We Know What Indigenous and Local Communities Can Do for Forests. Here’s What Climate Finance Can Do for Them.

Beto Borges, Director, Forest Trends’ Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative

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  • World leaders in Glasgow are recognizing the contributions of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) in safeguarding forests and biodiversity and pledging at least $1.7 billion in additional funding for these communities. But climate finance systems are not set up to work for them, and no clear path exists for private investment in high-integrity community-based projects at scale
  • The Peoples Forests Partnership aims to mobilize $20 billion per year by 2030 in direct private investment in community-led projects by providing a platform and credible criteria for equitable, impactful partnerships between the private sector and IPLC
  • Funding will include performance- and non-performance-based funding to support territorial governance, direct benefits to communities, and other options aligned with IPLC needs and values

On November 1st, over 100 world leaders signed a landmark agreement to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 and pledged $19.2 billion to meet that goal. It’s an ambitious pledge, but actually not a new one: in 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests got a similar commitment from many of the same leaders that pledged to halve deforestation by 2020 and stop it by 2030. It failed: deforestation actually accelerated in the years that followed the declaration in New York.

What went wrong? Forests today are still worth more dead, logged for their timber or cleared for other land uses, than alive. At the time of the New York Declaration on Forests, no substantive alternatives to the economic drivers of deforestation were offered, and so destruction won out.

Tropical deforestation and degradation is one of the biggest contributors to a looming climate catastrophe. If Earth loses its great carbon stores, we won’t meet the Paris goals no matter what else we do. We need to solve this problem. And we cannot do it without our Indigenous and traditional community partners who manage as much as half of the world’s land (though only having formal legal rights to about 10%) and more than a fifth of forest carbon stores. Our collective failure to recognize and partner with these forest guardians will result in a monumental failure that accelerates the Sixth Mass Extinction and overshooting Paris goals for warming.

Look at a map of the Amazon. You’ll see, dark green blocks of intact forests on Indigenous territories, surrounded by bare lands. The latter are owned by private entities and or are even protected areas where deforestation is nevertheless running rampant.

Indigenous and other forest communities face accelerating pressures when protecting their territories: fires to clear forests for agriculture, logging, mining, land grabbing, and other illegal activities. They frequently face violence–including death–when they resist. According to Global Witness, murders of activists defending the environment and land rights hit a record high last year: 227 environmental defenders were killed in 2020, one third of which are Indigenous people.

These communities and their rights must be globally recognized if we want to avoid catastrophic harm to the environment and human health that will be impossible to reverse. The Peoples Forests Partnership aims to do that. Today less than 1% of international assistance for forests targets IPLC, and even less – roughly $46 million a year – reaches them directly. After three-plus decades working with IPLC in the Amazon and seeing first hand how a lack of support and resources leaves them defending their forests on their own, the November 1 commitment from governments and philanthropists to drive $1.7b in new funding to IPLC for forest conservation was incredible news for me.

But the fact is that climate financing is not set up to support these communities. Basic safeguards like free prior and informed consent (FPIC) and meaningful consultation too often exist only on paper. Mechanisms like REDD+ are incredibly bureaucratic and hard to navigate. There haven’t been enough efforts to put credible benefits-sharing programs in place that are designed with IPLC participation and culturally appropriate.

Sometimes IPLC are even arrested and removed from their lands. While there are solutions, these problems continue to contribute to fuel community mistrust of governments, international funders, and systems like REDD+. The Peoples Forests Partnership launched yesterday in Glasgow was created to address these challenges. It is based on the need for a platform to mobilize funding for community-based, values-driven climate and conservation finance projects. To fill the need for financing guidance and governance criteria so companies and other investors that want to do the right thing will know how to partner with IPLC on projects that align with communities’ rights to their territories, economic self-determination, and cultural traditions. This includes draft principles of engagement for partnerships with IPLC on forest conservation and restoration projects, authored by our partner Mateo Estrada of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC).

The Partnership includes members from Indigenous communities, the private sector, and the conservation community. Together, we represent active projects in over a dozen Forest Nations in the Global South that represent more than two million hectares of tropical forests and market finance already benefiting a quarter million community members.

The Peoples Forests Partnership aims to support the no-deforestation by 2030 goal, and function as a private sector-focused counterpart to government and donor commitments to mobilize finance to IPLC. Our goal is to secure commitments for $20 billion per year by 2030. Our members have financing already in place for a portfolio of over 20 community-based forest conservation projects that will generate $2 billion in private investment and 20 million tonnes per year of Verified Emission Reductions.

We know that voluntary climate commitments are a powerful tool for partnering with forest communities to stop and reverse forest loss and protect biodiversity while supporting their cultures. Designed well, carbon finance can work.

The choice is not between carbon markets and Indigenous rights. The former can support the latter. I have seen this first hand. More than a decade ago, Forest Trends partnered with the Surui Indigenous Peoples in Brazil on the Surui Forest Carbon Project, the first Indigenous-led conservation project financed through the sale of carbon offsets. While the project was operating, it dramatically reduced deforestation within the territory during its first five years (2009-2014). It also generated revenue for sustainable community development initiatives that provided local income and supported traditional practices such as the harvesting of medicinal plants, the creation of artisanal handicrafts, and other activities that enabled the Surui to live off the land while maintaining the forest.

Another lesson is that new finance for climate mitigation needs to be accompanied by support for governance: IPLC need resources and capacity to manage and defend their territories. The Surui Forest Carbon Project had to deal with illegal intrusions onto Surui Territory for logging, alluvial mining, and cattle grazing. It underscored for me how a lack of law enforcement and criminality can undermine good projects. These problems can only be overcome through investments in governance. On indigenous and traditional lands, this certainly includes securing tenure, but investments in governance are also needed to support political advocacy and engagement, pursuing economic development that aligns with their values, and safeguarding their cultures.

Tenure rights can be thought of as a title that shows you own a boat. These other elements of governance (political, economic, cultural) are the wind in your sails that gets you where you need to go. Forest Trends has been working for the past 20 years partnering with communities to build capacity for strong territorial governance, and we will bring this experience and knowledge to the Partnership’s work.

The Partnership is a big tent: we welcome and encourage Indigenous Peoples, traditional owners, and local communities, corporates, NGOs, climate financiers, forest governments, donors, members of the public, and all willing stakeholders to join us in this effort.

We have launched a public consultation period on our membership criteria and operating principles for stakeholders and invite interested parties to help us refine and improve these documents. We also actively seek additional voluntary commitments and action from private-sector entities and other actors who share our vision.

The fate of humanity rests on our ability to succeed in being better partners for our planet’s forest guardians. In doing so, not only will future generations recognize us for being good stewards of the land, they will recognize us for being good stewards of one another.