OPINION: Indigenous peoples are key to a healthier planet

by David Kaimowitz | Food and Agriculture Organization
Monday, 9 August 2021 13:46 GMT

Kayapo indigenous people block Brazil's BR 163 national highway, as they protest against the government measures in the indigenous lands to avoid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil August 17, 2020. The banner reads: "In defense of the Amazon. Without listening to the indigenous people, there will be no concession and railway. We do not accept!" REUTERS/Lucas Landau

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Indigenous peoples hold unique experience and world views that can help us combat our crises on climate, nature and global health

David Kaimowitz is the senior forestry officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and manager of the Forest and Farm Facility

On 17 February this year, Aruká Juma, the last elder of the Juma people in Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest, died of COVID-19. According to NGO Instituto Socioambiental, he is one of more than a thousand indigenous people to have died from the virus in Brazil, where COVID-19 has affected more than 150 native groups.

The death of an individual has a huge impact on the small indigenous societies in the Amazon, which sometimes count only a handful of families. But with their passing, we all lose ancient systems of knowledge and practices to live sustainably from, and to protect, our forests and wildlife.

As we mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 9 August, we need to recognize that indigenous peoples are a key to confronting our current planetary emergency. Although they constitute just 6 percent of the global population, indigenous peoples hold unique experience and worldviews that can help us combat our crises on climate, nature and global health.

One step in the right direction this year was the launch of the first major report by a United Nations agency that recognizes and rigorously documents that indigenous peoples are the best guardians of our forests. The report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Fund for Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean presented indisputable evidence that indigenous peoples and African-descendant forest communities in Latin America address deforestation and biodiversity loss better than anyone else.

By doing so, they also fight climate change. In fact, titled indigenous territories in the Bolivian, Brazilian and Colombian Amazon avoid between 42.8 million and 59.7 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. That’s the equivalent of taking between 9 million and 12.6 million vehicles out of circulation for a year.

And as deforestation is one of the main drivers of the emergence of zoonotic disease, by protecting our forests, indigenous peoples are also helping to protect human health and avoid new pandemics.

The Latin America findings have been reinforced at a global scale in a recent study by the World Wide Fund For Nature, which states unequivocally that biodiversity goals are unattainable without the full inclusion of indigenous peoples and local communities, whose lands cover around 32% of the world’s land surface.

However, for indigenous peoples to be able to continue to protect the forest effectively, they need everyone’s support. Countries will have to invest in projects that strengthen the role of Indigenous and tribal peoples in forest governance and bolster and recognize communal territorial rights.

We need to compensate indigenous and tribal communities for all the environmental benefits their forests provide and facilitate indigenous forest management. Funding for climate and biodiversity needs to be specifically allocated for these purposes.

And finally, we need to ensure that indigenous peoples have a seat at the table. This year there will be four major global meetings at which indigenous voices must be heard.

For the first time, indigenous peoples will have their own category of membership at the World Conservation Congress in September, reflecting the increasing recognition of their central role in conservation.

The United Nations Food Systems Summit in September will also highlight indigenous peoples’ role in global food systems. Not only are many indigenous food systems more diverse, sustainable, and nutritious, the rainforests these groups manage help to sustain rainfall, lower local temperatures and serve as carbon sinks, with huge benefits for agriculture elsewhere.

At the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in October, world leaders will be asked to commit to the “30x30” plan,  which would protect at least 30 percent of land areas by 2030. This target – less than nine years away – can only be achieved by working together with indigenous peoples and respecting indigenous land rights.

Lastly, the role of indigenous peoples must be recognized at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November, since indigenous peoples and local communities manage at least 24 per cent of the total above-ground carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests.

This year offers unprecedented opportunities for global leaders to recognize indigenous peoples and forest communities for their essential role in averting global crises. It is time to listen, to protect and to join forces with indigenous peoples for the sake of the planet.

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