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Major Climate and Land Report Marks First Time UN IPCC Recognizes Indigenous and Community Land Rights as Vital to Slowing Climate Crisis

IPCC Report on Climate Change and Land cites need to stop tropical deforestation while, in response, the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who manage forests warn of ever-escalating threats

Materials available at www.IPCCresponse.org (password: rights)


Washington, DC (8 August, 2019)—A United Nations (UN) report on climate change has for the first time cited strong land rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities as a solution to the climate crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land, released today in Geneva, analyzes the role of land management decisions in both reducing and adapting to the worst of what climate change will throw at us—and highlighted indigenous and community land rights as key to both endeavors.

In response, indigenous and community leaders from 42 countries—spanning 1.6 billion hectares of land customarily used or managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities and accounting for over 76 percent of the world’s tropical forests—issued a statement emphasizing the long-awaited recognition of the role of forest peoples in protecting forests. The statement also noted that the report’s findings add to a growing body of evidence showing that secure land rights for forest peoples is essential to climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

“Finally, the world’s top scientists recognize what we have always known. We—Indigenous Peoples and local communities—play a critical role in stewarding and safeguarding the world’s lands and forests. For the first time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released today recognizes that strengthening our rights is a critical solution to the climate crisis,” the statement reads.

“Our existence has always been threatened when our lands are desired by governments and corporations,” said Sonia Guajajara, executive coordinator of Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB). “These interests would kill us or lock us up behind bars so that our lands can be changed to fit whatever scheme has been concocted. Now with this report there is recognition that how we have safeguarded our forests and lands benefit the entire world—but our rights to exist and manage these lands need to be strengthened. Will the world listen?”

While the IPCC report emphasizes the global need to increase food production, forests are often cleared to produce agricultural commodities that do not address food security needs, such as beef, palm oil, and soybeans. In their response statement, Indigenous Peoples and local communities worldwide discuss the false choice offered between managing intact landscapes to keep carbon out of the atmosphere and clearing landscapes for economic development projects that include agro-industrial plantations.

The statement notes: "Where our rights are respected, by contrast, we provide an alternative to economic models that require tradeoffs between the environment and development. Our traditional knowledge and holistic view of nature enables us to feed the world, protect our forests, and maintain global biodiversity.”

“The need for development and the need to protect the forests that combat climate change are often seen as being at odds with each other. But we offer an alternate vision,” said Levi Sucre Romero of Alianza Mesoamericana de Pueblos y Bosques (AMPB). “We put at the disposal of humanity our traditional knowledge and experience of how to coexist with nature—to meet the needs of both people and planet.”

The IPCC report suggests that land management plays an increasingly important role in how society responds and adapts to climate change. Earlier research found that land-based climate-change mitigation strategies could provide more than a third of the cuts in carbon emissions needed by 2030 to reach the Paris Agreement temperature goal. Other UN-sponsored scientists released research this year on the state of biodiversity and of forests that called on governments to recognize clear and secure tenure rights and suggested they play an essential role in the sustainable management and effective conservation of forests across landscapes.

The response statement highlights that at least 50 percent of the world’s lands are customarily managed by traditional peoples, but governments formally recognize their ownership to only 10 percent. For the women in these communities—who increasingly play an outsized role as leaders, forest managers, and economic providers—the situation is worse: countries that recognize their collective land rights are the exception rather than the norm.

“We welcome the IPCC’s acknowledgement,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “As everyone is scrambling to make sense of the climate crisis, strengthening indigenous and community rights is a solution that can be implemented right now. We need each and every member state of the UN to embrace these findings and make Indigenous Peoples partners in efforts to protect our planet and achieve sustainable development.”

Today’s IPCC report is the latest in a growing body of scientific research suggesting that Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) are the best guardians of the world’s lands and forests, and that securing their land rights—with particular attention to the rights of women—is fundamental to meeting the ambitious aims of the Paris Agreement as well as the Sustainable Development Goals, global forest and ecosystem restoration targets, and the post-2020 conservation agenda.

“For years we have engaged the UN on climate—but the embrace of our land rights as a bulwark against climate change has proceeded at a glacial pace,” said Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of Mbororo People from Chad. “But now, with the glaciers melting, our role in keeping the world’s tropical forests upright and the forest carbon out of the atmosphere has finally been highlighted as an important contribution to the world sustainability.”

At least 365 land rights activists have been killed since the Paris Agreement was signed. Meanwhile, tree cover loss in tropical countries around the globe totaled 12 million hectares in 2018, the fourth-highest annual amount since record-keeping began in 2001. Brazil, whose president has called for violence against Indigenous Peoples and a rollback of their recognized territories, leads the world in both tropical deforestation and the destruction of old growth (or primary) rainforest.

According to the response statement, at least 218 gigatonnes of carbon are stored in the collective tropical and subtropical forests of Indigenous Peoples and local communities and at least a third of this carbon—and likely much more—is in areas where they lack formal recognition of their land rights. Community and indigenous lands experience a rate of tree cover loss that is less than half of what other lands experience, according to an analysis of the data from the Global Forest Watch; where rights are recognized the difference is even greater.

“The science is clear,” said Alain Frechette, Ph.D., director of strategic analysis and global engagement for Rights and Resources Initiative. “If you want to prevent the destruction of our most precious stores of carbon and biodiversity, forests offer the only existing, safe, affordable, large-scale solution, but in order to get there, we must first protect the sovereignty and dignity of indigenous and local communities over their lands, the knowledge they hold, and the values we should all adhere to.”

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The Rights and Resources Initiative is a global Coalition of more than 200 organizations dedicated to advancing the forestland and resource rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and women within these groups. Members capitalize on each other’s strengths, expertise, and geographic reach to achieve solutions more effectively and efficiently. RRI leverages the power of its global Coalition to amplify the voices of local peoples and proactively engage governments, multilateral institutions, and private sector actors to adopt institutional and market reforms that support the realization of rights. By advancing a strategic understanding of the global threats and opportunities resulting from insecure land and resource rights, RRI develops and promotes rights-based approaches to business and development and catalyzes effective solutions to scale rural tenure reform and enhance sustainable resource governance. RRI is coordinated by the Rights and Resources Group, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC. For more information, please visit www.rightsandresources.org