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OPINION: Efforts to heal the world need us Indigenous peoples - now

by Jennifer Corpuz | Nia Tero
Thursday, 7 April 2022 11:27 GMT

A Brazilian indigenous community member shouts slogans during a protest against the destruction of the Amazon forest, outside the European Commission headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium, November 5, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

New IPCC climate report urges Indigenous participation in restoring denuded land, and flags our ability to stop the deforestation fueling climate change and biodiversity loss

Over dinner in Geneva recently, as negotiators prepared to debate a new global plan for conserving biodiversity worldwide, an Indigenous leader from Colombia wondered if European peoples were ever as deeply rooted to “place” as Indigenous Amazonians are to their rainforest home.

“Everyone needs to go back to their ancestral ways,” he concluded. “That is the only way they can ever understand how we see the world.”

For Indigenous leaders who advocate for the rights of our peoples - from the Amazon to the Arctic - it seems sometimes that only a miracle will transform the powerful actors whose hearts and minds we try to reach. We have flown home from global biodiversity and climate negotiations in cities like Paris and Glasgow with only empty promises, back to countries where we are not safe.

Our battle isn’t over, but we are beginning to see signs of change. 

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest apocalyptic report - but with a twist. Our role in combating climate change is unusually visible in the summary for policy makers.

The text calls for Indigenous participation in planning how best to reforest denuded lands and cites our outsize ability to stop the deforestation fueling climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemic risk.

Dozens of footnotes back up the report’s references to strong land rights for Indigenous peoples, to protect our stewardship of the world’s most carbon-rich and biodiverse landscapes. The report also embraces our traditional knowledge for advancing the Paris climate goals and refers to the need to deliver financial support directly to Indigenous communities, which now receive less than 1% of climate funds.

A confluence of events could be responsible for this: the anger of media-savvy young people; a growing body of evidence backing our quest for land rights and protection of our way of life; extreme weather that has left no continent untouched; and a chorus of Indigenous voices from all over the world, telling our stories and offering to save humanity from itself.

Increasingly, as wildfires consume landscapes on almost every continent, our traditional methods for using fire to reduce risk are drawing attention - most recently in a major U.N. report released last month. 

We have been waiting a long time to be asked what it will take to stop the destruction of ecosystems that are priceless to us but worth $44 trillion to the global economic sector.  

We know investors are hungry to rid supply chains of human rights violations and environmental damage. Conservation groups, meanwhile, share our goals for defending nature, but resist seeing us as equal partners. And many political leaders, north and south, are still stuck in the past, held captive by an economic model that must be transformed if we are to avoid the apocalypse the IPCC scientists envision if the world fails to act. 


So, what’s to be done? 

Indigenous communities cannot survive unless the rule of law that is designed to protect the environment also protects our rights, whether the goal is development or conservation. 

This means that future trade agreements, the European Union’s evolving environmental rules for the private sector and indicators now being developed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission to disclose climate risk should include protections for the role of Indigenous peoples in caring for most of the world’s remaining intact ecosystems, including one-third of its carbon-rich forests.

Since March of last year, the EU has asked fund managers to provide evidence that the companies in their ESG portfolios are hewing to stated environmental, social and governance aims. Meanwhile, the SEC is looking for comments on a proposed rule for revealing climate risk.

The authors of the new IPCC report may not understand our world view, but they know the world needs it. 

We need help, however. In too many of our countries we stand alone on the front lines in defending nature’s treasures against extractive industries, agribusiness, infrastructure and conservation. Often backed by our governments, these forces also put at risk our survival and the survival of our communities, culture, language and traditional knowledge. 

We ask you to open your hearts - to think back to a time when your ancestors lived close to the Earth, when they respected and honored her; to find ways to join Indigenous peoples in supporting our approach since time immemorial. Do it now because we humans are running out of time.

Jennifer Corpuz, a lawyer and member of the Kankana-ey Igorot People of the Philippines, is a negotiator for the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) and global policy lead for Nia Tero.