Humans are destructive. We’ve destroyed as much forest in a century as what had previously taken us 9,000 years to clear—enough forestland to cover all of the U.S.
But I say “humans” loosely. Not all of us went around colonizing entire continents, cutting down trees and pillaging the communities that lived among them. That’s white people for you. Indigenous peoples, on the other hand, have rarely been destructive. Their worldview requires the opposite: to restore, protect, and respect. And the United Nations finally recognized this power in a formal report released Thursday—a move that could finally push international leaders to protect our forests by investing in the communities that are best equipped to manage them.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re reiterating the need to respect tribal rights. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. This report doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, but it does put pressure on leaders (I’m looking at you, Mr. President) to take action to protect some of the world’s largest carbon sinks.
Nearly 10 years ago, Ginny Alba met her husband, Robinson López Descanse. The pair bonded over their dedication to human rights. As Indigenous peoples themselves—Alba of the Piratapuyo people in eastern Colombia and López Descanse of the Inga in southwestern Colombia—their work was deeply personal. “Our love emerged that way,” Alba says to me in Spanish.
On August 21, 2020, their love story ended. López Descanse, only 35, died of COVID-19, leaving behind Alba and their two children. The work, however, continues. López Descanse was a governor for his community and served as the climate change coordinator of the Coordinating Body of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations report released Thursday cemented its support for Indigenous and tribal peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean to govern and manage forests. The organization dedicated it to López Descanse. His death highlights the vulnerability of his people, as well as their resiliency as Alba carries his legacy forward despite mourning her loss.
“The negative impacts Indigenous peoples in the Colombian Amazon have suffered is great,” she says. “It requires the attention of the state to guarantee our human rights and protection from industry. The Amazon is being threatened in different ways—from armed conflicts to mineral extraction. They need to value our culture and the ancestral knowledge of our elders to protect the environment.”
As the 169-page report lays out, Indigenous and tribal peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean are in critical need of protection—from both the deadly coronavirus and the violence that’s plaguing their communities—in order to effectively guard the forests and biodiversity that gives us all a habitable planet. More than 900 million acres of land sits under their guardianship, storing more carbon than the forests of Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo combined. The report doesn’t include any original data. Instead, it features an exhaustive review of more than 300 studies that have been published over the last 20 years, as well as five key suggestions for how world leaders can invest in preserving biological and cultural diversity.
For some of us, findings around the benefit of Indigenous peoples managing their lands isn’t exactly news. Plenty of scientists have explored this topic, but recognition at this level carries tremendous weight—especially now. The international community is coming together for a number of high-level meetings this year, including President Joe Biden’s Earth Day Leaders’ Climate Summit and COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in November. The timing of the report’s release is no coincidence.
“President Biden said he wants to invest money in the Amazon. We need to remember the Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants in the Amazon,” says David Kaimowitz, manager of the FAO’s Forest and Farm Facility and main author on the report. “We have four major global events that are going to have a big impact on where the international community decides to invest, what public opinion thinks is important, and we thought it was very important to highlight that this situation with Indigenous peoples in Latin America is urgent today .”
There’s already concern that unequal vaccine distribution may affect who is able to attend these major international gatherings, so it’s imperative that the leaders who do attend make space for the needs of and impacts to vulnerable populations such as Indigenous communities. They must now also consider this report’s findings, which make a hell of case for giving more land to Indigenous peoples in Latin America.
“There are different levels of compensation, and this should be done respecting our right to decide how we would like to receive those resources and spend it.”
Deforestation rates are significantly lower where Indigenous peoples are in charge. Researchers saw the most promise in territories where Indigenous communities have legal titles to land. In the Bolivian, Brazilian, and Colombian Amazon, deforestation rates were 33 to 50 percent of what was occurring in other ecologically similar forests between 2000 and 2012. Bolivia saw the most success out of the three; the rate was 2.8 times lower on Indigenous lands. These titled collective territories prevented up to 59.7 million metric tons of CO2 emissions a year in these countries. That’s how much carbon dioxide would pump out of some 12 million cars.
