When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) completed its latest assessment report last month, the body devoted a significant amount of space to “nature-based solutions.” And they sound wonderful. These types of solutions involve protecting key ecosystems to sequester and store carbon. They’re all about conserving biodiversity in forests, wetlands, and rivers. What more beautiful way to respond to the climate crisis than to reconnect with the soil and its gifts?
The discourse around nature-based solutions will have you convinced that the trees themselves will save humanity from the mess we’ve made. After all, we need to put our emissions somewhere. Why look to climate tech when the planet has already got us covered? All fair and true points—but here’s the thing about nature-based solutions. They don’t stop carbon pollution. In fact, many Indigenous advocates argue that nature-based solutions encourage polluters to continue their dirty business. And that’s only a slice of what opponents are worried about.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re getting critical. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The climate crisis demands an overhaul of, well, everything—including our relationship to the natural world. However, world leaders cannot suggest they will protect Mother Earth—which is how many Indigenous cultures speak of nature—within a capitalist economy that commodifies her well-being. That’s not protection; that’s profit. And the Indigenous communities that have been calling on the international community to respect nature for decades are over the tricks and lies. Mother Earth needs her guardians—and Indigenous people need their rights.
In 1992, about 400 Indigenous people gathered near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They were there to declare to the world their commitment to their mother—their commitment to the Earth. The meeting was historic. Indigenous voices from Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, the Pacific, and the Americas came together to stand before government representatives and make their plea.
Even then, before climate change was the crisis it is today, Indigenous people were urging the world to follow their lead and save the planet. Now, many world leaders have decided that they, too, want to protect ecosystems. Nature-based solutions have become a talking point in international climate policy with philanthropy funneling a record $5 billion dollars last year toward the cause.
Unfortunately, these efforts have largely missed the mark, argue Indigenous advocates. Instead, the idea of nature-based solutions takes an Indigenous framework—to respect the elements—and mutates it into something ugly. Proponents of nature-based solutions risk creating further harm to the very communities whose worldview they claim to be supporting.
“What we saw referred to as ‘nature-based solutions’ was a co-optation of Indigenous worldviews but also a new strategy meant to facilitate the erasure of Indigenous-led movements, solutions, and demands necessary for us to continue to do what we’re already doing well,” said Janene Yazzie, the southwest regional director for NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to the land back movement.
While Indigenous communities globally have been calling for more protections of nature, they’ve called for this alongside other demands, such as the recognition of their land and cultural rights. The reality is that many governments ignore their rights, which is already resulting in displacement as nature-based solutions proponents pursue this avenue.
“When something can work for us, it can work for everyone.”
Survival International, a human rights group, has documented how the Baiga tribe in India is suffering after foreign tree-planting campaigns entered the region. Across the globe, the creation of protected areas sometimes push Indigenous and local communities off their land or prevent them from accessing the resources, food, and medicine they once gathered from the land, Survival International has reported.
This modern reality mirrors the history of displacement Indigenous people faced centuries ago when the U.S. national park system was born and removed them from their lands in the name of conservation. Humans, however, are part of the ecosystem. We are nature. Indigenous people, in particular, help ecosystems thrive as research reminds us time and time again.
“When something can work for us, it can work for everyone,” Yazzie said. “We have a long history and a long historical memory of a different way of living, a different way of building our society and our communities and our government structures that honor our responsibility to all the things that are around us—and that’s our natural laws. Nature-based solutions are a very inadequate reframing of all of that and everything that we hold in our worldviews and traditional knowledge systems.”
All this attention on the carbon storing potential of nature also ignores what’s most urgent in the climate fight: the end of fossil fuels. Research highlighting the potential success of nature-based solutions is clear that they’ll only succeed if emitters dramatically slow down. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies rely on nature-based solutions to meet their net-zero pledges.
Syncrude, a company that produces tar sands (one of the world’s most polluting fossil fuels) in Canada, has spent millions of dollars to create “the world’s largest protected boreal forest area,” per its website. By investing in what would be considered a nature-based solution, the tar sands company gets to say it’s helping solve climate change despite contributing to its creation. What good does that do?
“This is just another scheme for the rich to keep polluting,” said Eriel Deranger, the executive director for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian-based Indigenous rights group, whose own First Nation territory is affected by the tar sands industry. “It’s a polluter-pay mechanism. As long as you can pay and buy and offset a piece of land somewhere, then you’re fine.”
The global response to the climate crisis must approach the issue through an ecological and scientifically sound lens. That’s part of the benefit of nature-based solutions, said Ashish Kothari, founder-member of Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh. Taking care of the planet should be a good thing—and it is!—but doing so within the current capitalist system that strips Indigenous people of their rights is insufficient. After all, economic strategies that ignored this reality for centuries got us into this mess.
“Human activities that, instead, take nature’s limits and rhythms as a core element have a much greater chance of being sustainable, enabling the flourishing of other species and of evolution, and creating greater security for communities that are closely linked to natural ecosystems and biodiversity as also benefits to all of humanity,” Kothari wrote in an email.
“When people have their own say over their own communities, that’s when their communities thrive.”
Nature-based solutions are supposed to do all this, but they require a system of checks and balances to ensure the corporate abusers don’t use the framework to extend their harmful practices. Such a system does not yet exist—hence the opposition that is growing. When asked how governments and private players can get nature-based solutions wrong, Kothari was clear.
“Just as they have got conservation wrong all these decades: by imposing state-centered or corporate-centered approaches over local community ones, by creating islands of nature conservation while also promoting destructive activities everywhere else, and by imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that prioritizes one kind of knowledge, governance, and management and disregards a diversity of such approaches.”
Thomas Joseph, a carbon educator organizer with Indigenous Environmental Network, which is dedicated to combating environmental injustice against Indigenous communities, is sick of this shameful romanticization of nature that ignores its stewards and places a price upon Mother Earth. He wants to see government leaders end their relationship with the fossil fuel industry—and he wants to see Indigenous land returned to their rightful caretakers.
“When people have their own say over their own communities, that’s when their communities thrive,” Joseph said. “If a community can have a say over their community, that community is going to be healthier and stronger. They will protect and defend their community, their rivers, their streams, their mountains, their forests.”
Nature-based solutions might sound inspiring and necessary, but the truth is much darker. The phrase is misleading, and Indigenous leaders who actually carry the solutions won’t give up until that’s clear to all.
Andrea Polanco, The Frontline Fulbright Fellow, contributed research to this article.
Correction, May 5, 2022 9:55 am ET
The name of the Indian-based organization Kalpavriksh was previously misspelled.