The World Turns to Indigenous Peoples in the Fight Against Climate Change

At COP26, global leaders took a key step to recognize the potential of Indigenous Peoples as essential allies in the fight against climate change.

During the November 2021 International Conference of the Parties, or COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland, leaders from Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, the U.K., the United States, and 17 philanthropic foundations made commitments to support efforts to secure, strengthen and defend Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ (IPLCs) rights to their lands and forests. They pledged USD 1.7 billion in funding from 2021 to 2025 to build IPLCs governance capacities, support sustainable livelihoods, support community-level mapping and registration of IPLC rights, and implement national land and forest tenure reforms, among other crucial activities.

This pledge represents a crucial shift of strategy in the battle against climate change by governments and philanthropic organizations across the world. Indigenous Peoples and local communities around the have long been at the front lines of climate change, and have been the first to feel its most severe effects. IPLC territories also contain 24 per cent of the carbon stored above ground in the world’s tropical forests and much of the world’s remaining biodiversity. IPLC stewardship and defense of lands, forests, rangelands, and reefs have therefore been one of the most effective safeguards against even further loss of critical ecosystems and landscapes.

In the past few years, the scientific community has begun to acknowledge that IPLCs are the most effective stewards of their environments. With secure tenure, IPLCs around the world reduce deforestation and preserve biodiversity far more effectively than when governments operate protected areas while excluding communities. These findings were finally acknowledged by the Intergovernmental Panels for Climate Change and Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in 2019.

Txai Suruí, an activist from the Paiter Suruí Indigenous People at the opening of COP26 climate talks. (Image: UNFCCC/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The COP26 pledge is the result of years of mobilization and tireless advocacy by Indigenous Peoples to be included in global biodiversity and climate discussions. However, until the pledge made in Glasgow, global funding towards climate change mitigation largely ignored IPLCs essential role in stemming further global warming and biodiversity loss. A report published by Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) with research from Indufor North America’s team concluded that projects supporting IPLCs’ forest tenure have received approximately USD 2.7 billion from 2011 to 2020. This equates to less than 1% of Official Development Assistance (ODA) for climate change mitigation over that period. The study also found that roughly half of these funds were channelled through large intermediaries such as the Amazon Fund, which resulted in only a small fraction of resources reaching IPLCs themselves.

The RFN study proved to be a crucial advocacy tool for IPLCs and their allies in the lead up to the COP and was frequently cited in media coverage of the pledge. Jeff Bezos, whose Earth Fund was among the pledgers, acknowledged that “conservation efforts have failed in the past” because “top-down programs fail to include communities, they fail to include Indigenous people that live in the local area.”

Also essential to these advocacy efforts have been a range of initiatives already working to secure IPLC rights. For example, the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) is an international coalition of over 150 organizations dedicated to advancing the forest, land, and tenure rights of Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendant Peoples, and local communities through coordination, advocacy, and strategic research. In the lead-up to the COP, RRI coordinated an informal network of donors and global financial mechanisms to mobilize USD 10 billion of new funds for IPLC rights by 2030 in tropical forest countries. This network called the Path to Scale, played a large role in advancing the USD 1.7 billion pledge.

RRI Coordinator, Solange Bandiaky-Badji and Tuntiak Katan, General Coordinator of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, meet with Jeff Bezos, founder of the Bezos Earth Fund, at CoP26 in Glasgow. (Photo Credit: Bezos Earth Fund)

More recently, the Tenure Facility (TF) was launched in 2017. It is the first international grant-making mechanism focused exclusively on securing IPLCs’ land and forest rights at scale. Indufor was involved in the design and launch of the TF and continues to provide strategic consulting to its Executive Management team while being engaged in the development of TF’s 2023-2028 Strategic Plan.

Additionally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Conservation International (CI) launched the Inclusive Conservation Initiative (ICI) in 2019, which is funded by the Global Environment Facility. The ICI invests in projects to improve the management of IPLC lands, build IPLC organizations’ operational capacities, and support IPLC leaders to engage with international policy initiatives. Indufor worked with the ICI to develop a screening tool to assess applicant proposals. The screening tool also included an interactive dashboard with detailed country profiles presenting data about critical biodiversity issues, government laws and policies to recognize and protect IPLC rights, among other critical pieces of information.  These tools enhanced IUCN and CI’s ability to identify a diversified portfolio of IPLC-led projects to fund.

RRI, the Tenure Facility, ICI and others have served as proof to major donors that investing in IPLCs is a sound strategy in the global fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Looking to the Future

Holding global leaders accountable to their commitments will be necessary, especially as previous pledges for funding climate mitigation and adaptation have not been fulfilled in the past. For the funds that have been disbursed, there has been a lack of transparency in terms of who receives the funding and what it accomplishes. It will therefore be necessary to continue monitoring the progress of the COP26 pledge by updating the findings presented in the RFN report.But as global funding for securing and protecting IPLC tenure increases, existing and new institutions need to step in to manage and distribute these resources while remaining accountable to IPLCs. Otherwise, there is a risk that this new capital will either not have a home or go through intermediary institutions that do not have meaningful relationships with IPLCs.

In anticipation of this need, RRI, in collaboration with Campaign for Nature (C4N) has launched the Community Land Rights and Conservation Finance Initiative (CLARIFI) in the wake of COP26. Through targeted funding, coordination, and multi-level advocacy, the international funding instrument has the mandate to help Indigenous and community-led organizations expand the mapping and recognition of their lands and to create and implement plans to support their conservation and self-determined development. Indufor supported RRI’s launch of CLARIFI by developing a work plan and advising the mechanism’s design and positioning.

Securing IPLC rights is not only essential for halting deforestation and biodiversity loss. Secure land rights and Indigenous ecological knowledge are also necessary for equitable and sustainable nature-based solutions and ecological restoration initiatives, which were another core area of focus at COP26. If these initiatives are not founded on respect for IPLCs rights, there is a real risk that these will only further contribute to the marginalisation and dispossession of Indigenous and local communities. Hopefully, the momentum from COP26 will spark greater global discussions around the crucial importance of IPLC leadership in decisions made about their lands and resources.

Authors: Luke Davis and Haley Stauffer

Indufor is a global leader in Natural Resources Management, Investment Advisory, and Strategic Industrial Development consulting. We support our customers to compete and sustainably grow in international markets. Indufor has offices in Finland, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and China. We have over 43 years of experience in more than 100 countries. Our services support our clients to make the world more sustainable and greener.

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