Environment First Look

Conservationists say indigenous perspectives could aid global climate policies

A Swedish funded initiative hopes to include indigenous voices in the worldwide environmental discussion. The goal is to use the intimate environmental knowledge held by indigenous groups to create more effective climate policy worldwide. 

Awa Indians explore the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. They live off the land, though their territory is threatened by government renewable energy projects.
Domenico Pugliese/Survival International/AP/File
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Caption
  • Astrid Zweynert
    Thomson Reuters Foundation

With generations of experience conserving land and forests, indigenous people's knowledge about climate change could help inform decisions at next month's United Nations climate talks, but their environmental wisdom is often ignored.

The head of Sweden's international development agency said that must change and climate change negotiators should learn from indigenous people.

"Indigenous people often live and work from forests, land, and water in different ways and they use them in a sustainable way because they need to survive," Carin Jämtin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"That's why we must use the knowledge of those who know how to sustainably use nature," she said during a conference on indigenous land rights in Stockholm this week.

At least a quarter of the world's carbon stored above the ground in tropical forests is found in territories managed by indigenous people and local communities, research has shown.

But even though deforestation rates are lower in areas where indigenous people manage forests, much of their knowledge is not taken into account when international decisions about climate change are made, experts say.

"My message to climate change negotiators would be 'learn from them to avoid causing climate change'," said Ms. Jämtin, director-general of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Sweden is a major backer of the Global Tenure Facility, launched this week as the first international funding pact to provide grants to advance indigenous people's rights and help them protect their land and natural resources.

Funders, which also include the Ford Foundation and the governments of Norway, have committed $25 million over the next four years, and the facility expects to receive a further $50 million from donors.

"This is a groundbreaking initiative because it puts indigenous people and local communities in the driver's seat," said Jämtin.

"Land rights matter in different ways, in the fight against climate change, but also ... in eradicating poverty and in reaching the [United Nations'] Sustainable Development Goals," she said.

Despite evidence that indigenous people are the best stewards of tropical forests, only a handful of countries recognized this in national action plans submitted for the 2015 Paris climate change accord to curb planet warming emissions.

Just more than 20 out of almost 200 countries made clear commitments to support community-based tenure or natural resource management in their plans, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global network that works to advance indigenous land rights.

"We have to recognize that climate change is real, caused by humans, and has disproportionate effects on indigenous people and rural communities in developing countries," said Jämtin. 

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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