Alec Baldwin, Helen Clark join indigenous leaders calling for forest protections and land rights to combat climate change

On the eve of the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, indigenous leaders from around the world gathered in New York City to call on the UN and the countries signing the accord to ensure that protections for forests and Indigenous communities are part of global efforts to combat climate change.

On the eve of the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, Indigenous leaders from around the world gathered in New York City to call on the UN and the countries signing the accord to ensure that protections for forests and Indigenous communities are part of global efforts to combat climate change.

Research has shown that as much as 20 per cent of forest carbon can be found in Indigenous territories, which would make that carbon easy to keep out of the atmosphere, since Indigenous peoples are known to be superior stewards of the land.

Indigenous communities’ ability to protect their traditional lands is often under-utilized, however, if not actively undermined.

Standing outside UN headquarters today while holding a plaque memorializing Berta Cáceres, the slain Indigenous activist from Honduras, Mina Setra, a leader of the Dayak Pompakng people from West Kalimantan, Indonesia, spoke about the dire need for an end to the criminalization and violence Indigenous people fighting to protect their forests are often met with.

Her message for government officials due to sign the Paris Agreement tomorrow was simple: “Start implementation. Not on paper — now.”

At a press conference held earlier in the day, Setra was joined by other Indigenous leaders as well as Helen Clark, administrator of the UN Development Program. In terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Clark said, “the role of forests is indispensable.”

And to protect forests, Clark added, “We have to get behind Indigenous land rights.” Governments can do a lot to combat climate change, she said, “but in the end it’s about people’s actions.”

Actor, producer, and activist Alec Baldwin was there, too, and he had a similar message to world leaders: The lack of local land rights is endangering efforts to alleviate hunger, poverty, and climate change. “Do not ignore these issues,” Baldwin pleaded.

Two reports released at the press conference bolster these arguments.

According to a new analysis by the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), protecting intact tropical forests and reforesting degraded land in Africa, Asia, and Latin America might be absolutely crucial in buying us enough time to reduce emissions from fossil fuel use if we’re to meet the 2-degree-Celsius commitment made in the Paris Agreement.

Dr. Phillip Duffy, WHRC’s president and chief executive, told Mongabay that what’s most important is avoiding the worst outcomes of runaway climate change, like the melting of polar ice sheets and permafrost containing vast stores of carbon — which Duffy calls “catastrophic and irreversible” impacts.

“Science is clear that in order to do that, we have to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in large quantities,” Dr. Duffy added. “We can’t draw down emissions from fossil fuels fast enough.”

Better land management is the best path forward for slowing and ultimately reversing emissions growth, he added, because ending tropical deforestation and encouraging reforestation of formerly forested lands would give us more time to transform the global energy system. “It won’t be easy, but no harder than stopping fossil fuels,” he said. “And it will likely be cheaper.”

The authors of the WHRC report found that if we don’t take meaningful action to keep the world’s forests standing, we only have until 2035 to completely eliminate emissions from fossil fuels and meet the 2-degree-Celsius goal. Properly managing forests, on the other hand, would give us 10 to 15 more years to draw down emissions from the use of fossil fuels.

The UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, which is designed to channel international financing to efforts to protect forests and forest communities on the ground, was officially enshrined in the Paris Agreement as a standalone article, signaling its importance in efforts to mitigate global warming.

But another report released this morning, by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), found that the majority of countries have yet to commit to protecting forests and Indigenous rights in order to help meet their climate pollution targets — even on paper, let alone on the ground.

In fact, of the 161 national plans for reducing emissions examined by RRI researchers, Cambodia’s was the sole plan to include a quantified target for protecting forests by securing Indigenous and local community rights.

“The Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals offer national governments plenty of reasons and commitments that justify providing secure land rights for forest peoples,” Alain Frechette, senior policy advisor at RRI, said in a statement.

“At the top of that list is the fact that these communities are largely responsible for the existence of the forests we now wish to protect. Tropical forests are fundamental to limiting climate change, but so are the people who live in and depend on these forests. Securing their rights secures our planet’s future.”

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