So while Indigenous peoples manage 28 percent of the Amazon Basin, they only contribute some 2.6 percent of the region’s emissions. Kaimowitz was surprised to see how effective the strategy of giving Indigenous people formal land rights could be. He was also surprised by the role cultural revitalization plays.
“I’m an economist by background, and we’re taught to ignore culture—but culture is an important piece of this story,” he says. “Culture plays multiple roles. It goes from what people consume and the types of foods they eat to the way they produce and the fact that most of these peoples don’t have a lot of extensive cattle ranching or monocrop agriculture in their systems. And it goes to their ways of governing their territories—the fact that their culture says that land is not something that’s normally sold and bought to outsiders.”
This is especially true when looking at the data of Indigenous peoples who do exploit the forest. Though these communities are a minority, Kaimowitz says they resort to this when they’ve lost access to their ancestral lands, are struggling economically, or have lost resources due to others coming in and taking them.
“It’s rare to see cases of large-scale deforestation by the Indigenous peoples themselves,” he says. “It’s a result of the pressure from outside, in some cases, breaking down the traditions and institutions.”
Culture—including preserving languages and belief systems—is so critical to biodiversity in the region. And, as the report makes clear, Indigenous peoples aren’t the only ones with the knowledge and wisdom. Afro-descendants are stewards, too. The report uses the internationally understood term “tribal peoples” in reference to Afro-descendants who are not Indigenous to these lands but were instead enslaved by Europeans in Africa and brought over to Latin America during colonization. Afro-descendants escaped to the forests where they formed special ties with the land.
Nothing from the report surprised Myrna Cunningham, a Miskito leader from Nicaragua who’s a co-author on the report and chair of the board of directors for the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples. What did surprise her, however, was FAO’s agreement.
“That is the big shift,” she says. “Because we have been saying it and saying it, but now it comes out as a publication that is supported by a UN agency, and that makes the big change.”
Most importantly for Cunningham were the recommendations the report puts forth, which include paying communities for their services and strengthening communal land rights. Giving Indigenous peoples their lands can be anywhere from five to 42 times more affordable than the average cost of investing in carbon capture and storage technologies. Protecting forests through collaborating with the people who best know how is more cost-effective—and more just to the communities whose cultures and well-being rely on the health of the forest.
Payment can go a long way. Amazonian peoples can use these funds to buy food and supplies for patrol groups, which often spend days in the jungle looking for illegal activity. They may also want to invest in drones to provide an aerial view of their territories. Financial support can also help ensure they are building schools and clinics to pass on cultural knowledge to their youth and protect the knowledge that exists in their elders.
“When we’re talking about compensation, we’re talking about how resources can really reach Indigenous communities, Indigenous territories, Indigenous organizations so they can exercise their right to education and health in these communities,” Cunningham says. “There are different levels of compensation, and this should be done respecting our right to decide how we would like to receive those resources and spend it.”
Governmental compensation could also help these groups cover legal costs to sue polluters and bad actors. In Ecuador, the Kichwa peoples are in the middle of a lawsuit against oil companies OCP Ecuador and Petroecuador EP for allegedly spilling 664,000 gallons of oil into the Amazon in 2020, stripping them of their access to water and fresh food. The courts rejected an appeal last week, in essence siding with the defendants who are now targeting the plaintiff’s legal team in a separate lawsuit.
It’s a messy situation that feels eerily similar to how Chevron attacked a prominent climate attorney for another oil spill in the Amazon affecting Ecuadorian Indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, the Amazonian Yanomami territory saw mining increase by 30 percent last year. This type of development threatens not only the forests we need to store carbon—but also the safety of the communities that live nearby. Sometimes, the courts are their best option for relief.
COVID-19 has allowed villains to prosper in the isolation of lockdown. The advocates who refuse to remain silent—heroes like López Descanse—are at unnecessary risk. International leaders can support Indigenous and tribal peoples and offer them improved protections. We’d all benefit. Once enough trees disappear, our climate won’t simply change; it’ll evolve. Rainforests will become savannas. And there’s no coming back from that.