Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme

Indigenous peoples can help fight climate change, so why aren’t we letting them?

December 19, 2019

The Karen’s indigenous practice of shifting cultivation, which studies have shown to help reduce carbon in the atmosphere, is often misunderstood as destructive slash-and-burn by the general public and local authorities.

For most indigenous and local communities, nature and culture are inseparable. And for that reason alone, no other sector of society is more suited for caring and guarding key biodiversity and forest areas.

Despite only comprising 5% of the global population, indigenous peoples protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity areas and possess traditional knowledge and practices in adapting, mitigating and reducing risks associated with climate change and natural disasters. As one of the most climate-vulnerable sectors across the world, they are at the frontlines in the campaign for environmental protection and climate change mitigation.

But many domestic governments in Southeast Asia have been less than keen in accepting the indigenous peoples as partners for climate change advocacies. Countless incidents of persecution, land-grabbing, forced evictions, human rights violations and even state-perpetrated violence continue to prevent meaningful cooperation between the two sectors.

In the international stage, indigenous peoples and local communities fare little better. At the Conference of Parties (COP), the annual United Nations climate talks, they collectively gained stronger voices through the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform. But in practice their participation remain tokenistic at best, drowned out by profit-driven debates on false solutions to climate change.

And if these state delegates continue to miss the time to act, voices aren’t the only thing drowning in the near future.

Emphasizing the wrong solution

A cursory search through news headlines at the conclusion of COP25 in Madrid yields worrying remarks: CNN says it “fell short,” Forbes calls it a “failure,” The Economist describes it as “a sad splutter,” and The Guardian labels it a conference of “squabbling.” The U.N.’s own newsletter defines it as “an important opportunity lost.” Even U.N. Secretary General António Guterres also expressed disappointment in his statement on the outcome of COP25

We have indeed missed another opportunity.

The epicenter of COP25’s stalemate was Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The controversial article establishes a mechanism for states to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions through an international “carbon market.” In other words, countries that emit little greenhouse gases are allowed to sell their excess allowances to countries that emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, resulting in a net global reduction of emissions. By putting a price on carbon emissions, countries that regularly exceed their allowed emissions would be burdened with the costs of global warming while countries that comply are rewarded.

But just as they did in COP24 in Poland, several wealthy nations stonewalled progress at reaching an agreement regarding Article 6 by pushing to allow an “accounting loophole” in carbon allowances to gain an unfair advantage over the new climate deal, drawing the ire of civil society observers as well as delegates from small island countries endangered by rising sea levels.

Regardless, perhaps the most damaging consequence of this argument is simply the disproportionate amount of focus carbon trading is given in the conference, given that experts have already said it has limited ability in addressing climate change. COP25 ended up being the longest climate summit yet, extending two days beyond its two-week time frame, but it found little time to discuss and recognize the importance of human rights and social justice, especially for indigenous peoples and local communities.

While negotiators were busy watering down a compromise agreement, the protests of countless environmental workers, indigenous peoples and youth groups congregating in Madrid fell on the deaf ears.

“The climate solution should not be dominated by carbon trading because it will always be a business under the capitalist system, it won’t succeed in addressing climate change,” says Roger Garinga, Executive Director of the Institute for the Development of Educational and Ecological Alternatives, Inc.

“The carbon market must be secondary. It will be better to push or compel industries to reduce their emissions instead of just focusing on [carbon] offset,” Garinga adds.

Demanding recognition

In a preparatory webinar a week before COP25, Garinga and other representatives of the CSO Forum identified the need to recognize the vital role and contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities specifically towards nationally determined contributions (NDCs), or the country-wide efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to the impact of climate change signed by most of the countries under the Paris Agreement in 2015.

All easier said than done, of course. As the CSO Forum participants from Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand can all attest, most of the governments in ASEAN view indigenous peoples as more of a hindrance rather than a partner for development. In a bid to turn ancestral lands into profitable commercial land, some companies have conspired with local government officials to deprive indigenous and local communities of their rights and displace them from their homes.

Indigenous groups and farmers’ groups are far too often the target of violence perpetrated by enforcement arms of the state. Lands declared as “conserved areas” end up being converted anyway. Even more worrying, civil society organizations and groups that are deemed too critical can be branded as ‘anti-government’ and face grave threats to both life and liberty. This culture of hostility breeds further distrust between indigenous communities and governments.

Even in situations where the authorities are more benign, the lack of information and awareness pose a secondary obstacle to recognition. In many regions, there are negative connotations attached to indigenous and local communities that range from being uneducated, uncultured or wholly unskilled at managing and conserving their own land. As an example, the Karen people of northern Thailand are no strangers to that stereotype. The yearly smog above Chiang Mai district, described as one of the worst in the world, has often been blamed by the Thai government on the indigenous Karen practice of shifting cultivation, despite studies showing it has little effect on the haze compared to other smoke sources such as accidental and natural forest fires.

And while many people working in environmental and development organizations are aware of concepts like the Paris Agreement and NDCs, they are also a tiny minority of the general population. Most people, and by extension most government officials, may not even know or understand what those are. The chance to attend COP is a privilege afforded only to few individuals and organizations, as such the information gained from these meetings (most of which are technical in nature) barely trickle down to a wider audience.

Ways forward for CSOs

At the national and regional level, the CSO Forum participants highlighted several courses of action that can be taken by concerned organizations to help indigenous and local communities in their bid for proper recognition.

First, CSOs, with consent and in clear agreement with partner indigenous peoples and local communities, can help facilitate ancestral domain recognition and protection, as well as help in establishing defined boundaries for conservation and self-regulation. That means helping with technical processes, boundary setting, legal compliance, after-planning and tangible implementations. Bridging the gap between indigenous communities and the national government is vital for achieving recognition. But a bridge also goes both ways. It also falls under CSOs to not only create collaborative statements, but also meet with the policymakers face-to-face in constructive dialogue for the benefit of the indigenous communities.

Second, CSOs must recognize when they can take a step back and allow indigenous communities to speak for and represent themselves. More than just empowering them through visibility, it also allows them to share their stories, knowledge and practices directly without the need for a secondary channel.

Finally, CSOs that can join COP every year must take advantage of this opportunity, and at the same time recognize that only very few organizations can do so. It’s important to strengthen communications on COP activities at all levels, from social media posts and information sharing, to media interviews, press releases and creating policy briefs for concerned officials. But such approaches should take a careful approach, with the aim to not only promote one’s own organization but to more importantly to highlight the position of indigenous peoples and the vital role they play in our fight against climate change.

Now is not the time to wallow in disappointment at recent developments. We must not give up. Now more than ever, we must change our mindsets and ensure that COP26 is the critical turning point that the world’s most vulnerable people sorely need.

The Civil Society Organizations Forum on Social Forestry in ASEAN serves as a platform for local communities, indigenous people’s organizations, and civil society organizations to consolidate and elevate key messages to the members of the ASEAN states through the ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry. From its establishment in 2012, it now has over 50 participants representing 40 organizations from eight countries in Southeast Asia. NTFP-EP Asia facilitates the Forum with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) through the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership for Social Forestry and Climate Change (ASFCC) 

Article by Jon Robin Bustamante, NTFP-EP Asia

Dazzle Labapis, NTFP-EP Asia, contributed to this article.