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Indigenous leaders seek forest protection role in global climate fight

by Nádia Pontes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 24 April 2016 11:44 GMT

Indigenous people call for justice for members of their communities who have died in the battle to protect their forests from exploitation, New York, April 22 2016. TRF/Nádia Pontes

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Indigenous peoples express frustration at neglect of their ability to safeguard forests and the carbon they store

By Nádia Pontes

NEW YORK, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As 175 countries signed the Paris climate change deal at U.N. headquarters on Friday, Diana Rios, a 23-year-old indigenous Asheninka activist from the Peruvian Amazon, paddled down the East River to protest against the exclusion of indigenous people from the international push to tackle global warming.

Rios expressed frustration at what she sees as inadequate recognition of the threats climate change poses to indigenous communities.

“The communities have a key role in protecting tropical forests and slowing global climate change. We have the potential to help the world fight it, and adapt to its impacts,” she said.

Edwin Vasquez Campos of the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) said he and his colleagues were in New York to fight “for our territorial rights”. “We are the guardians of our rainforests,” he said.

“We expect that political leaders go back home after having signed the agreement bearing in mind that we help our countries to prevent cleaning, burning, illegal mining and logging and, therefore, preventing increases of carbon emissions,” said Campos.

New findings by the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), a conservation research institute based in the United States, warn that failure to curb deforestation would require eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use by 2035 to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius – a limit the Paris deal promises to better.

A previous study from the same centre estimated that at least 20 percent of the above-ground carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests is found in territories claimed by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, Amazonia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia.

“We find a very high proportion of carbon contained within indigenously controlled territories,” said WHRC president Philip Duffy. “If you look historically, the indigenous peoples have done a better job preserving the forest and its carbon,” he added.


But a review presented by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) of the 161 national contributions for the Paris climate agreement, submitted on behalf of 188 countries, found that only 21 made a clear commitment to strengthen or expand land tenure and natural resource management rights.

Of the 161 climate action plans submitted, 131 are from countries with tropical and subtropical forests. Those governments should review their plans before the agreement enters into force, the authors recommended.

“Countries should be encouraged to include specific, measurable and robust tenure and natural resources rights for indigenous peoples and local communities in their national climate change mitigation by 2020,” they said.

Globally, indigenous and local communities - an estimated 1.5 billion people - have formal legal ownership of 10 percent of land, and have some rights of control over an additional 8 percent, according to RRI.

In 2015, the community of Diana Rios received title to more than 80,000 hectares of forest. This happened after her father Jorge Rios, an indigenous leader of the Alto Tamaya Saweto, was killed in September 2014. He had been a key figure in the battle against illegal logging and other threats, including drug-trafficking, in the Amazon rainforest.

In the name of her father, Rios came to New York to speak out in favour of indigenous communities. “I am not afraid. My father taught me to be courageous. If we don't do that, who will?” she asked.

She realised how important forests are for the planet after attending the U.N. climate negotiations in Lima, Peru, in 2014.

“I knew from my heart that forests were vital to every inhabitant, but there I saw the science behind that,” she added.

Edwin Vasquez Campos said indigenous leaders will continue to fight for recognition.

“We keep not only a huge carbon store in our territories, but also the lungs of the planet, - a very effective air conditioner which provides food, water and climate stability for the
world,” he said.​

(Reporting by Nadia Pontes; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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