Last week, leaders from around the world gathered in Alaska at the Indigenous Peoples Global Summit on Climate Change to form a strategy around their participation in December’s UN climate change meeting in Copenhagen and discuss how various communities are adapting to climate change.

The meeting coincides with a growing concern that indigenous communities are being left out of the decision-making process when it comes to climate change agreements — particularly those concerning projects designed to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, commonly referred to as REDD.

The theory behind these concerns is that carbon markets — and the large forest carbon projects they depend on — could marginalize indigenous people and their traditional land rights and (in a worst-case scenario) displace these people. Indigenous people are particularly concerned that they will not have a recognized position at the Copenhagen conference.

“Participation is the key element,” Johnson Cerda, a leader of the Quichua community in Ecuador and advisor for Conservation International’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program, said last week during a press conference held by The Nature Conservancy. “We cannot only go [to Copenhagen] as observers…We have knowledge in the community and based on that knowledge we want to build something to protect our forests.”

Cerda emphasized that a REDD framework and projects could only be successful if they were developed in consultation with indigenous communities and recognized indigenous rights.

“In REDD, there must be recognition of local and Indigenous knowledge,” he said. “Why under REDD should forests be recognized and not the people who have lived there for generations?”

Cerda’s concerns are more than valid. What is the point of making the world a more sustainable place if we don’t respect the rights of the people who are living on it? Certainly, there have been (and may always be) tensions between indigenous communities and the Western world. But conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy have recognized the need for indigenous communities to be fully informed and engaged throughout the development of REDD projects.

As Sarene Marshall — the director of the Conservancy’s climate change program — notes: “The benefits of REDD must reach local people. Without those benefits, conservation is not sustainable.”

Indeed, one of the Conservancy’s most successful forest carbon projects — the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project — addressed rights for indigenous communities and has helped identify what needs to be done for REDD to work.

In setting up the project, the Conservancy worked with seven indigenous communities around Noel Kempff and the Bolivian government to have the land declared as traditional indigenous lands, providing the communities for the first time with full legal rights to the land. Securing “land tenure” may be the single most important piece to giving indigenous communities a voice in the decision-making process. At the same time, the Conservancy helped the community create a sustainable development plan that would guard against land degradation.

Implementation of the Noel Kempff project included a comprehensive healthcare and education development plan for the seven local communities. This development plan, which ran from 1997-2008 resulted in the following:

    • Funding the hiring of two additional teachers for local schools;
    • Funding for education;
    • Funding for 120 primary and secondary school scholarships;
    • Funding for five university scholarships;
    • Renovation and expansion of an existing health clinic; and
    • The creation of a new “micro-hospital” that includes neo-natal and labor and delivery services.

Did implementing these community benefits make the carbon project more complex? Sure. But this type of community support is vital to conservation projects throughout the developing world. As Marshall notes, Noel Kempff probably would not have succeeded if these community benefits weren’t included. And as Cerda says, when it comes to preserving forests, we have to recognize the people as well as the trees.

(Image: Dead and damaged trees being measured as part of a survey of forest mortality and regrowth in logged areas outside the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park in Bolivia. Credit: Margo Burnham.)

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  1. Continue the good work. Indigenous people have always been one with their world. We come in and try to change it to suit our lifestyle, instead of adapting their ways. We need to get with their program and not have them get with our program.

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