Forest areas host an incredible wealth of biodiversity but they are also home to indigenous peoples. These inhabitants want their voices to be heard in the ongoing negotiations to create protected areas.

Waiapi people cross the Feliz river by barge, at the Waiapi indigenous reserve in Amapa state in Brazil on October 13, 2017. (Photo by Apu Gomes / AFP)
Waiapi people cross the Feliz river by barge, at the Waiapi indigenous reserve in Amapa state in Brazil on October 13, 2017. (Photo by Apu Gomes / AFP)

Does protecting forests mean completely closing them off? Do inhabitants need to be moved out in order to create protected areas? Should certain traditional practices be outlawed, such as hunting or cultivating customary lands? Should forest rangers be armed to enforce the rules?

Although the creation of protected nature reserves is being considered as a means of fighting the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, it does raise complex questions. The areas that are rich in biodiversity and likely to obtain special protection status are the very same areas where indigenous peoples live. Yet this age-old relationship continues to trigger lively debate.

Should we remove the human species from forest ecosystems in order to see them as truly natural?”, asks Annick Schnitzler, former professor of ecology at Université de Lorraine, in her book Forêts sauvages. “Homo sapiens have lived in Eurasia as hunter-gatherers for at least 45,000 years, way before the massive forest expansion that took place during the last interglacial period.”

When we talk about forests, we refer to the entire entity, which includes the human beings who are dependent on the forest: biodiversity cannot be dissociated from humans and trees,” says Indra Van Gisbergen, head of the Forest campaign for the NGO Fern. “Forest communities know how to manage the forest because their survival depends on it. Numerous studies have confirmed their role as the forest’s guardians.”

 

Indigenous peoples: sentinels of the forest

In its 2019 report, IPBES (the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services), often referred to as the “IPPC of biodiversity”, estimated that “nature managed  by indigenous peoples and local communities is under increasing pressure but is generally declining less rapidly than in other lands.”

The same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report recognizing the central role indigenous peoples must play in the response to climate crisis and ecosystem degradation.

Prior to this report, in 2016, a broad academic study aimed at measuring indigenous peoples’ contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions concluded that the strengthening of their rights would offer the most effective and least expensive means of carbon sequestration. According to other analysis, the practices of indigenous communities–hunting, fishing, farming, gathering–generally contribute to the fight against climate change and the preservation of biodiversity, and even act as guarantors of these efforts.

Therefore, although indigenous peoples represent only 5% of the population, they safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity, according to the World Bank: “They hold vital ancestral knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and disaster risks.”

 

Creating protected areas and quantified targets

The role of indigenous peoples in the ongoing international negotiations aimed at protecting 30% of the earth’s land by 2030 has significantly increased in recent months. This target may seem ambitious, but it is indeed the figure being put forward at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to be held in October in Kunming, China.

In order to stave off the massive decline in living species, the draft text on the table for this COP15 proposes to “protect sites of particular importance for biodiversity through protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures,” covering at least “30% of land and sea areas with at least 10% under strict protection,” all by 2030.  Some fifty countries, including France, already support this goal, which was reiterated by President Emmanuel Macron at the One Planet Summit.

 

 

Each country must make the same level of commitment, regardless of the quality and significance of its ecosystems in terms of global biodiversity,” says Didier Bazile, researcher in agroecology at CIRAD, the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development. “One area that is not taken into account is that of the local communities living in the areas destined to become protected areas.” Currently, indigenous peoples and forest communities are not formally involved in this conservation plan.

 

Covid-19, an aggravating factor for indigenous peoples

These groups have been hard-hit by global changes affecting the ecosystems they depend on for their survival and have become victims of land-grabbing.

Land titles and concessions are issued for palm oil plantations, logging, and mining activities. This is a colonial legislative framework,” says Indra Van Gisbergen. “Many communities are marginalized, are victims of rights violations, driven from their land, without any means of survival.”

Pygmies in Cameroon and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are bearing the brunt of deforestation. In Brazil, the Yanomami and Wayampi are being driven from their land due to small-scale gold mining. The living conditions and identity of the Mashco-Piro in Peru and the Jarawas in the Andaman Islands are also being threatened.

