LIMA, Peru — The plight of many of Colombia’s myriad indigenous ethnic groups epitomizes those of landless first peoples around the world, from Canada to Chile, Namibia to the Philippines. In many cases, it has…
LIMA, Peru — The plight of many of Colombia’s myriad indigenous ethnic groups epitomizes those of landless first peoples around the world, from Canada to Chile, Namibia to the Philippines. In many cases, it has precipitated well documented public health crises, including malnutrition, alcoholism and high levels of suicide. Yet it is also contributing to another increasingly urgent global emergency — climate change.
Carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation are estimated to make up anywhere between 12 percent and 20 percent of the global greenhouse gas total — more than all the world’s cars, ships and planes combined. Most of that comes from the tropics, where the vegetation is densest and the exploitation of land — both legal and illegal — through logging, ranching and agribusiness more often involves the clearing of virgin forests.
“The best land has been taken by the ranchers and the palm oil and sugarcane companies,” says Fany Kuiru Castro, an indigenous activist from Colombia, explaining how native peoples in her South American homeland have been moved off their ancestral territories. “There are thousands of cases where companies are in conflict with indigenous communities over land. This is an urgent issue that needs to be resolved.”
Yet, according to a growing body of research, by far the most cost-efficient way of preserving the world’s tropical rainforests is to formally recognize the legal rights of indigenous peoples over the lands that they have inherited from generations of ancestors.
One recent report on Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil from the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank, found that ensuring indigenous communities legally own their traditional territories can prevent emissions between five and 42 times more cheaply than carbon capture technology at gas and coal-fired power plants.
Securing indigenous lands just in those three countries would avert between 42.8 to 59.7 megatons of carbon emissions over a 20-year period. Put another way, that would be the equivalent of taking between 9 million to nearly 13 million cars off the road, says the WRI report. Protecting forests on titled indigenous lands or in indigenous reserves is also typically two to three times cheaper than on land that is not formally owned by native communities — including naturally protected areas.
The reason for that is very simple, says Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “When indigenous peoples have the legal continuity and certainty of owning their own land it enables them to carry on using that land in traditional ways, sustainably and respecting it.”
“It allows them to stay put and keep out outsiders who may have ill intent, for example, illegal loggers,” she adds. “You don’t have to pay for forest rangers or create infrastructure because the indigenous peoples are already protecting their own land.”
That means there is a vast, untapped potential for indigenous peoples to help solve the climate crisis. Indigenous and other rural communities occupy or manage up to 65 percent of the world’s land but only have legal tenure to 10 percent and other formal rights to another 8 percent, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on forest policies.
Nevertheless, indigenous peoples remain at a disadvantage when it comes to navigating the national bureaucracies that will allow them to become the formal owners of the territories. Another recent WRI report, “The Scramble for Land Rights,” found that indigenous peoples sometimes can take up to 30 years to acquire titles for the same kinds of land that private companies can take ownership of in as little as a month. Tauli-Corpuz says that is partly due to native communities lacking “economic resources or political influence.”
Knowledge, culture and even geography also are factors, says Laura Notess, a lawyer who co-authored the second WRI report. “Indigenous and other forest communities are usually very far away from the places where decisions are made and they don’t speak the language of law and business. Then to even attend a government office or court hearing is extremely difficult, and when they do, it’s challenging for them to understand what’s going on.”
Another problem, one that is particularly relevant to Colombia, is the assumption that legislation recognizing indigenous rights solves a deep-seated problem with roots stretching back centuries. “There’s often this feeling that the issue has been dealt with, that we can move on,” Notess says. “But it’s one thing passing legislation and another thing enforcing it on the ground.”
Kuiru Castro, the activist who also is a lawyer and member of the indigenous Uitoto people, adds: “Colombia has a lot of good laws but they are often only on paper. It’s also very difficult for communities to stand up to big companies, which often have deep pockets. Indigenous leaders sometimes let themselves be bribed (by companies coveting their land) and there can be sharp divisions in the communities as a result.”
Nevertheless, in Colombia the picture remains complicated. Generally speaking, native communities in the Colombian Amazon tend to have their land rights relatively well established in law. However, the country’s many indigenous peoples outside the Amazon, who frequently also inhabit forested areas such as the spectacular Sierra Nevada mountain range in the far north or in the central area of Cauca, tend to fare less well.
If anything, the latter region is an example of how the careful recognition of land rights must be informed by specific local knowledge; Kuiru Castro highlights the case of two rival communities, from different ethnicities, that are now in conflict over the same piece of land after only one of them was given legal title.
“For indigenous people, their lands are a crucial part of their well-being,” Tauli-Corpuz says. “When you take the land away from them you’re taking away their very identity. It is the ones who have been pushed off their land who tend to be most overrepresented when it comes to problems with their physical and mental well-being.”