Indigenous leaders at COP21: 20 per cent of tropical forest carbon is sitting on indigenous land

Indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin, the Mesoamerican region, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia contain 20.1 per cent of the carbon stored aboveground in Earth’s tropical forests. That presents a huge opportunity for climate negotiators in Paris.

indigenous unfccc
Indigenous leaders speak at a press conference on REDD at the COP21 on December 1. They say that their ability to protect the forests they call home is frequently limited by lack of legal and financial support — especially when they don’t have title to their lands. Image: UNFCCC, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Indigenous leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America gathered at the Paris climate talks on Wednesday to offer their help — or what they call “the most affordable pathway for climate negotiators struggling to come up with solutions.”

They presented an analysis by the Woods Hole Research Center that found Indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin, the Mesoamerican region, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Indonesia contain 20.1 percent of the carbon stored aboveground in Earth’s tropical forests.

It’s fairly well known that Indigenous communities practicing traditional ways of life are superior stewards of the land. And research has shown that when Indigenous peoples and local communities have legal forest rights, they often not only maintain forest carbon stocks, but improve them.

They do this by preventing illegal development and protecting their territories from high-impact uses. But according to the Indigenous leaders assembled in Paris, their ability to protect the forests they call home is frequently limited by lack of legal and financial support — especially when they don’t have title to their lands.

“We who live on the front lines of the changing climate have contributed least to the global crisis, yet we stand to lose the most,” they wrote in a statement. “The fires that are consuming Indonesia—and the 16 percent jump in deforestation in Brazil—are examples of what happens when governments fail to include indigenous peoples in their efforts to protect the forests that are so critical to addressing the rapidly changing climate.

It’s not just lack of funds and legal title to lands that jeopardizes Indigenous communities’ role as stewards of vast tracts of tropical rainforest, however. Activists and other vocal defenders of forests from Indigenous communities are often criminalized, brutalized or even murdered for speaking up.

José Isidro Tendetza Antún, a leader of the Shuar people in Ecuador, went missing just days before he was supposed to travel to the UN Climate Summit in Lima last December, where he planned to protest against a massive mining operation encroaching on his people’s land. His body was later found by his son in an unmarked grave.

Antún’s killer has yet to be caught, so no motive has been definitively established. But the murder of José Isidro Tendetza Antún is a chilling reminder of the violent opposition Indigenous communities that demand their rights often face all the same. Rather than being protected by the law, however, Indigenous activists are often the ones targeted as criminals.

“Death should not be the price we pay for doing our part in preventing the emissions that fuel climate change,” said Jorge Furagaro of the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Peoples Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), one of the many Indigenous leaders in Paris for COP21.

“In order for us to continue to conserve the tropical forests located on our traditional territories,” Furagaro added, “we need to have strong rights to those forests, and an end to the criminalization that greets our efforts to protect our lands.”

Furagaro was joined by Abdon Nabadon of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago, Levi Sucre Romero of the Mesoamerican Alliance for Peoples and Forests and Joseph Itwongo of Peoples for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa (REPALEAC/DRC), among others.

They’re calling for full legal title to their lands, an end to the criminalization and violence against Indigenous leaders and activists, formal recognition of the contributions of Indigenous communities in forest countries’ climate plans, full implementation of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) on all development activities in Indigenous territories and direct access to climate financing programs like REDD+ and payments for ecosystem services schemes.

The group said it is not enough to merely “recognize” their people’s efforts, but that it is necessary to also secure their rights to their ancestral forests. Otherwise, they argue, it will be far more difficult for national governments to meet the global emissions reduction targets being hammered out in Paris.

The Woods Hole analysis certainly bolsters that assertion. Using remote sensing data and territorial boundaries provided by Indigenous peoples, Woods Hole researchers found that the carbon contained in tropical forests on Indigenous lands is equivalent to 168.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2), more than three times the 52.7 GtCO2 emitted globally in 2014.

And that is most likely a conservative estimate, the Woods Hole researchers said, because it only includes the tropical forest carbon in the Amazon Basin, Mesoamerica, the DRC and Indonesia. If it included tropical forests in Asia outside of Indonesia and in the Congo Basin outside of the DRC, the estimate would likely be much higher.

“We are calling on global negotiators to invest in a solution that exists already,” Joseph Itwongo of REPALEAC/DRC said in a statement. “Invest in forest peoples if you are serious about making sure the forest remains standing.”

This story was published with permission from

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