SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – A half mile from the din of the Global Climate Action Summit and its 4,000 attendees in San Francisco, indigenous peoples from around the world came together in a small space for a kind of summit of their own.
They spoke different languages. They wore unique clothing. But the tenor of their voices and the expressions on their faces conveyed a similar message: They are the “guardians of the forests,” not their national governments. As such, they have a vital role to play in the battle against climate change.
In the days leading up to the event, which ran from September 12-14, new studies and announcements emphasized just that: If the Paris Agreement goals are to be met, deforestation must be slowed and land management improved. An effective way to achieve those goals in tropical countries is to give indigenous peoples legal ownership, and thus protected control, of the lands on which they live.
Cándido Mezúa, cultural liaison to Panama’s Emberá Nation, explained why, taking a break from the side event where tribal leaders like himself gathered.
“There is one basic principle,” he told Mongabay through a translator. “We cannot see the forest or nature as a tool for getting richer. That is something the indigenous people cannot do… We are contributing to climate stability, something we have been doing for centuries without being compensated one penny.”
Be it Brazil, Peru, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Indonesia — countries with the largest rainforests and thus the largest storehouses of carbon — national governments there and elsewhere often see things differently: forests readily convert to riches when it comes to mining, timbering, or large-scale agriculture.
“Central governments still believe that the development of a country can only be done when you involve big companies,” Rukka Sombolinggi, general secretary of AMAN, the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago of Indonesia, told Mongabay. “This is a paradigm we have to change.”
NGOs and human rights organizations, including the United Nations, have advocated better treatment of indigenous peoples the world over as a matter of social justice. They have recently seized on a new angle to achieve the same goals: Indigenous peoples can contribute significantly to tropical countries meeting their carbon-reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement, but indigenous communities must be better protected and given title and tenure to the lands where they have lived for centuries.
“For people working in the forest space, we know the importance of working with indigenous peoples; we have plenty of anecdotes and stories,” Josefina Braña Varela, World Wildlife Fund’s senior director of forest and climate, told Mongabay at the summit. “But people in the climate space don’t understand how important indigenous peoples are to the solution [to climate mitigation]. That’s why there is a big effort to quantify the impact.”
Calculating the equations
Here’s the grim reality:
Earth loses 13 million hectares, or roughly 50 football fields’ worth, of rainforest every minute. That’s an area the size of Greece lost every year. This deforestation, and the release of carbon stored in all those trees and other vegetation, exceeds the annual emissions of the world’s entire transportation sector. Last year ranked as the second-most calamitous year for deforestation.
Here’s an increasingly appreciated fact touted in San Francisco:
“Natural climate solutions,” such as better land management, healthy diets, and strategies like no-till agriculture, can contribute as much as 30 percent to carbon-reduction goals in the coming decades to slow the rate of global warming.
Here’s the hope for both climate mitigation and social justice, highlighted in press releases and announcements just prior to the summit’s first day:
Indigenous peoples and local communities in 64 tropical and subtropical countries occupy land storing nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon above- and below-ground. That’s equal to 33 years of pollution, given a 2017 baseline. Where indigenous peoples live, high-tech mapping indicates, deforestation rates are dramatically lower, especially in the relatively few places where they have land ownership rights.
“We are looking at 21 countries where the NDCs [carbon emissions-reduction pledges] could be looking at land tenure as one of the solutions to reaching their Paris goals,” Caleb McClennen, vice president for global conservation at Wildlife Conservation Society, said during the summit. “That’s an immediate opportunity.”
Here’s what was promised in San Francisco:
Governors from 38 jurisdictions across five continents — the Governors’ Climate and Forests (GCF) Task Force — joined indigenous leaders to announce a pioneering approach to slow deforestation and uphold native land rights. Backed by $13 billion from four U.S. philanthropies, the initiative will target rainforest protection as subnational leaders press their national governments to title millions of hectares back to indigenous people across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
“We are doing this now in Peru, Colombia, Indonesia and Nepal,” said Braña Varela of WWF. “All our interests in forests and climate have a super-important component that includes indigenous peoples.”
The invisible coming visible
Some progress has been made. In San Francisco, the feeling among many indigenous peoples was not so much a breakthrough in their struggle for rights and recognition as a collective pep rally replete with global networking.
After all, they are enshrined in the Paris Agreement for their contributions to climate mitigation. And at the UN climate summit in Bonn in November 2017, negotiators agreed that indigenous peoples should have “leadership roles” in climate mitigation planning and that any climate action must “respect, promote and consider” the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.
Yet, like with international climate action itself, for all the progress made to date, there is a long way to go to slow the rate of global warming, just as there is a long way to go for indigenous peoples to regain their rights in their own countries.
For example, just 10 percent of indigenous lands around the world are formally recognized, according to the GCF Task Force.
And progress differs depending on where you look. For those fortunate enough, like some Native American tribes in the U.S., they could show in San Francisco an affluence to match their influence. For others in faraway places, they made clear that just being associated with the summit was uplifting in and of itself.
“What does visibility mean to countries that are invisible? It means everything,” said Loa Niumeitolu, a native of Tonga whose organization represents scores of tiny island nations in the South Pacific. “We are humble people. We live in countries no one knows. And if sea-level rise takes our countries, no one will know we ever existed. We are glad to be here.”
