Ignoring Indigenous people will put nature targets out of reach

Lucio Matapi, 'captain' of the Puerto Libre community, stands in dense tropical rainforest near his community living along the Miriti-Parana River in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 16, 2021

Lucio Matapi, 'captain' of the Puerto Libre community, stands in dense tropical rainforest near his community living along the Miriti-Parana River in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

It’s time for governments to invest in Indigenous communities as effective partners in countering climate change and biodiversity loss

Levi Sucre Romero is a member of the Bribri Indigenous peoples of Costa Rica and the coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests, as well as a member of the advisory council of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATC), representing elected leaders of forest communities in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

For years the world has failed to act on the evidence that my Indigenous brothers and sisters are the best guardians of the forests that represent the only existing, cost-effective, large-scale system for absorbing and storing carbon. 

From Rio to Kyoto, from Aichi to Paris, global climate agreements have focused on government-led technical solutions, sidelining the communities shown by a growing body of research to be the most effective stewards of nature on the planet.

Recently, this has started to change. 

We succeeded in securing the establishment of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform under the UN climate convention, which gives us a forum for contributing our knowledge and advancing our rights in global climate negotiations. 

In Glasgow in 2021, 145 countries committed to ending deforestation and recognizing our rights. And in Montreal last year, we were recognized as key actors in defending nature, and we secured agreement from countries to respect our rights in their plans to meet the 2030 global biodiversity targets. 

Our communities have fought hard for these successes. But they will only be meaningful if they translate into respect for our rights and our role as guardians of nature, protected by policies and laws that ensure environmental, economic and cultural justice for our peoples.

So far, this has not been the case. 

Our growing renown as climate warriors on the global stage, and the support of the scientific community, has not translated into action on the ground, where our rights are entirely in the hands of our governments.

An indigenous man, holds a banner in front of a globe at the Terra Livre (Free Land) camp, a protest-camp to defend indigenous land and cultural rights, in Brasilia, Brazil April 8, 2022
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View of a coffee plant in the social forestry area of the Kamojang Block, Bukit Rakutak, Ibun Village, Bandung Regency, Indonesia, planted using an agroforestry system,  May 5 2023
Go DeeperNew Indonesia climate fund backs Indigenous forest guardians

New research shows that most of the countries developing national biodiversity strategies are ignoring our central role in protecting our lands, home to most of what remains of biodiversity on the planet. 

And none of the national plans in the study currently includes safeguards to protect our rights. This means we could be evicted from our ancestral territories to create newly “protected” areas in the name of nature conservation. 

The same story plays out in climate plans. Only 14% of countries consulted with Indigenous people in developing their most recent nationally determined contribution. Only 5% mention Indigenous rights and only 16% refer to Indigenous knowledge.

At the same time, our communities receive only 1% of public climate finance, despite evidence that securing Indigenous lands are among the most cost-effective climate change solutions available.

At COP28 in Dubai this month, transforming energy systems globally will be high on the agenda. This is necessary. But one climate solution must not come at the expense of another. 

Already, we are seeing companies encroaching on our lands and forests to build renewable energy and mine materials for batteries and other components of the energy transition.

In Indonesia, for example, the government’s goals to become a leader in electric vehicle production have seen it greenlight nickel mining companies to destroy forests and evict communities.

We Indigenous and local communities have proven ourselves to be an effective solution to halting climate change and biodiversity loss. If governments continue to sideline us and ignore our rights, it will put meeting those targets out of reach. 

In several Latin America countries, carbon absorbed by Indigenous and community lands is  equivalent to almost one-third of countries’ unconditional climate change targets. In Peru, the government would need to take every vehicle in the country off the road to compensate the loss of just half of the carbon absorbed in communities’ lands.

Our message is clear: Indigenous peoples and local communities stand ready to play our part in stopping the world’s twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. 

We want governments and donors to recognize us as equal partners and invest in us as effective solutions. But we don’t see the same commitment on the part of governments and the economic sector whose interests they defend.

We have had enough of declarations and statements. We are tired of seeing reports, year after year, documenting failed promises to partner with us to stop the destruction of the natural world. 

Now is the time for governments to prove they are capable of more than hollow words.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Biodiversity
  • Indigenous communities

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