Indigenous peoples are leading the global transformation of nature, climate and economy

Posted July 22, 2021

Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda IAP, Equator Prize winners from Mexico

It's time for a change. Two years ago, the Financial Times launched its "New Agenda" campaign with a front-page story: "Time for a great reset of the financial system.” Last year, UNDP launched its annual human development report, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, which concluded that no country could achieve high levels of human development without severely damaging the environment first. Nature and climate were in the spotlight at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development 2021 over the past few days, as nations discussed 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, point to one conclusion: It is time for societal change in nature, climate and economics. But what comes first?

Time for transformational change

We can look to governments for guidance on the changes that are needed now. Earlier this year, the G7 climate and environment ministers issued a joint communiqué outlining a number of urgent societal transformations:

- Incorporating nature into the economy: We must reshape our relationship with nature by recognising and incorporating the values of nature in all sectors, in our economies and our rebuilding efforts. This means mobilising new sources of public and private funding using new tools and means, including voluntary carbon markets and payments for ecosystem services. It also means catalysing a nature-positive green economy, including through micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

- Implement nature-based climate solutions: We must recognise nature's role in achieving our climate goals. Nature can provide up to 38% of our climate change mitigation goals, but it only accounts for 3% of climate finance. Nature-based climate solutions can store carbon while providing a wide range of cost-effective climate adaptation benefits, and we must ensure that National Climate Targets are committed to nature.

- Promote sustainable resource management: We must rethink the way we produce goods by transforming the way we manage food, fisheries and forests. This means removing deforestation from commodity supply chains and targeting regenerative, climate-resilient agriculture and agroforestry. As part of integrated land-use planning, we must also set ambitious targets to protect and restore ecosystems in order to maintain essential ecosystem services for humanity. But to achieve these goals, we must recognise and support the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

These approaches and proposals are not particularly new. However, it is encouraging that many governments recognise the need for policy change. But where can we find guidance on how to change? For examples of such change in practice, we must look in another direction - to the local and indigenous communities around the world who are already leading the way.

Indigenous peoples and local communities take the lead

This year's UNDP-led Equator Prize winners, selected in the categories of nature-based climate solutions, nature-saving food systems and the green economy, examplify many of the important transformations highlighted by the G7 countries.

- Incorporating Nature into the Economy: Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda IAP helped create a publicly funded carbon footprint mechanism to encourage landowners to switch to climate-friendly land use, including regenerative agriculture. The Tropical Forests and Rural Development Group, operating in the Jha Biosphere Reserve area of Cameroon, works with food and cosmetics wholesalers to maintain equitable and sustainable cocoa-based agroforestry value chains. Snehakunja Trust in India promotes green entrepreneurship, wetland protection and restoration, and is implementing India's first blue carbon pilot project. Also in India, Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited, fully managed by the indigenous people of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, promotes sustainable livelihoods in nearly 150 villages through sustainable and diverse micro, small and social enterprises. 

- Implementing nature-based climate solutions: Kichwa people of Sarayaku in Ecuador protect their ancestral territory by conserving oil and organic carbon in the ground, advocating for a new category of indigenous-led protected areas called "Kawsak Sacha", or "Living Forest", which secures legal rights to their forest. A youth group in Bolivia, Asociación de Jóvenes Reforestadores en Acción (AJORA), promotes regenerative agroforestry, providing climate, livelihood and food solutions. Asociación de Mujeres Indígenas del Territorio Cabécar Kábata Könana unites indigenous women in the Talamanca region of Costa Rica to support climate-smart seed diversity and regenerative agroforestry.

- Promoting sustainable, regenerative resource management: CoopCerrado, a community network of over 4,600 families in Brazil's Cerrado ecoregion, sells dozens of certified organic products through regenerative agricultural practices and harvesting in sustainable use reserves. A farmers' union in Niger, FUGPN MOORIBEN, improves the food security of over 5,000 people through agro-ecological practices. In Kyrgyzstan, the BIO-KG Federation is pioneering the concept of "Organic Aimak", or "Organic Community", promoting only organic, climate-resilient production.

BIO-KG Federation, Equator Prize winners from Kyrgyzstan

The time has come for profound societal changes in the fields of nature, climate, food and economy. One of the best steps we can take now is to listen and learn from thousands of local and indigenous communities, support their efforts and help replicate and expand their actions to achieve truly transformational change.

Author: Jamison Erwin, Manager, UNDP Global Programme on Nature for Development