To Meet Global Climate Change Targets, Experts Say Greater Focus Needed on Forests and their Guardians

Apr 21, 2016

As world leaders prepare to sign the Paris Climate Agreement in NY, evidence mounts that forest peoples play vital role in slowing deforestation, despite ongoing threats to their lands and rights


New York
-- Expanding land rights for indigenous peoples can play a key role in protecting tropical forests and slowing global climate change and must be included in international efforts to do so, leading scientists, environmental researchers and celebrity advocates said today.

With evidence growing that protecting and restoring the immense forests of Africa, Asia and Latin America can provide desperately needed time to develop new technologies to replace fossil fuels - and that indigenous communities play a critical role in keeping those forests viable - the researchers and advocates called for the implementation of the historic climate change accords to be signed in New York tomorrow (April 22) to emphasize conserving forests and strengthening the land rights of the communities who live in them.

“If we want to protect the world’s forests, we must safeguard the rights of the indigenous peoples and forest communities who have sustainably managed their forests for generations,” said Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, at an event at the Ford Foundation. “Clarifying local land rights and tenure security will be a crucial determinant of success for the new global frameworks on climate change and sustainable development.”

Standing alongside Clark were indigenous environmental activists Mina Setra of Indonesia and Diana Rios of Peru, along with actor and activist Alec Baldwin, and Frances Seymour, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C.

“Without question, protecting the vast tropical forests of South America, Asia and Africa is one of the most cost-effective climate solutions available today,” Seymour said. “Stopping deforestation and allowing damaged forests to grow back could mitigate up to 30 percent of current global emissions. Forests also provide income to local communities and resilient “green” infrastructure for developing societies. Measures to protect them can also advance indigenous rights. Why not take advantage of this opportunity for a triple win?”

“If we keep chopping down tropical forests at the rate we’re doing now, we’re lost,” said Alec Baldwin.

New findings released today by the Woods Hole Research Center, an independent conservation research institute in Falmouth, MA, underline the urgent need to act. The analysis warns that failure to act on forests would require eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use by 2035 in order to limit warming to 2ºC, the goal scientists have identified as vital for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Properly managed forests would provide 10-15 additional years to end fossil fuel use while keeping global warming under 2°C, according to the new analysis, which uses the most recent (2015) Forest Resources Assessment of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Previous analyses ended in 2010.

"It is clear that it will be impossible to limit global warming to 2ºC at this point if we try to do it entirely by reducing fossil fuel use," said Dr. Phillip Duffy, Woods Hole President and Executive Director. "We will have to stop emissions from land use and remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Proper management of tropical forests-stopping their destruction and reforesting previously cleared areas can do that. At present there is no other way to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere, at any price."

The new Woods Hole analysis suggests that to keep global warming under 2°C, while retaining the current level of carbon land-based emissions, fossil fuel use would have to be eliminated by 2035. Stopping tropical deforestation and expanding forest area by 500 million hectares would extend the deadline for reaching zero carbon emissions to 2049. This would mean that instead of contributing emissions that would count against the 120 PgC emissions limit for keeping global warming under 2°C, forests would gain an even more important role in combating climate change, soaking up carbon and increasing the emissions limit to 170 PgC.

The new research emerges as indigenous environmentalist leaders are under growing threat for their opposition to projects that threaten their communities and their forests. Cambodian activist Phon Sopheak, a member of the 2015 Equator Prize winning Prey Lang Community Network, remains hospitalized after a March 26 attack by illegal loggers wielding axes during a patrol of the forest. Earlier the same month, internationally recognized Honduran Lenca activist Berta Cáceres was murdered. That followed the killings of Edwin Chota, Jorge Ríos Pérez, and two other Ashaninka leaders in Peru in 2014, all emblematic of the violence being perpetrated by industrial interests in the very indigenous areas whose preservation is crucial to helping the world at large achieve carbon neutrality.

Over the five years ending in 2014, more than 450 environmentalists around the world were killed, according to Global Witness, an international watchdog group. More than half were in Honduras and Brazil. In virtually every case, what the killings have in common is the fight by communities to stop government-approved corporate development of remote lands. Slain environmentalists have frequently attempted to halt such projects as dams and logging involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

Diana Rios, of Peru, who received the Alexander Soros Foundation award in 2014, has emerged as an important leader in the fight against illegal logging in her country since her father was among the four Ashaninka community leaders shot on their way to meetings on the threat to Peru’s rainforests posed by the loggers.

“Money disappears, but the forests do not. The forests will be here for this generation; for our children's generation and for all the generations to come. We will make sure of that,” said Rios.

And Mina Setra, from Indonesia, was instrumental in securing a 2012 ruling from Indonesia’s Constitutional Court recognizing the land rights of indigenous forest peoples.

“Without us, the forests will disappear,” said Setra. “Without the forests, we will disappear, along with our food, our water, our lives and the essence of what makes us human. Without the forests and the people who protect them, we will fail in our goal to save the planet from the rapidly evolving climate that puts humanity itself at risk.”

There is significant evidence that forest peoples—if given land rights—outperform all other managers of tropical forests in retaining old growth and storing carbon. For example, community and indigenous forests in Brazil store 36 percent more carbon per hectare and emit 27 times less carbon dioxide from deforestation than forests not under community control. An earlier Woods Hole analysis estimated that at least 20 percent of the aboveground carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests is found in territories claimed by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, Amazonia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Indonesia.

In advance of the negotiations that produced the Paris Agreement, national governments submitted 161 documents, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), to the UN detailing their commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Countries’ INDCs now form part of the Agreement. In a review of these documents, analysts at the Rights and Resources Initiative determined that countries with tropical or subtropical forests submitted 131 of those documents.

Only 21 of these countries—representing just 13 percent of the world’s tropical and subtropical forest area—included clear commitments to implement community-based tenure or natural resource management strategies as part of their effort to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, despite evidence that this is critical to reducing deforestation. Notably missing these commitments are the world’s largest forest countries, including DRC, Brazil and Indonesia.

“I would like for the world leaders gathered here this week to get the message,” said Alec Baldwin. “If you are serious about fighting climate change, get serious about empowering the people who are protecting the world’s forests.”

Contact information


Ellen Wilson at +1 301-280-5723, +1 301-466-3205 or ewilson@burness.com

Susan Tonassi at +49 160 9327 9327 or stonassi@burness.com   

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