Indigenous people lead essential global transformation on nature, climate, economies

July 15, 2021

This community network of more than 4,600 families in Brazil’s CoopeCerrado ecoregion exemplifies the sustainable use of a vulnerable ecosystem.

UNDP Brazil

It is time for change. Two years ago, the Financial Times launched its ‘New Agenda’ campaign with a five-word front page – ‘Capitalism: time for a reset.’ Last year, UNDP launched its annual Human Development Report “The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene” with the stark conclusion that no country has been able to achieve a high level of human development without first having significantly harmed the environment. And over the past few days, at the 2021 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, nature and climate have been front and centre as states have been discussing “sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic”. Many reports on the decline of nature, such as the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, all point to a single conclusion: it is time for widespread societal change on nature, climate and economy. But what kinds of changes are most needed?

What’s needed now

We can look to governments for guidance. Earlier this year, the climate and environment ministers of G7 countries issued a joint communiqué that clearly outlined a set of urgent societal transformations:

  • Mainstream nature into economy: We must reset our relationship with nature by recognizing and incorporating nature’s values into all sectors, into our economies, and into green Covid recovery efforts. This means mobilizing new sources of public and private finance with new instruments and tools, including voluntary carbon markets and payments for ecosystem services. It also means catalyzing a nature-positive green economy, including through micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises.
  • Implement nature-based climate solutions: We must recognize the role of nature in helping us to achieve our climate targets. Nature can provide up to 38 percent of our climate mitigation targets, yet it receives only three percent of climate finance. Nature-based climate solutions can store carbon, while providing a wide array of cost-efficient benefits for climate adaptation, and we must ensure that Nationally Determined Contributions for climate include ambition on nature.
  • Promote sustainable resource management: We must rethink how we produce commodities, by transforming our food, fisheries, and forest management systems. This means eliminating deforestation from commodity supply chains, and aiming for regenerative, climate-resilient agriculture and agroforestry. As part of integrated land use planning, we must also set ambitious targets for the protection and restoration of ecosystems in order to safeguard essential ecosystem services for humanity. But if we are to achieve these targets, we must recognize and uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities.


These approaches and suggestions are not particularly new. It is encouraging, however, that many governments have come to recognize that policies need to change. But where do we find guidance on how to change? For examples of these transformations in practice, we must look in a different direction – to the local and Indigenous communities around the world who are already leading the way.

Indigenous peoples and local communities lead the way

This year’s UNDP-led Equator Prize winners, selected for the categories of nature-based climate solutions, nature-positive food systems, and green economy, exemplify many of the essential transformations highlighted by G7 countries.

  • Mainstreaming nature into economies: The Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda IAP has helped to establish a state-funded carbon footprint mechanism, encouraging landowners to adopt climate-friendly land use, including regenerative agriculture. The Tropical Forest and Rural Development group, operating around the Dja Biosphere Reserve in Cameroon, works with food and cosmetic wholesalers to maintain fair and sustainable cocoa-based agroforestry value chains. The Snehakunja Trust in India promotes green entrepreneurship, protects and restores wetlands, and is piloting the first blue carbon project in India. Also in India, the Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited, managed entirely by Indigenous people from the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, promotes sustainable livelihoods for nearly 150 villages through sustainable and diverse micro-, small- and social-enterprises.
  • Implementing nature-based climate solutions: The Kichwa people of Sarayaku in Ecuador are protecting their ancestral territory, keeping both oil and organic carbon in the ground, by advocating for a new category of Indigenous-led protected area, called “Kawsak Sacha,” or “Living Forest,” that assigns legal rights to their forest. A youth group in Bolivia, Asociación de Jóvenes Reforestadores en Acción (AJORA), promotes regenerative agroforestry, providing a solution for climate, livelihoods and nutrition. The Asociación de Mujeres Indígenas del Territorio Cabécar Kábata Könana brings together Indigenous women in Costa Rica’s Talamanca region to support climate-resilient seed diversity and regenerative agroforestry.
  • Promoting sustainable, regenerative resource management: CoopCerrado, a community network of over 4,600 families in Brazil’s Cerrado ecoregion, markets dozens of certified organic products through regenerative agricultural practices and sustainable harvesting within ‘sustainable-use reserves.’ A farmers’ union in Niger, FUGPN MOORIBEN, improves food security for over 5,000 people through agroecological practices. In Kyrgyzstan, the BIO-KG Federation is pioneering the concept of “Organic Aimak,” or “Organic Community,” promoting organic-only, climate-resilient production.


It is time for profound societal change, on nature, climate, food, and economies. One of the wisest steps we can take now is to listen to and learn from the thousands of local and Indigenous communities, to support their efforts, and to help replicate their actions.