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Indigenous groups in Latin America, Africa and Asia offer model for saving world’s forests, bulwarks against climate change

New book reveals that their ability to preserve forests is under threat from land grabs by governments and developers

 

Editor’s Note: The book’s authors are currently in Warsaw and available for interviews.

WARSAW, Poland, 13 November 2013—Through the conservation and protection of forests by traditional forest management approaches, indigenous peoples of Latin America, Africa and Asia demonstrate best practices for staving off the threatening impacts of changing climate patterns, such as the typhoon that recently ripped through the Philippines, say indigenous scholars in a new book.

Yet despite the crucial role that these forest-dwelling people play in saving the world’s remote forests, the book cautions that many indigenous groups risk losing control over these resources in the face of weak land rights and the grabbing of their lands by governments and developers for the purpose of mining, logging and other natural resource extraction. A recent report by the Rights and Resources Initiative revealed that, worldwide, some 30 percent of land handed over to companies for commercial development overlapped with indigenous and community forests.

“Unfortunately, many government officials gathering in Warsaw for the latest round of climate talks don’t acknowledge the crucial role that indigenous communities play in conserving and protecting forests--the fastest and cheapest way to stop the threat from climate change,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the head of Tebtebba, the Philippines-based global indigenous peoples’ rights group that published the book, Sustaining and Enhancing Forests through Traditional Resource Management.

“If they were to strengthen the land rights of their forest-dwelling communities, they could do much to combat climate change in their countries.”

The report, she added, also underlines the need for global solutions to deforestation, such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), to integrate the practices indigenous people have used for centuries to ensure that their forests—and all of the biodiversity and resources that they shelter—remain intact.

The 334-page book comprises six case studies from Latin America, Africa and Asia, including Peru, Mexico, Cameroon, Nepal, Philippines and Vietnam. Each chapter, written by local experts, demonstrates a different dimension of the struggle by indigenous peoples to maintain rights over their forests.

The indigenous Baka of the Congo Basin in Cameroon, for example, have long maintained their lush forests, which they rely on for their food—from freshwater fish and wild game to edible plants, wild fruit and honey. Some of these forests, viewed as sacred areas, are not touched by the communities, ensuring their pristine state.

According to the book, however, they have progressively lost their tenure and access rights as government evicted them from their ancestral lands to make way for national parks, forest reserves, safari hunting zones and forest management units allocated to logging companies, write researchers Gabriel Bachange Enchaw and Ibrahim Njobdi in the book.

Worse, add the authors, the Baka’s sacred sites have been desecrated by logging companies, who, starting the 1970s, were granted logging concessions by the government that overlapped with Baka territory.

For centuries, the indigenous Yanesha peoples of Peru have cared for their lands through a system of zones, which include a lower, agricultural zone, where they grow crops for sustenance; a middle forest zone, where they maintain a range of species, including timber trees that they harvest and sell; and an upper forest zone where they grow commercial trees like tonrillo and cedar, but also shelter swathes of virgin and secondary forest, which service to protect biodiversity and medicinal plants.

The book reveals that the Yanesha have aced competition for their forests since the 17th century, first from Franciscans, then from coffee growers and agricultural developers. They have struggled to secure rights over their lands for hundreds of years, but the government has consistently maintained control over their lands—often forcing them to relocate.

In Nepal, indigenous people lost control of their collective lands and uses of the resources after the passage of the Individual Land Nationalization Act in 1957. The forests that they once protected were denuded over time as a result. Now that the country abolished its monarchical rule in 2008, the country’s indigenous peoples are campaigning to win back rights over their lands and forests, says Pasang Dolma Sherpa, one of the authors.

Recently, the indigenous peoples of the Binh Son community in northern Vietnam were alarmed by the drying up of their water sources, resulting in a lack of water for drinking, irrigating their rice fields and caring for livestock.  In 2000, the village self-demarcated a 220-hectare forest area and embarked on measures to restore forests and watersheds.

Through its customary law, the community has regenerated its forests and regained its diversity and vital springs. The current forest provides water for the water tank built by the government in 2013, which provides the water for some neighboring villages, says one of the authors, Vu Thi Hien.

These and the additional two case studies from Mexico and the Philippines underline how indigenous communities have conserved, protected and managed their forests—even when their land rights are precarious.

“This responsible stewardship has been shaped by the indigenous peoples’ deeply rooted cultural, economic and spiritual relationship with their lands and forests. If these people are given secure land rights over their forests the world is set to benefit from forest protection practices that have proven to work,” said Tauli-Corpuz, who wrote the book’s forward. [Tebtebba Indigenous Information Service]