Mongabay interviewed three Indigenous leaders from the tropics to obtain their views regarding the COP26 climate conference’s growing consensus around pledges towards Indigenous land rights, financial support and stewardship, and on conditions in their nations.
Valeria Paye, of the Kaxuyana Indigenous group in the Brazilian Amazon, raised the alarm over President Jair Bolsanaro’s 2018 electoral promise to not give any more ancestral land back to Indigenous communities, and over his barring of financial resources destined for Amazon IPLC land rights and Indigenous stewardship of the biodiverse hotspot.
Joseph Itongwa, a national director of an Indigenous rights group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was optimistic about the growing positive consensus at COP regarding Indigenous land rights, which also reflects the increasing momentum within his own country to pass legislation securing Indigenous rights.
Monica Ndoen, a project manager of AMAN, worries that the Indonesian government’s focus on industrial development and big business to boost the country’s COVID-19 economic recovery will be prioritized over any promises to secure Indigenous land tenure. Indonesia’s leader has already backed away from the Glasgow Forest Declaration.
GLASGOW, Scotland — The first week of the United Nations climate summit, known as COP26, was a good one for Indigenous peoples around the world. At the conference, a growing consensus is gaining momentum: If tropical countries are to genuinely reduce deforestation to mitigate climate change, they must give land rights to the people who live in those forests.
Introduced last week at COP26, the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which pledges to end deforestation by 2030, directly cited Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) as having a key role in forest stewardship. Part of the declaration’s $19.2 billion pledged to combat deforestation is destined to support IPLCs, though many details are yet to be worked out.
Separately, several governments and private funders pledged $1.7 billion in support of IPLC tenure rights in recognition of their global contributions to climate change mitigation. It was deemed the largest private-public financial commitment of its kind.
However, like too many promises at too many climate summits, there remains doubt and skepticism as to whether this emerging support for Indigenous peoples — many of whom are filling the hallways at COP26 and marching in massive weekend protests in Glasgow — will come to pass.
“That prime ministers and high leaders from developing countries are talking about these issues at a COP is new and encouraging,” Torbjørn Gjefsen, a program manager with Rainforest Foundation Norway, told Mongabay. “It’s at the core where it needs to be. The science on the impact Indigenous peoples have on forest conservation has put it there. Now, how do you make sure that this happens in reality?”
Rainforest Foundation Norway, a philanthropic NGO based in Oslo, has consistently been at the forefront in pressing for greater IPLC rights and financial support. The organization is involved in Indigenous programs and projects throughout the tropics.
At COP26, the foundation arranged interviews with three Indigenous leaders to hear their hopes and concerns about the possibility of finally regaining legal control over the lands they have occupied for generations, if not centuries.
Fear and distrust in Brazil
Valeria Paye of the Kaxuyana tribe in the Brazilian Amazon is among more than 400,000 Indigenous people, of more than 180 different ethnicities, living in the rainforest today. They have created the Podaali Fund into which financial resources destined to help manage and protect their ancestral lands can flow. They are ready to accept international funding support.
There’s just one problem: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
“We are and we remain very afraid,” Paye said through a translator. “It is a very serious situation for us in Brazil. Bolsonaro is keeping the promises he made during the  election. He promised no more land for Indigenous peoples — and he has been doing just that.”
Brazil includes the largest portion of the Amazon within its borders, is the world’s largest tropical forest, and a stellar biodiversity hotspot. It has also been one of the world’s largest carbon sinks and reservoirs, helping neutralize some of the impact of climate change. An environmentally healthy Amazon is deemed crucial to global climate mitigation.
Yet, due to relentless deforestation and human-set fires to clear land for cattle ranches and croplands over the past decade, the Southern Brazilian Amazon has tipped from being a sink to emitting more carbon annually than it pulls from the atmosphere, according to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP). Deforestation has especially escalated in the last three years due to Bolsonaro’s Amazon development policies.
To Paye, this is what it looks and feels like on the ground: “There has been a conscious destruction of existing policies to open Indigenous land for exploration and exploitation,” she said. “Bolsonaro is actually taking our rights away, making it worse. We see more invasion by wildcat miners in Indigenous territories. We also have an increase in illegal logging in which there are environmental crimes that go unprosecuted.
