it will uphold human rights around the world.”