Indigenous Land Rights at the Intersection of COVID-19 and Tropical Deforestation

April 9, 2021

Globally, land use patterns are changing to adapt to the new social and economic pressures presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend is especially noticeable in regions home to tropical forests, where deforestation is occurring at alarmingly high rates in response to market pressures and the impending threat of increased poverty and food insecurity within rural communities.

Global lockdowns halted travel, commerce and industrial production, leaving governments all over the world desperate for an economic rebound. In attempts to revive the stock market and prevent widespread unemployment, many governments relied on fiscal stimulus, which resulted in rising prices for many commodities that are key drivers of tropical deforestation, such soy, timber, and palm oil. Due to their high market value, some countries are weakening environmental safeguards to aid economic recovery by incentivizing the expansion of infrastructure and production for deforestation-linked industries. Additionally, limited government resources in many countries, such as Brazil, are being used up for COVID response, leaving forested areas unprotected and vulnerable. Illegal logging, mining, land invasions and forest clearing are at an all-time high. Deforestation in Brazil has reached its highest level since 2008. These activities, coupled with an influx of job losses forcing people out of cities and back to their homes in rural areas, are leaving the world’s tropical forests in a precarious position.

Amazonas, Brazil photographed by Nathalia Segato

What’s at stake

If tropical deforestation continues at its current rate, the consequences will be dire for humans and the planet. The health of tropical forests is central to stabilizing our climate, protecting biodiversity, and supporting the millions of Indigenous Peoples and local communities that rely on the land for their food security and livelihoods. This past year, land invasions and acts of violence against Indigenous Peoples, especially women and children, have been on the rise. Deforestation is not only an environmental crisis, but also a human rights issue.

Perhaps one of the most unsettling consequences of tropical deforestation is its direct correlation to increasing the chances of another pandemic in the near future. Tropical deforestation displaces animals in some of the world’s most biodiverse environments, placing them in closer proximity with each other and humans, therefore increasing the potential for zoonotic disease transmission. Unless conservation is prioritized in COVID-19 recovery efforts, this past year will become a foreshadow for the rest of our lives.

Indigenous land rights and tenure

A newly released FAO report shares the cumulative evidence from over 250 studies on the importance and urgency of climate action to protect the forests of Indigenous and tribal territories of Latin America, and the peoples who protect them. For example, the report highlighted that territories in the Peruvian Amazon managed by Indigenous Peoples reduced deforestation by twice as much as protected areas with similar ecological conditions and accessibility. The report also cited that lands in the Amazon basin under Indigenous management lost less than 0.3% of forest carbon over a 13-year period, whereas non-indigenous protected lands lost 0.6%, and lands that were neither managed by Indigenous Peoples nor protected lost 3.6%.

The cost of securing land tenure in Brazilian forests is a mere few dollars per hectare, whereas the estimated benefits over the next 20 years are between $523 billion to $1.2 trillion in carbon emissions reductions alone. Emerging evidence from South America, Asia, and Africa also suggests that when Indigenous women hold secure rights to land, efforts to protect biodiversity and address climate change are more successful. Prioritizing Indigenous women in leadership roles is not only beneficial to the planet, but also strategic in protecting them against the uptick of violent acts.

As part of the policy mix, countries of higher-income economies, such as the US, can leverage foreign and trade policy to reduce deforestation in ways that recognize Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ rights. For example, US Senator Brian Schatz announced a bill to ban agricultural goods grown on illegally deforested land from entering the US. If passed, this bill would require importers to trace the source of commodities and reject any found to be grown on forested lands cleared in violation of Indigenous peoples and local communities’ legal rights.

What Indufor is doing

Indufor has been continuously working for the past several years on projects related to advancing indigenous land tenure. Since 2014, Indufor has been supporting The Tenure Facility, the first and only international, multistakeholder financial mechanism exclusively focused on securing Indigenous land tenure. The Tenure Facility demonstrates best practice in development assistance and inspiring more commitment and action to secure community land rights. As of 2020, Tenure Facility’s has supported IPLCs to secure titling of over 3.5 million hectares of land, as well as advance collective tenure security on over 11 million hectares of land. While these are major victories, there is still a lot more work to be done in advancing awareness and support for Indigenous land rights.

Most recently, Indufor worked with the Rainforest Foundation Norway on a soon-to-be-released report that identifies gaps in financial mechanisms for securing Indigenous land tenure and forest management. By analyzing trends in donor funding, Indufor found that funding for IPLC tenure and forest management falls vastly short of the estimated need. Relatively few donors prioritize IPLC land rights despite their ample social, economic and environmental benefits. The report makes recommendations for donors, tropical forest county governments, NGO intermediaries, and IPLC organizations on how to scale and enhance the quality of financing for IPLC territorial governance and forest management. The hope is that these recommendations will inform donor decision-making and prioritization leading up to this year’s climate and biodiversity summits (UNFCCC and CBD COPs). These summits offer opportunities to strengthen financing for realizing commitments that advance Indigenous land rights and forest management. The report findings will be highlighted more in depth in an upcoming blog post.

What’s next

COVID-19 has allowed governments in tropical regions to overlook Indigenous rights with impunity, causing irreversible damage to the environment and the well-being of Indigenous and local communities. It is urgent that the rights of Indigenous Peoples be addressed to ensure protection against extreme climate events, human rights violations, and future pandemics. Indigenous Peoples can also drive a green economic recovery through new investment arrangements that respect rights.

Going forward, strengthening local Indigenous rights and ensuring Indigenous voices in decision making will be critical to advancing environmental justice while conserving forest landscapes. It will be necessary to fast-track global policies that enhance the legal rights and management capability of Indigenous communities, reverse economic incentives favoring forest degrading activities, and promote those that conserve forest landscapes.

 

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