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Indigenous people need strong land rights to stand up to the powerful drivers of deforestation
One year ago, four indigenous Ashéninka leaders were murdered deep in the Peruvian Amazon while trying to stop illegal loggers from chainsawing the rainforest with impunity.
Edwin Chota, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Francisco Pinedo and Leoncio Quinticím died on a jungle path as they travelled to Brazil in a quest for help defending their forests from the alleged killers, who also have been linked to a network of drug traffickers operating along the border between the two countries.
On August 19, the families of the murdered men got title to the lands for which they had paid so dearly. Their battle for tenure in Saweto had taken more than a decade.
Sadly, the plight of Peru's Ashéninkas is not unique.
In a report issued earlier this year, for instance, research NGO Global Witness reported the 2014 murders of an estimated 116 “land and environmental defenders” or “Dead Friends of the Earth,” three-quarters of them in Central and South America.
Across the globe, indigenous peoples in tropical forest countries report that they face rising violence as global demand grows for agricultural commodities, timber, land, hydropower, mineral wealth and petroleum, all of which result in deforestation and damage to a traditional and sustainable way of life.
Negotiators preparing for the upcoming U.N. climate change conference in Paris have adopted language that seems to strengthen efforts to stop deforestation and the carbon it would emit in the tropical forests in Latin America, Central Africa and Southeast Asia.
But the experience of the Peruvian Ashéninkas and other indigenous peoples suggests that they must benefit directly from the agreements made in Paris, and they need strong rights if they are to successfully stand up to the powerful drivers of deforestation.
This trend toward reversing rights extends across the countries of Latin America, among the most advanced—at least on paper—in granting tenure to their forest peoples.
Even in countries like Brazil, where forest peoples have significant land rights under the constitution, indigenous groups say their rights are under attack. Cattle ranchers, soy farmers and other interests are vying to transfer the job of recognising title to traditional lands from the executive branch and the Brazilian parliament, a move seen as endangering land rights granted to traditional peoples under the constitution.
Research suggests that forest peoples are the best guardians of the forests and that there is more carbon in their forests than in those managed by any other owners, public or private.
If the goal is a low-carbon economy, conservation of forests and biodiversity, or sustainable development, we will fall short if indigenous peoples are not given a strong voice and a seat at the table in the U.N. climate change negotiating process.
So if we want to slow the destruction of forests and, more broadly, carbon emissions, we must make sure that climate funding reached the peoples in the forests, while recognising and enforcing meaningful rights to their lands. For example, developed countries contributing to the Green Climate Fund, designed to support climate projects in the developing world, could earmark a stream of funding for indigenous peoples.
During the climate talks in Lima last year, tropical forest governments issued a declaration calling on developed countries to join them in committing “large-scale payments for large-scale emission reductions.” Yet the “Lima Challenge” makes no mention of the contributions of indigenous forest peoples to reducing emissions, nor of ways that they too might benefit.
It’s time for developed and developing nations alike to embrace one of the most powerful solutions to climate change that we have. The destruction and degradation of tropical forests account for almost 20 percent of the carbon emissions that are fueling climate change. We need a powerful mechanism that commits developed and developing nations alike to strengthening indigenous peoples’ land rights and ensuring that forest peoples benefit from the prevention of the emissions that humanity seeks to curb.
We should not have to wait for forest guardians to die on the front lines of the battle against climate change to be reminded of the vital need to protect the people who, in the end, are protecting everyone’s environment.
Alexander Soros is the founder of The Alexander Soros Foundation, an organization promoting civil rights, social justice and education by making grants to cutting-edge organisations in the United States and abroad.