Will a Billion-Dollar Indigenous Climate Pledge Pay Off?

The money is unprecedented, but Indigenous communities are bracing for disappointment.

By , a British journalist based in Lima, Peru.
Members of the Munduruku Indigenous tribe prepare to protest against a dam in Brazil's Amazon.
Members of the Munduruku Indigenous tribe prepare to protest against a dam in Brazil's Amazon.
Members of the Munduruku Indigenous tribe walk along the banks of the Tapajós River as they prepare to protest against plans to construct a hydroelectric dam on the river, located in the Amazon rainforest near São Luiz do Tapajós, Pará State, Brazil, on Nov. 26, 2014. Mario Tama/Getty Images

LIMA, Peru—As the world debates if the Glasgow climate talks were the last missed opportunity to avert global catastrophe or an incremental step towards solving the climate crisis, one of the summit’s few breakthroughs—a move to put Indigenous peoples at the heart of efforts to halt deforestation—has largely flown under the radar.

Until now, the United Nations climate negotiations process, known as the UNFCCC, has marginalized Indigenous peoples in the efforts to halt and reverse global warming, despite the growing evidence that they’re essential to those efforts. At the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26)—at least on paper—that finally changed. Five governments and 17 private donors pledged $1.7 billion specifically to support native land rights. In the long and painful history of Indigenous people’s struggles to defend both their cultures and territories, that sum is unprecedented. But it also comes with risks, not least the potential to dash raised expectations.

Science has long established that the destruction of the world’s forests, especially in carbon-dense tropical regions, is a significant driver of global warming. Forests naturally sequester around 15 billion tons of carbon each year; as they are chopped and burned down, they release what they store back into the atmosphere. If deforestation were a nation, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Worryingly, a new study published in Nature in July found that the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, now emits more carbon than it captures.

LIMA, Peru—As the world debates if the Glasgow climate talks were the last missed opportunity to avert global catastrophe or an incremental step towards solving the climate crisis, one of the summit’s few breakthroughs—a move to put Indigenous peoples at the heart of efforts to halt deforestation—has largely flown under the radar.

Until now, the United Nations climate negotiations process, known as the UNFCCC, has marginalized Indigenous peoples in the efforts to halt and reverse global warming, despite the growing evidence that they’re essential to those efforts. At the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26)—at least on paper—that finally changed. Five governments and 17 private donors pledged $1.7 billion specifically to support native land rights. In the long and painful history of Indigenous people’s struggles to defend both their cultures and territories, that sum is unprecedented. But it also comes with risks, not least the potential to dash raised expectations.

Science has long established that the destruction of the world’s forests, especially in carbon-dense tropical regions, is a significant driver of global warming. Forests naturally sequester around 15 billion tons of carbon each year; as they are chopped and burned down, they release what they store back into the atmosphere. If deforestation were a nation, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Worryingly, a new study published in Nature in July found that the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, now emits more carbon than it captures.

But a growing body of research has revealed how astonishingly successful first peoples, who occupy much of the world’s forests, can be at protecting their ancestral territories from loggers, ranchers, miners, and others who would destroy ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years just to turn a quick buck.

For instance, a recent literature review by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that between 2003 and 2016, Indigenous territories in the Amazon lost less than 0.3 percent of the carbon stored in their forests. During the same period, Amazonian nature reserves and national parks lost 0.6 percent while unprotected areas lost 3.6 percent. While Indigenous territories cover 28 percent of the Amazon Basin, they only made up 2.6 percent of its carbon footprint.

The reasons why are varied. One 2018 paper in the journal Ecological Economics found that deforestation rates in Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia were two to three times lower on Indigenous lands that were titled—meaning those communities have formal ownership—than in other similar areas. Another study found that Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon reduced deforestation by 52 percent after receiving training in patrolling techniques and being given access to the Global Forests Watch satellite platform.

As in so much else of their history, Indigenous peoples have largely been excluded from international climate action.

Behind these trends is a common theme: empowered communities with legal rights over their ancestral territories. Yet one 2015 study by the Rights and Resources Initiative, a coalition of global nonprofits, that surveyed 64 countries accounting for 82 percent of the earth’s land area, found that just 10 percent of that land is formally owned by the Indigenous communities who live on it. That hinders those communities’ abilities to assert their rights to use their land in traditional, sustainable ways, implement new strategies to develop economically, and—perhaps above all—protect their land from intruders.

Yet, as in so much else of their history, Indigenous peoples have largely been excluded from international climate action. Although Indigenous groups have been recognized as a formal constituency at U.N. climate change conferences since 2001, they haven’t been able to participate in negotiations; they can only watch and lobby from outside the rooms where the deals are brokered. In addition, although Indigenous peoples make up only around 5 percent of the world’s population, they occupy around 20 percent of its land, including vast swathes of endangered tropical rainforest. Yet, until now, they have received less than 1 percent of all international aid targeted at climate change.

