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How indigenous land rights factor into climate goals

A panel of forest policy groups pressed for more action Wednesday, saying the public and the private sector could help raise awareness about the toll efforts to designate forests as 'protected' or increase agricultural production can have on indigenous people.

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A Brazilian Indian from an indigenous ethnic group sits on a deputy's seat at the Chamber of Deputies during a solemn session on the National Indigenous Day in Brazil, April 16. An international network of forest policy groups meeting in London on Wednesday urged governments and businesses to include the land rights and concerns of indigenous people in policies designed to curb deforestation and address climate change.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters/File

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Recognizing the land rights and concerns of indigenous people should be a key part of global efforts to stop deforestation, an international network of forest policy groups said at a meeting in London on Wednesday.

But the public and private sector businesses that are involved in producing and extracting commodities in developing countries need to put more pressure on local governments to recognize the land rights of indigenous people, argued panelists at the meeting organized by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).

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"I think we are on the brink of major change, both for saving forests and recognizing rights, but it's going to require a push for governments to take that next step," Andy White, RRI’s coordinator, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Without that pressure, he and other experts warned, efforts to meet a global climate change goal set at the recent Paris talks of keeping the change below two degrees Celsius could be imperiled.

The Paris agreement emphasizes the importance of respecting indigenous rights as countries consider protecting forests as a means to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide that warm the planet, the Thomson Reuters Foundation notes.

RRI said in a report released Wednesday that a rising number of businesses and politicians do realize that understanding local peoples’ concerns are a key aspect of efforts to use natural resources and plans to expand agricultural production.

Countries such has Indonesia, Peru, and Liberia are set to make legal changes or unveil policies aimed at giving local communities greater security about their land.

But new research by TMP Systems, a British consulting firm, finds that efforts to protect forests by turning them into reserves may underestimate that impact of such efforts on indigenous people.

Efforts that use international funding to designate 12 to 15 percent of the forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo as protected, and Norwegian funds to designate 30 percent of Liberia’s forests as protected, could impact an estimated 1.3 million people, by displacing them or threatening their income, the report found.

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RRI found that governments have increased the amount of forest land they recognize as legally owned by indigenous people or local communities over time. They now recognize ownership rights to 388 million hectares of forests — more than five times the size of Chile — up from 300 million in 2002, the group said in a release.

But efforts to “designate” land rather than recognize the ownership rights of local people are not a viable solution, the group said. It also cast doubts on efforts of companies to assuage conflicts with local populations concerned about the impacts of industries like mining through monetary compensation.

The group’s analysis of nearly 400 conflicts in mining, agriculture, infrastructure energy, and forestry projects found that 93 percent of the disputes with local populations weren’t about money, but about other issues, such as environmental degradation or how the projects curbed access to local resources.

Last year, the two firms found that 93 to 99 percent of a range of commercial natural resource development projects in eight developing countries were taking place on land inhabited by indigenous people.

The groups say private investors and the public should push for an approach that puts the land rights of indigenous people first, and consider modifying efforts to improve global climate change by designating large swaths of forest land as protected.

"It has become increasingly clear to the private sector that people cannot be pushed aside with impunity – the conflicts that result have long-reaching and very costly impacts," Mr. White said on Wednesday, according to RRI’s release.

The case of Liberia, which is currently considering legislation to guarantee the land rights of people in rural areas but is struggling to reach a decision, according to environmental groups, is instructive for other policymakers, he added.

Lou Munden, TMP Systems’ founder, called the panel and the firms’ reports a “first step” in addressing the balance between the need to address climate change and protect the land rights of indigenous people.

“We’re still refining our analytical approach,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “But so far, it suggests that the costs of compensation for displacing or impeding local peoples' customary forest use are significant. We're not saying that the protected area approach should be abandoned, but [the report] suggests the need for lower-cost approaches that achieve the intended outcomes – healthy forests and reduced greenhouse gas emissions."