Finally there's good news on climate change: We have part of the solution, and it's already working.
For a long time, experts have theorized that indigenous people in forest communities and their management of these forests are critical to controlling and eventually diminishing carbon emissions in the atmosphere – and now a new study shows that this is true. The report, called "Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change: How Strengthening Community Forest Rights Mitigates Climate Change" and released jointly by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) in July, "makes a strong case for strengthening the rights of indigenous and local communities over their forests as a policy tool for mitigating climate change."
Forests suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere with unrivaled efficiency, and also serve as enormous filtration systems that provide clean water to millions of people. Every year as much as one fifth of the global carbon emissions may come from cut down trees, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The tenure of indigenous people over these patches of our planet – who can maintain standing forests and see that the trees are not cut down – is a crucial ingredient in the complex recipe for controlling carbon emissions and thereby tackling climate change itself.
Forest Communities as Vital Players
It's something that Almir Surui has known for years. As chief of the Paiter-Surui people, Almir has traveled the globe – from his tiny village deep in the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil to international climate-change meetings to conference rooms at Google – bringing attention to the importance of the work that his people do in nourishing and maintaining their forest home. And in doing so, they maintain the "lungs of the planet" for all of us.
For Almir and his people, the pressure to clear the forest for logging – with its easy, fast financial return – has been intense, both outside the community and within, especially when the group has been plagued with food insecurity, disease, and natural emergencies, like fire.
It was Almir who negotiated an innovative deal for his community to earn money in exchange for the value that the Surui provide in reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere – known as carbon offsets. In this kind of deal, which provides funding for people to protect the forest rather than cut it down, companies seeking to offset their carbon emissions can buy carbon offsets from a forest community like the Surui, whose protection and management of the forest has earned them credits.
This financial mechanism is known as REDD, which stands for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Although REDD has its share of critics, it's clear that it's working, and WRI/RRI study backs that up, stating, "payments under REDD+ could incentivize governments to reform their legal frameworks and strengthen community forest rights if they are an integral part of a REDD+ agreement and implementation plan."
The deal for the Surui was a long and rocky road in coming: from the meticulous validation process (in which auditors measured the impact of the Surui's maintenance of the forest on carbon emissions and established how many carbon credits the community actually could sell) to the verification phase (through which external groups ensured that the Surui were indeed preserving their patch of the Amazon) to the continuing temptation from loggers to simply clear-cut the forest.
Finally, in May of 2013, the Brazilian cosmetics company Natura officially made their purchase of carbon credits from the Surui, and other deals have been closed since then.
REDD transactions like the Surui's are part of what is known as the voluntary carbon market. In 2012, more than half a billion dollars' worth of carbon credit transactions took place in the voluntary carbon market, according to Ecosystem Marketplace's 2013 State of Voluntary Carbon Markets Report.
The Boots on the Ground Against Climate Change: Stories of Success
The WRI/RRI study validates what groups like Forest Trends have long focused on as a tool in the fight against climate change: the power of communities having land tenure. The nonprofit serves as the connective tissue between groups like the Surui, governments, and the private sector, and has been working for more than twenty years on the premise that communities are vital to healthy forests. Based on its own research and experience – now supported by these new data – the D.C.-based group has supported initiatives and REDD programs in its mission to create economic value in our natural ecosystem.
Their Communities & Markets program works in indigenous communities in education, capacity building, technical assistance, and with policy. For example, Forest Trends is working with the IKEA Foundation with both the Surui and the Yawanawa peoples in Brazil in agroforestry trainings about sustainable forest products, renewable energy installations, youth learning exchanges, and women's empowerment strategies.
Another success story comes from the Brazilian state of Acre, which has a high economic reliance on agricultural, ranching and forestry/forest products and a small economy compared to other Brazilian states. Following suit to the success of REDD with the Surui, Acre has created a statewide REDD program, called System of Incentives for Environmental Services (Sistema de Incentivo a Serviços Ambientais, or "SISA"), with the German government as one of the early participants in buying carbon credits. The payments will support indigenous people in their traditional land management.
In Peru, the minister of environment has been working closely with Forest Trends to develop environmental law to control the exploitation of natural resources, including biodiversity and water. In June, Peru's National Congress passed the country's groundbreaking Payments for Ecosystem Services Law (Ley de Mecanismos de Retribución por Servicios Ecosistémicos). Under this law, land stewards, including indigenous peoples, are compensated for practicing sustainable land use. And the Tolo River People of Colombia, who own 32,000 acres of rainforest, have also started using REDD programs to help them maintain their land tenure, joining the Surui and many others in the burgeoning voluntary carbon market.
Across the globe in Vietnam, where illegal logging is a serious problem, Forest Trends is working to establish clear and secure tenure rights for local people living near forests, which would give them the ability to sustainably harvest forest assets if they so choose – which provides the incentive against illegal logging.
On a broader scale, a consortium of partners from Latin American are working under a grant from the U.S. government, as part of a program called Accelerating Inclusion and Mitigating Emissions (AIME). The second word in that name – "inclusion" – is important in what it implies: The program recognizes that the participation of indigenous people is key to fighting carbon emissions. With the goal of replicating the success of the Surui in payment for ecosystem services programs, AIME works to engage indigenous people in REDD.
The Case Is Clear
It is indisputable that the forests of the world play a vital role in combating climate change. And the people who have for years and years lived in these forests have been doing an excellent job of taking care of them. Now these people are being displaced or killed off by disease, forced to fight for basic rights of tenure and human rights, and "Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change" proves that there is something very wrong with this scenario. Indigenous people are an essential part of the equation when it comes to fighting climate change and the future of our planet – and programs like REDD recognize and support that.
The fight against climate change is daunting and complicated, and the news isn't always good. Success stories can seem few and far between and sometimes muddy in their functionality at scale. WRI/RRI's report, however, is clear in its message: The tenure of indigenous people in our world's forests has a powerful and positive impact on our ability to lower carbon emissions. The goal now is to apply this highly scalable and transferable "tool" more actively across the planet.
This report was filed by Ann Clark Espuelas. Follow her on Twitter.