That lack of funding may have changed. At COP26, 141 nations signed the Declaration on Forests and Land Use, committing to reversing the loss of forests—the source of between around 10 and 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—by 2030. It came with the promise of $19 billion in funding from a wide variety of governments and private sector players. Of that total, nearly 10 percent—that $1.7 billion—will be earmarked for Indigenous peoples.

Some experts, such as Peter Veit, director of the World Resources Institute’s Land and Resource Rights Initiative, are giving the deal a cautious welcome. “The amount of money that was committed is amazing,” Veit said. “It’s more than was initially expected. There are some very good things in the declaration.”

Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First off, the details of how the money will be spent, and on what, have yet to be decided. The pledges are nonbinding and have only been necessary after the woeful failure of a previous similar pledge, the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, which was supposed to reverse deforestation but actually saw it increase.

Meanwhile, the sincerity of some of the signatories is in doubt, starting with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. His administration’s policies and rhetoric have been so hostile to Indigenous peoples and Amazonian conservation that an Indigenous group is suing him for “genocide” and “ecocide.”

Peru—home to the world’s fourth largest national area of tropical rainforest, after Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia—also signed the declaration. Yet the commitment of the country’s new far-left president, Pedro Castillo, to the issue can be gauged by the fact that he skipped Glasgow altogether, preferring a bilateral meeting with his Bolivian counterpart, Luis Arce. So far, Castillo’s chaotic administration has been noticeable mainly for its infighting and high turnover of ministers rather than policy coherence—on climate and other issues.

“We’ll need to see if the money arrives,” said José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, who leads the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), an umbrella federation of the Amazon’s Indigenous peoples, and participated in protests in Glasgow. “As Indigenous people, we weren’t involved in the negotiations. But we were there, in Scotland. That served to pressure the governments. They knew they were being watched.”

Quickly developing an effective strategy over how to spend the money will be crucial. “There is no plan, no blueprint attached to this that lets us know how this money will trickle down to the communities to bring about real change,” said Alain Frechette, the director of strategic analysis and global engagement at the Rights and Resources Initiative. “The challenge is that our window is shrinking all the time and we just don’t have the time to experiment.”

But the policy possibilities are myriad—everything from helping communities title their ancestral lands to giving them access to technology, including drones, to detect intruders and then alert the authorities. Titling requires significant resources. Many communities—which are often days from the nearest town—face serious cultural, logistical, and economic hurdles to achieving legal rights to their land, which are only compounded by the voluminous red tape that exists in some developing countries.

The money could also help empower Indigenous peoples to participate, as providers of offsets, in carbon markets, from which they are effectively barred right now due to the high cost of entry. Marketable carbon offsets—those used by the likes of ride apps and airlines to claim a “zero carbon footprint”—need approval by an independent certification company, which would verify the quantity of carbon in the forest and detail how communities are saving it from possible destruction. Yet certification typically costs at least $150,000.

The cash could also be delivered to communities in the form of the burgeoning concept of “payments for ecosystem services,” such as watershed protection and biodiversity conservation. Both services could see payments from a range of actors, from public water utilities to national and subnational governments to the private sector, for the many benefits of forest protection not directly related to climate.

Both carbon projects and ecosystem services, however, are fraught with practical and theoretical challenges, not least that they would essentially seek to commodify a counterfactual (namely how much deforestation has been avoided). They’re also ideologically controversial among Indigenous groups, many of whom regard these schemes as ways to make the global South shoulder the burden of reducing emissions while the rich continue to emit.

“Too often, donors have made the easy choice in putting money into large NGOs and governments.”

Another fundamental question will be whether the funding will go directly to Indigenous organizations and communities or—as has happened up until now—be given through governments or large non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “It has been shown that when that happens a lot of it is wasted on bureaucracy, salaries, cars, instead of reaching our territories,” said COICA’s Díaz Mirabal, who himself is a member of Venezuela’s Wakuenai Kurripaco people.

Kevin Currey, a program officer with the Ford Foundation’s Natural Resources and Climate Change program, which is donating $100 million to the scheme, echoed Mirabal’s sentiments, emphasizing that the Indigenous communities should have autonomy to spend the money as they see fit.

“Too often, donors have made the easy choice in putting money into large NGOs and governments,” he said. “But the truth is that they are not delivering as effectively as Indigenous peoples. There is a culture of ignorance, bias, and racism that makes people overestimate how risky it is delivering money directly to communities.”

Giving money directly to Indigenous groups will require donors to become more flexible in how they partner with recipients, perhaps demanding fewer Excel sheets and instead sending program officers to spend more time visiting Indigenous communities. “You’re talking about communities where it might take two or three days to reach them, on the boat of a friend’s cousin, filling up from a jerry can beside the river,” Currey said. “You’re obviously not going to get a receipt.”

But if donors do find a way to allow Indigenous peoples to take the lead in how this funding is spent, the world may, finally, have stumbled on a new, particularly cost-effective way to address one major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, the international community would also be taking a small step toward righting the historical wrongs so often committed against Indigenous communities over the past 500 years, especially the dispossession of their lands.

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