Questions over who gets the billions pledged to Indigenous causes at COP26

  • Private, public and philanthropic donors pledged billions of dollars to strengthen Indigenous land tenure and forest management at COP26, notably donating $1.7 billion as part of efforts to reverse forest loss.
  • Some Indigenous leaders are skeptical about how this will play out given that most previous financial support was not addressed to Indigenous organizations and communities, but to intermediate NGOs, government agencies and regional banks, thus reducing their efficiency.
  • Indigenous organizations say increasing direct funding to Indigenous-led initiatives and transparency in the flow of funds can increase effectiveness of the pledges and build trust.
  • Funding for forest monitoring technology is increasingly having a role in how some Indigenous communities safeguard biodiversity and map out their territories.

State, private and philanthropic organizations pledged billions of dollars for Indigenous land tenure and forest management during the COP26 climate summit earlier this month. And while the commitments have been largely welcomed, observers say little of this money is actually destined for organizations and entities led by Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs).

The figures have run from a historic $1.7 billion pledge to support Indigenous contributions to the Glasgow Declaration, to a funding project aimed at mobilizing $20 billion per year until 2030 for 250,000 IPLC forest communities worldwide.

The climate summit also saw $12 billion pledged by industrialized nations to less-industrialized forest nations and projects that clarify Indigenous land tenure, and $5 billion of private funding, from groups such as the Bezos Earth Fund, to protect 30% of the planet while enhancing Indigenous guardianship of their territories.

Drone aerial image captured by Indigenous community in the Xingu basin of the Amazon showing accelerating deforestation. These images could serve as evidence in court cases to prove the infringement of Indigenous rights and environmental law. Image courtesy of Julian Moura-Busquets / People’s Planet Project.

These funds were announced during the two-week climate summit announced within a context that is increasingly recognizing the role of IPLCs in protecting forests and meeting climate goals, while realizing affiliated organizations and communities received less than the equivalent 1% of official development climate funds. Forests are thought to absorb one-third of global CO2 emissions per year.

In the Brazilian Amazon, research has shown that Indigenous lands experienced 0.6% deforestation from 2000-2012, compared to 7% on lands outside of Indigenous control. That latter forest loss, amounting to 22.5 million hectares (55.6 million acres), resulted in 8.7 billion metric tons of CO2 emitted during that period. New research released at COP26 showed that IPLC forest lands safeguarded 250 billion metric tons of carbon, yet the very communities responsible for this brake on emissions only have legally recognized rights to half of these territories.

“Our global forests are absolutely fundamental if we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C,” or 2.7° Fahrenheit, said Zac Goldsmith, the U.K. international environment minister, of the $1.7 billion pledge. “The evidence is overwhelming that Indigenous peoples and local communities are forests’ most effective guardians.”

Direct funding to IPLC organizations?

However, the history of funding dedicated to IPLC land tenure and forest management shows a dearth of allocation to actual IPLC organizations and communities. Most funding goes to international NGOs, regional banks, government institutions or U.N. agencies that act as intermediaries and work on IPLC land and resource rights.

“All of this can, and hopefully will, have a positive impact on IPLC’s rights and ability to live in and off their traditional forests, but it is not funding to IPLC organizations,” Torbjørn Gjefsen, a climate policy adviser at the Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN), wrote in a recent commentary for Mongabay.

Indigenous activists protesting
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.

According to a recent report by RFN, approximately 17% of funds for Indigenous conservation go to IPLC organizations and communities, representing 0.13% of all climate development aid. This has been a source of criticism for Indigenous leaders and community organizers who request direct access to funds as a way to better manage their conservation initiatives.

“We need to stop being treated as mere ‘beneficiaries’ or almost ‘objects’ of cooperation, and instead be treated as implementers and protagonists of our realities, which are little known to third parties,” Jorge Perez, president of AIDESEP, the main Indigenous organization of the Peruvian Amazon, told Mongabay by email.

According to Perez, the Peruvian state and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) used a misguided privatization approach, leading to the granting of just six land titles for 403 communities at a cost of $80 million in the span of seven years. However, an initiative led by AIDESEP, the Confederation of Amazonian Nations of Peru (CONAP) and other Indigenous organizations managed to title 51 communities, with 110 titles in progress, in the span of four years for just $5 million.

Certain pledges announced at COP26 have sought to address this issue. The $1.7 billion pledge by five governments and 17 philanthropies has a goal of providing more direct and tangible support to “capacity building” and “group activities and collective structures.”

The Peoples Forests Partnership aims to mobilize $20 billion per year until 2030 for 250,000 Indigenous forest community projects worldwide. The partnership, consisting of Indigenous organizations, conservation groups, companies and investors, aims to “set a high standard for equitable, accessible, and culturally appropriate mechanisms for forest communities to engage with climate finance.”

Currently, a consultation period is open for interested stakeholders to offer their input on engagement, operating principles and the criteria for community-based projects.

Indigenous family in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Indigenous family in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Image courtesy of Amazon Watch / Caroline Bennett.

The Protect Our Planet Challenge’s $5 billion pledge is developing guiding principles that it will commit to as it deploys its resources and engages with IPLCs. Currently composed of eleven funders, including the Bezos Earth Fund, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Nia Tero, the financial resources pledged are allocated according to each partner’s own priorities and decisions.