Far from stopping this trend, the Covid-19 crisis has even intensified land dispossession. A study published in April 2021 by Yale Law School and the School of Law of Middlesex University London showed that the governments of Brazil, Colombia, the DRC, Indonesia and Peru have prioritized the expansion of logging activities, industrial agriculture and the energy sector on or near indigenous lands, all in the name of economic recovery.

 

Do protected areas lead to an exclusion of rights?

The NGOs working to defend indigenous peoples are also speaking out against nature-based solutions aimed at fighting global changes, when they believe their implementation will harm local communities. These “solutions” include the implementation of payment systems for environmental services and “REDD+” programs aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

In the context of REDD+ programs, local communities may be faced with a foreign company entering their land and telling them, You have to put an end to slash-and-burn agriculture and stop hunting and gathering so that we can sell carbon credits and give you a portion of the profits,” says Marine Gauthier, an expert in international governance. “In most cases, profits are slow in coming for the communities and this results in impoverishment.”

Speaking before the UN General Assembly in 2016, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, already warned of the negative effects of establishing protected areas: “While protected areas for conservation have the potential of safeguarding the biodiversity for the benefit of all humanity, these have also frequently been associated with human rights violations against indigenous peoples in many parts of the world.”

These land protection systems, referred to as “fortress conservation” by opponents, have shown mixed results in terms of conservation when local communities are inadequately or not involved, according to a study.

 

Securing land rights

How can we ensure that forest concessions granted for conservation purposes will not reproduce the unfair model of concessions for mining and logging activities?

In April 2021, over 230 organizations signed a declaration  expressing their concerns about the target of 30% protected areas, and asking for greater guarantees for local communities–a total of 300 million individuals. The only way to reach this goal, in their opinion, is to start by securing land and customary rights for indigenous communities. “Provisions must also be made for reparations and justice in cases in which rights have been violated,” Indra Van Gisbergen adds. After recognition of traditional indigenous knowledge on biodiversity, the last decade has also offered a sign of hope through legal victories in the area of land rights.

In November 2020, Yann Wehrling, France’s ambassador on the environment, said that “the role of humans in protected areas remains a key question.” He recommends that negotiations take into account the vital role of indigenous peoples in preserving biodiversity. “It will be important to reassure their representatives in the preparations for the COP. We develop a discourse that sees mining and extraction, for example, as the prohibited activities in these areas.”

Organizations of indigenous peoples and their advocates are resolute in taking his word for it and making their voices heard prior to the COP15 that will be held in China in October.

Forests are in danger. These mainstays in the fight against global warming and to preserve biodiversity may soon reach a tipping point. The proliferation of fires around the world and increasing demand for forest products and services are depleting these ecosystems. Even the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of the Earth, appears to have reached a breaking point. According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in April 2021, it is now emitting more carbon than it absorbs.

Our series “Forests in Danger” explores the definition of a forest, as well as issues including the risks of pathogen release, road construction, imported deforestation in consumer products, and consequences for indigenous peoples, while also identifying solutions for the future.

 

Forests are in danger. These mainstays in the fight against global warming and to preserve biodiversity may soon reach a tipping point. The proliferation of fires around the world and increasing demand for forest products and services are depleting these ecosystems. Even the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of the Earth, appears to have reached a breaking point. According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in April 2021, it is now emitting more carbon than it absorbs.

Our “Forests in Danger” series explores the definition of a forest, as well as issues including the risks of pathogen release, road construction, imported deforestation in consumer products, and consequences for indigenous peoples, while also identifying solutions for the future.

Aurélie Darbouret

You can find  our series “Forests in danger”:

Francis Hallé: “Forests are a common good to be protected”
Proliferation of roads in forests causes irreversible damages on biodiversity
Importation and deforestation: a scourge from the North
How to protect forests without threatening indigenous peoples

 

The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

I subscribe to the ID4D newsletter

Once a week, I receive the latest blog posts!

Agenda