Protecting Their Forests is Protecting Their Identities

How much do you know about the world's forest communities? Check out our intern Sydney's first blog post describing indigenous land ownership!

2020 was a whirlwind of a year. The global pandemic has occupied the forefront of our minds, allowing for the climate crisis to slip through the cracks. However, climate change has already presented itself as a major threat to humanity. In particular, the convergence of global warming and increasing exposure to infectious disease have affected indigenous populations worldwide. Rainforest communities in particular, which have been afflicted by 38,600 square kilometers of deforestation over the past decade, are struggling for land security. Legal ownership of land is pivotal to combatting the effects of exploitation for short-term economic gains, and mitigating 37% of our annual carbon emissions

Despite contributing to food production diversity for thousands of years, indigenous land is disappearing 1 acre every two seconds. Indigenous land not only provides a home to over an estimated 1.7 million people, but large amounts of sequestered carbon. It is evident that, for thousands of years, when ownership rights were at the hands of the communities intimately connected to the land, that traditional ecological knowledge contributed to an evolution of plant life. Indigenous communities worldwide depend heavily on the environment and its resources, so there are drawbacks to modernizing agricultural practices once that traditional knowledge and ownership is taken away. However, it is imperative to understand that every indigenous community has different needs, priorities, and resources. What may work for the Maasai in East Africa may not work for the Chakma of Pakistan. Each community experiences climate change and exploitation differently, and therefore must adapt differently. In the Amazon rainforest, which spans across nine countries in South America, land rights protect Amazonian biodiversity and communities from deforestation. Giving indigenous communities full legal ownership of their land will prevent national governments from making decisions on their behalf. 

A recent study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences revealed that providing land ownership curbed deforestation at territorial borders from three percent to one percent. When governments properly assign land ownership rights, indigenous communities in the Amazon can progress with ecological developments through a homologation process. Logging, mining, and oil and gas extraction also pose threats to territories without land titles. Combining the historical responsibility of protecting the land from illegal activities with advances in sustainability produces increased political representation and decreased forced relocation of indigenous groups.

Of all the land in Sub-Saharan Africa, only thirteen percent is legally owned by indigenous communities. Deforestation due to industrialization poses a threat to ancestral sites and successful conservation initiatives. Accompanied with conflict, indigenous peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa also face the threat of governments seizing their land without providing indemnification towards damages. Community outreach organizations, such as the Community Conservation Resilience Initiative (CCRI), were created to counter state affairs and their motives. Despite differences between traditional practices passed down from Indigenous people and the norms of the current generation, efforts towards protecting natural resources are collaborative. Abuse towards locals and wildlife is not tolerated with secure land stewardship. For example, the Baka people of Cameroon thrive off of a hunter-gatherer relationship. Sharing conservation practices with scientific researchers has progressed sustainability within the forests and anti-poaching measures. Logging is a recurring issue with the Baka tribe and the indigenous Lokolama people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nature to the Lokolama people is a direct link to their ancestors. Preserving their forest is preserving their identities. 

Deforestation and pollution from the palm oil industry also affects indigenous people native to Asia. Instead of working towards defending indigenous people's rights, the government of Indonesia prioritizes relocating communities to make room for palm plantations. The Palawan people of the Philippines face unfair treatment due to the prevalance of the industry. Little to no remuneration is given to these communities because the government strips them of their land while also binding them with loans. Without the independence to be socially mobile using their own resources, these communities may be at risk for extinction. 

Indigenous Australians, also known as the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people, are also fighting for their land to further conservation initiatives. Progress has been made through federal native title legislation, and individual territories have laws in place to preserve indigenous culture. Laws have also been put in place since the late 1980s to protect natural and historical places that are deeply ingrained in indigenous history. This includes the rich biodiversity that requires stability from indigenous people and not outside sources. Conservation through organizations such as The Nature Conservancy aids Aboriginal families culturally and economically.  

As of 2012, the Forest Peoples Programme estimated 60 million to 200 million indigenous people rely solely on the forest for survival. In Latin America alone, there are estimated to be between 42 and 48 million indegenous people. There is strength in numbers; such a large population is more likely to have their voices heard by local governments. Although this may potentially cause conflicts with non-natives, forests are vital natural resources that need to be protected at all costs. With the proper collaboration between governments and tribes, the massive forests in Central and South America can continue to act as carbon sinks and regulate the planet’s temperatures. 

It is clearly evident that proper ownership of indigenous land is correlated with lower carbon emissions. Communities whose ancestors have survived entirely off of their local environments for centuries have unparalleled knowledge of conserving their land. Despite generations of colonialism and violence, they have persevered. Global leaders need to prioritize the protection of indigenous lives, their lands, and the planet as a whole. In fact, the UN has already provided a framework via its 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Valuing the lives of indigenous people and their right to self-determination brings community safety and economic development across the world, as well as the plethora of environmental benefits that stem from indigenous land stewardship. Honoring and protecting human rights– and land rights– is a win-win for everyone.

Sydney Stokes

Communications & Marketing Intern