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Leon Kaye headshot

For Indigenous Peoples, COP26 Commitments on Forests Offer a Tiny Start

By Leon Kaye

Forests, and wide swaths of clearcut land, surround Manizales, Colombia

COP26 is singing a different tune. We are hearing less talk about curbing emissions and convoluted clean technology solutions and more about addressing the rights of people who have shouldered the burden of a warming planet the most.

For years, the annual COP climate talks left Indigenous peoples on the sidelines, even though their communities were among those most affected by climate change impacts such as deforestation and human rights abuses. COP26 appears so far to show some signs of a turning point. Now, Indigenous communities appear to be on a path toward winning back a tad of what they have lost over the past centuries, based on several announcements made during this opening week of COP26 in Glasgow. As of press time, more than $19 billion in commitments to stop deforestation by 2030 have tallied up, some of which are directly targeted for Indigenous peoples.

A new financial commitment to Indigenous communities and forests

The gestures include $1.7 billion that wealthy nations so far have committed to Indigenous communities as an acknowledgement of the roles they have played in protecting vulnerable lands, including forests, worldwide. The pledge is an affirmation of what Indigenous rights activists have been saying for years: As they have been living on these lands for centuries and even millennia, their communities are the ones who know best about ensuring they are around for future generations.

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When you think of how forests are integral to many companies’ supply chains — and in turn how much of this land has been lost — that $1.7 billion could be seen as the start of back rent payments that are owed to these communities worldwide.

A note of caution: The 2014 Declaration of Forests was supposed to achieve similar goals, but if you had long forgotten about that effort, it is in a large part due to the fact that over the past seven years deforestation has accelerated, not slowed.

Could COP26 actually bring results?

But, in the event that COP26 turns out to be successful in the long term, one organization could score some credit.

The LEAF Coalition (Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance), announced yesterday that it has secured at least $1 billion for countries and regional governments that are committed to protecting their subtropical and tropical forests. Currently the list of countries participating includes Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ghana, Nepal and Vietnam.

So far, almost 20 companies have inked an agreement to be a part of this coalition. Back in April, that total was nine, which included Amazon. Corporate participants must commit to large voluntary cuts to their own emissions that align with the 2015 Paris Accords and science-based targets. Any contributions they make to LEAF are an addition to, not a replacement for, their internal emission reduction commitments.

A note of caution

The list of companies working with the coalition includes Airbnb, Bayer, Delta Air Lines, Inditex, GSK, PwC, Salesforce, SAP and Unilever. LEAF is not without its critics. At least observer has suggested this is simply a rebranding of the REDD program, a framework opponents say can threaten Indigenous communities instead of protecting them. Over the years other commentators have pointed out that such programs are simply carbon credits rebranded, with the results of even more land rights violations and even links to the murder of Indigenous people.

If LEAF ends up becoming all talk and no (or negative) action, activists are ready to respond.

One of them is Tuntiak Katan, a Shuar from Ecuador who also works with the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities. “Don’t make political promises that you’re not going to keep,” he told the COP26 assembly. Don’t make finance announcements or announcements on the climate if you’re not going to work with Indigenous communities. Please don’t murder us. Don’t kill us.”

Bottom line: Doing what is right and just for Indigenous communities requires doing exactly that — funding and deploying projects that can bring positive results for these communities. “The call for a ‘just transition; means more than merely phasing out fossil fuels; it also means phasing out the injustices and inequalities that have defined the past,” Joe McCarthy wrote for Global Citizen last week.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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