A place of their own
At the glittery Moscone Center, governors, mayors, and CEOs from around the world proclaimed their climate-action bona fides to large, appreciative crowds during the summit. Few indigenous representatives got a turn in the spotlight.
But at 981 Mission Street, a half mile from the wide stage and high-definition screens carrying speeches by Jerry Brown, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, and John Kerry, indigenous peoples gathered during the summit’s three days. They were fewer than 100, but represented tribal nations numbering in the millions.
Their “summit” venue was a high-ceilinged co-working space called Covo with brick walls, exposed beams, eclectic light fixtures, and a stage big enough for just seven seated panelists. They fronted an audience of usually 30 or 40 nodding “brothers” and “sisters.”
It had the feel of a family reunion as their stage rang loudly, day and night, with cries and chants to ancestral spirits and translated words of age-old wisdom. In the undaunted optimism of both the old and the young, there was a coalescing of a diverse, far-flung group of people — from North America, Latin America, Africa, and Asia — united as one for perhaps the first time.
When I asked Mezúa of Panama what the side event at Covo meant to him, he drew a circle in the middle of a notebook page. He drew five similarly sized circles around the center circle. Then he drew a ring around all six.
“When we are the leaders of our territory, we are the leaders of one speck of forest,” he said, putting his pen in the middle circle. “But when we talk with other people in other territories and join forces, our voices can be stronger and better heard.”
Many of those at Covo said they didn’t care much for the official summit and its focus on political and Hollywood celebrities. But they all knew that the summit – however much it cost them in airfare, lodging, and meals — was the thing that made this moment possible.
To that end, there were hugs and tears and exchanges of contact information that will unite them across continents, their souls already connected by a shared experience that too often includes oppression, stolen land, and death.
On the walls of the co-working space hung framed posters of five “Indigenous Demands” connected to climate action and social justice:
• Recognition to Land, Territory, and Resources: “Only 0.6% of forest was lost inside Indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon between 2000 and 2012, compared with 7 percent of forest outside such lands.”
• Consent: “Indigenous peoples are the best guardians of the forest, but they are under siege from a great and growing hunger for new sources of food, fuel, mineral wealth and water.”
• Zero Violence: “There were 46 indigenous people known to be killed in 2014 for taking a stand against environmental destruction. It is likely the death toll is higher as murders often occur in remote villages or deep in jungles, where they are unreported.”
• Funding: “Investing in indigenous peoples not only conserves forests, it encourages sustainable development.”
• Ancestral Knowledge: “Appealing for the valuation and incorporation of ancestral knowledge on the policies to prevent and face climate change.”
Message in a belly button
After Loa Niumeitolu of Tonga stepped off the stage at Covo, she was embraced by a “sister” from the audience. They held each other tightly, wordlessly, for a long while as tears slid down their cheeks. Shortly after, she spoke with me about ancestral knowledge.
“Climate change is an issue we feel in our belly buttons,” Niumeitolu explained. “When we are born, our placenta is buried in the ground. That connects us to the land. I live now in the Bay Area, but my placenta, and my people, are on the island. As climate change causes the seas to rise and threatens to engulf our country, I actually feel it in my belly button.”
Javier Kinney, the Yurok Tribe’s director of governance, says, “We have always been a leader in natural resource management. We have always protected our environment. We will always fight for that. Indigenous people have that knowledge and expertise to move the needle.” Photo Credit: Joel Redman, If Not Us Then Who.
Sombolinggi, whose Indonesian alliance represents 70 million indigenous people, is a force of nature all her own. Her heart breaks knowing deforestation in her country is accelerating to meet the world’s bottomless demand for palm oil for food and cosmetics. It’s not sustainable, she told me. And it tramples on the rights of her people. There is a better way.
“You have to let the people live in the culture and traditions that they are used to,” she said. “One of our communities produces the best coconut oil in Indonesia for all kinds of products. They work in the forests and no trees are coming down. If they are protected by laws, it works, and we are seeing that.”
In the United States, one of the most promising examples is playing out in Northern California, involving the state’s largest tribe, the Yurok.
In February, after 10 years of planning and negotiating, the Yurok Tribe, together with the Western Rivers Conservancy, is getting back 47,000 acres of ancestral land along the Klamath River, which will enable the protection of forest ecosystems that also include a vital, struggling, cold-water salmon run.
What is essentially a $60 million land purchase was made possible through a variety of funding tools, including lawsuit settlements, federal tax credits, and California carbon credits. The project has been called unprecedented, and a model to be followed (where financing exists): Don’t wait for your government to return land that was once yours; raise the money and buy it.
“The true exponential (climate) solutions that are going to have to happen must come from the indigenous communities, tribal governments and tribes themselves,” Javier Kinney, the Yurok’s director of governance, told Mongabay. “Until those rights and privileges are recognized, only then will we be able to start to move forward.”
Kinney stressed that the Yurok is a government no different than the government of California. It has a constitution, attorneys, MBAs, even public relations managers. In that regard, it has clout beyond what tribes in developing nations can imagine.
But he stressed also that the Yurok’s ancestral values and connection to the land is akin to those of his tribal brethren from around the world.
“We fix the earth, not just for us, but for everybody,” Kinney said. “What’s happening now is not a reawakening or a turning point. We have always been here and will always be here. It’s other people just realizing that they should probably listen to the stewards of this land who have been here since time immemorial.”