Forest groups want climate schemes that violate rights to be suspended

Indigenous people warn during Lima climate talks that they are being ignored over exploitation of lands and are critical of pledges to stop deforestation

John Vidal
Monday 8 December 2014 14.13 GMT

Human rights are being systematically violated in the world’s tropical forests as conservationists, big business and governments ignore indigenous people and scramble for land in advance of a global climate deal.

As politicians from 190 countries arrived in Lima, Peru, for the second week of the UN climate summit, forest communities from nine countries said they faced rising infringements of their rights as agribusiness, mining industries, hydro schemes and conservation groups exploited forests for their own purposes.

The groups – from Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malaysia and Latin America – were critical of pledges made by governments and conservationists to stop deforestation, because their commitments largely ignored the 400 million people estimated to live in forests and depend on them.

“We urgently need to overcome the contradiction between government initiatives that seek to exploit the forest and take land from communities, and conservation initiatives. Both are seeking land and forest but continually exclude local communities,” said Norhadi Karben from Mantangai, Kapuas, in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Indigenous groups have been increasingly at odds with governments and conservationists who stand to profit from UN climate schemes that reduce deforestation. “A huge disconnect [exists] between policies on biodiversity and forest conservation, on the one hand, and prevailing unsustainable development models and practices, on the other,” said a recent report by the Forest Peoples Programme.

The groups called on governments to suspend permits allocated to developments that violate the rights of communities. “Only by protecting rights, and recognising that communities manage forests, can deforestation be curbed,” said Franky Samperante from the Pusaka organisation in Indonesia.

A separate, peer-reviewed study conducted by US researchers working with indigenous groups from countries that share the Amazon rainforest has calculated that if all the plans for economic development in the region are implemented, it would become a giant savannah, with only small islands of forest remaining.

“A vast proportion of indigenous territories and protected areas are increasingly at risk, with potentially disastrous consequences, including 40% of the indigenous territories, 30% of the protected areas and 24% of the area that pertains to both,” said Beto Ricardo of the Instituto Socioambiental of Brazil.

The authors say the stability of the global atmosphere now depends on whether governments in the region choose to adopt policies that ensure the ecological integrity of indigenous territories and protected areas.

“Continued destruction of these carbon-rich ecosystems will gradually diminish their ability to function properly, resulting in a potentially irreversible impact on the atmosphere and the planet,” said the report.

Steve Schwartzman, director of tropical forest policy at Environmental Defense Fund, said: “The solution is to recognise the rights of indigenous peoples to territories that have not yet been officially recognised, and resolve territorial conflicts that pit protected areas against private interests.”

“We have never been under so much pressure,” said Edwin Vásquez, a co-author and head of Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, which represents indigenous groups in the Amazon basin.

“We now have evidence that where there are strong rights, there are standing forests. Knowing that we have more than half of the region’s carbon on indigenous and protected lands, we can tell our leaders so they can strengthen the role and the rights of indigenous forest peoples.”

The paper was the result of a novel collaboration among scientists, Amazonian indigenous and NGO networks, and US environmental policy experts who combined satellite measurements of carbon density, field data and boundary records of indigenous territories and protected areas.