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Jan Lee headshot

Climate Health, Indigenous Land Rights Are Linked: COP21 Report

Words by Jan Lee

The world’s indigenous populations hold an important tool to combating climate change, say researchers, and that tool is trees.

At least 20 percent of the carbon stored above ground lies on aboriginally-owned land in the form of tropical forests that have long been protected by their residents. And those forests are some of the world’s last natural vestiges when it comes to offsetting carbon emissions. Trees serve as natural scrubbers to the earth’s atmosphere, offsetting as much as a quarter of the carbon we dump into the atmosphere each year.

This interrelationship between indigenous peoples and their ancestral lands “demonstrates the historical role indigenous territories have played in conserving these forests and their potential for addressing a key challenge in the long term maintenance of climate stability: keeping those forests standing,” say the authors of a new report, released last week at the COP21 climate talks in Paris. The report was authored with the support of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Woods Hole Research Center.

The report suggested that more effort (and money) should be committed to aiding indigenous populations and incorporating their help in environmental stewardship. "What if these indigenous territories were to receive a third – or even a tenth – of the $9.8 billion USD committed to the climate mitigation policy now being negotiated to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+)?," the report's authors ask.

It's a bold, if not unconventional, answer to guarding against climate change, especially when considering that much of the threat toward the continuity of those forests these days is posed by regional governments through land regularization for urbanization, resource management (flooding for the purpose of creating dams and water resources) and, often, on the pretense of establishing national parks or other regional services.

The report calls on governments to address indigenous rights with a five-prong approach:

  • Issuing titles for all unrecognized tribal territories

  • Ending the persecution of aboriginal peoples

  • Taking definitive steps to recognize the role that indigenous peoples play in combating climate change through their contribution to Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)

  • Establishing better frameworks that reinforce tribal rights to determine the future use of their lands

  • Providing direct access to climate financing for indigenous communities

Interestingly, the report did not address poaching, or the illegal logging and harvesting of resources from indigenous lands, which continues to pose a threat to forest conservation in remote areas. In 2007, a University of Richmond researcher found a link between increased threats from poachers and 'land tenure insecurity,' or the absence of a clear acknowledgement of indigenous land rights.

"While illicit extraction does not only occur in Indigenous territories or in areas of tenure conflict, illegal hotspots often exhibit both traits. Land titling is not a magic bullet that can eliminate  illegal logging, but it is an essential starting point," wrote Dr. M. Finley-Brook at University of Richmond's department of geography and environment. Her studies focus on land rights in the Central America.

In Brazil, the lands belonging to the Ka'apor tribe have been properly titled by the government, but vast tracks of the Amazon jungle are still at risk of deforestation. According to the Ka'apor tribe, that's because the government rarely polices the area, leaving the dense jungle of the Alto Turiacu at the mercy of poachers, who harvest the trees for sale on the international market.

The problem has forced the 2,000-strong tribe to take action into their own hands. Earlier this year, the once-remote tribe began confiscating illegal harvests, dismantling equipment, and physically rounding-up poachers and turning them over to the authorities. This fall, with the help of Greenpeace, the Ka'apor took another unconventional step: It went high-tech, installing remote surveillance sensors and cameras across the property that will help minimize violent encounters with poachers and hopefully, Greenpeace says, deter logging of ancestral lands.


But even Greenpeace admits that the Ka'apor's trees won't be fully protected until governments take an active part in formally recognizing the rights and protection of indigenous land owners and their property. And doing so, say the authors of the latest report on indigenous forests, is in the best interest not only of aboriginal land owners, but the planet's health as well.

Images: 1) David Evers; 2) Alan Whelan/Trocaire; 3) Schuyler Erle

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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