“This has led to dangerous clashes in the jungles, increased threats and fires set to our communities and houses. We have had to move away from our territories to remain safe.”
At one level, Paye takes pride in the rising chorus of praise at COP26 for Indigenous rights. But she wonders whether, if the developed world didn’t need her people to reach its carbon emission-reduction goals, would those leaders still care about her people?
She says she trusts NGOs like Rainforest Foundation Norway. Though she added, “Nothing will change in Brazil unless we have a change in presidential leadership in the election next cycle.”
Progress in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Joseph Itongwa lives in the lowland jungles of eastern DRC. His face is world-weary, but his voice is strong and enthusiastic. As the national director of an Indigenous alliance supporting and promoting rights and community forest conservation, he was upbeat.
Speaking in French through a translator, he explained that though his people still lack land tenure and control to stop logging, mining and industrial-scale deforestation for agriculture, things are slowly changing — in the right places.
“The support we are seeing at COP comes after support we have been observing in our own country,” Itongwa said.
“Political commitments have been made by the DRC government and President Felix Tshisekedi in recognizing and securing Indigenous people’s land rights. There is also legislation on Indigenous rights that has been adopted by the National Assembly in DRC, which is a very positive development. It’s still pending in the Senate, but we are confident it will be adopted.”
There are more than 700,000 Indigenous people in the DRC, living within more than 100 territories. The DRC boasts the world’s second-largest rainforest, the Congo Basin. Like the Amazon, its conservation is seen as crucial to mitigating climate change. Itongwa said he is confident his people will be getting the opportunity to do what they do best — act as guardians of the forest.
Though, as the recognition of Indigenous rights, along with significant financial support, comes closer to becoming reality, he makes a demand: “We have to be sure that people who were expelled from protected areas can come back or receive just compensation for the damages they’ve suffered,” Itongwa said. “In the future, we must be a part of the decision-making in designating and managing protected areas.”
The creation and expansion of protected areas in the DRC has seen Indigenous people expelled from the ancestral lands they depend on for material and spiritual well-being. In recent years, investigations and reports into these protected areas have found allegations of abuse, torture, rape and murder committed on Indigenous peoples trying to maintain access to their lands. They’ve often been traumatized by relocation.
“This is something that we really need to follow up after the COP,” Itongwa said. “We have to work on securing our lands. That’s the highest priority, along with the protected areas.”
Broken promises in Indonesia
Monica Ndoen is a project manager at the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) in Indonesia, the world’s largest advocacy group for Indigenous communities. Established in 1999, it consists of 2,422 communities, represents more than 20 million people and promotes an ethic to return ancestral lands back to Indigenous peoples.
In the run up to the 2014 elections, AMAN was among those that supported President Joko Widodo. In his campaign pledges, Widodo promised to protect Indigenous land rights and resolve land conflicts over territory. However, over the years the advocacy group has become disillusioned with the president and his promises.
“As requested, we did the work for our communities,” she said. “We mapped the territories we wanted returned — 12.7 million hectares [31.3 million acres]. We included our history and we established a means to receive and manage finances. However, we have only received 60,000 hectares 148,263 acres], and are still waiting for the rest.”
When COVID-19 struck, Indonesia, like the rest of the world, shut down its economy and is still struggling to recover. AMAN says that President Widodo’s promises of Indigenous land tenure now lay forgotten.
“The government said that after the pandemic ended it will focus on the economic recovery,” Ndoen said. “They are relying on the investments of big companies — mining, palm oil and infrastructure, and putting aside human rights and rights of Indigenous peoples.
“However, if the government works hand in hand with AMAN, we can contribute to the economic growth of our country. We have studies to prove this. But the government is concentrating on investment, investment and more investment.”
Last week, after first signing the Declaration on Forests and Land Use, Indonesia’s President Widodo backed away from the agreement in front of the whole world. He would not, he made clear, allow such a pledge to get in the way of his development goals — goals that will negatively impact Indonesia’s forests.
“We have heard during this COP that many governments are making pledges to support Indigenous peoples,” Ndoen said. “But not our president. He does not give us the credit we are due. How do we fight this?”
Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. This is his seventh UN climate summit. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso
Banner image: Indigenous leaders and activists gathered in the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, during COP26. The climate protest march attracted 100,000 people. Image courtesy of Rainforest Foundation Norway.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here:
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