“We must continue to expand this network of committed allies to Indigenous peoples and ensure that Indigenous organizations have direct access to funding sources,” Tracy Rector, a managing director at Nia Tero, told Mongabay by email. “This is a priority for Nia Tero which is shared by the Ford Foundation, the Christianson Fund and other organizations.”

New and old mechanisms

Indigenous leaders like Tuntiak Katan Jua, deputy head of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), say they’re still skeptical about these pledges, which remain short on details of how financial resources will be directly allocated.

Indigenous leader speaking at COP26
Tuntiak Katan, Vice Coordinator of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), Global Alliance of Territorial Communites (GATC) speaking at the Forest event at COP26 in Glasgow. Image courtesy of Karwai Tang/ UK Government / Flickr.

“We know that many of these funds are destined for traditional mechanisms, which have shown very great limitations to reach our territories and support communities in their initiatives,” said Tuntiak Katan, a native of the Ecuadoran Amazon.

Among recommendations from Indigenous community members is facilitating the navigation process for financial resources, which has been difficult for certain traditional peoples. Speaking to Mongabay last month, Carlos Rodriguez, CEO of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), also emphasized the need to build capacity and structures within Indigenous communities to effectively manage substantial financial resources.

Perez of AIDESEP called on funders to build trust with Indigenous organizations, including over how they spend allocated funds. He said accountability can be provided through external auditing processes. Kokoi, a Wapichan leader from the South Rupununi District Council in Guyana, also underlined accountability as a measure for how future funds are allocated.

“Accountability and transparency are key to the management of flow of funds which must include Indigenous organizations,” Kokoi told Mongabay in an interview. “Indigenous organizations must be involved in all planning and discussions on how funds are going to be distributed to the Indigenous peoples themselves. Those systems and processes must involve Indigenous representatives at all levels from inception to conclusion.”

Territory mapping workshop initiated by the People’s Planet Project in the Xingu basin of the Amazon. Image courtesy of Julian Moura-Busquets / People’s Planet Project.

Certain organizations, such as Land is Life, follow this process. The international Indigenous-led coalition raises funds from foundations and establishes rounds of funding in each of its regions. According to its Latin America program director, Jose Proaño, its global grants program consists of small grants run by Indigenous leaders, with decisions about funds made by Indigenous coordinators.

Funding forest conservation through tech

At COP26, discussions on funding also centered on what types of forest management projects will receive the financial resources and how they can ensure Indigenous land tenure. Among some of these conversations at COP26 was the increasing role of technology within Indigenous communities to monitor their territories and strengthen their role as “guardians of the world’s forests.”

Satellite mapping technologies, drones, cameras and microphones have been used to record threats to forests, gather information on illegal activities, and watch over species populations and natural resources.

“The vast size of our territories, the access difficulties, the violent threats we face and the growing number of climate disasters require the use of special and complex capacities and technologies to strengthen our traditional knowledge,” Perez said.

In 2019, using satellite data and alerts, the Indigenous community of Buen Jardín de Callaru in the Peruvian Amazon tackled deforestation caused by illegal loggers and coca growers. Perez, who oversees the program, emphasizes the use of funds to train Indigenous leaders and technicians in guarding their forests with GPS, computers, drones and mapping.

The Ceibo Alliance has helped train more than 200 indigenous forest guardians that actively patrol 500,000 hectares of rainforest. Image courtesy of Amazon Frontlines.

One such international organization trains Indigenous communities through filmmaking and spatial mapping workshops. Through its GeoStory Camps initiative, the People’s Planet Project teaches community members about filmmaking tools, such as b-roll, drone footage and interviews, and basic mapping skills, including the use of GPS devices and spatial databases. This organization depends on funding for Indigenous land tenure and forest management to set up its workshops.

“Once a particular project has been funded, we then buy equipment and provide the teaching and workshop to our partner communities,” Abdel Mandili, executive director of the People’s Planet Project, told Mongabay. “The equipment stays with the community for the most impactful reporting. This is for both the film as well as GIS workshops.”

During a workshop in the Xingu Basin in the Amazon, four students learned to store detailed maps of ancestral rainforests and territories into geographic information systems, specifically ArcGIS. They also use and analyze spatial data to detect emerging hotspots to identify clusters of primary forest loss and fire detection in near real time. Video and data evidence gathered from the communities is planned to be used in court cases with environmental lawyers to preserve approximately 2.6 million hectares (6.5 million acres) of Indigenous forest within the Xingu Indigenous Territory.

Filmmaking workshop
Filmmaking workshop with Indigenous film director Kamikia Kisedje in the Xingu basin of the Amazon. Image courtesy of Kamikia Kisedje/People’s Planet Project.

Kokoi, the Wapichan chief in Guyana, also uses satellite data for a forest monitoring program that was awarded the U.N. Development Programme’s Equator Prize. He recommends building capacity of existing mapping and monitoring units, as well as improved equipment for testing water and fish.

“As a result of our monitoring unit trips, we have collected a lot of data,” he told Mongabay. “Along with that data, we also have traditional knowledge information. However, we don’t have a proper place to bank or store the data in. There is no proper internet system as internet access is very unreliable.”

With COP26 now over and delegates, heads of state and investors returning home, Indigenous leaders are waiting to see whether they will follow through with their pledges and how these will be implemented. The cloud of skepticism, however, is heavy for certain leaders.

“The pledges made at COP26 are very ambitious,” Kokoi said. “Based on previous experience nothing has happened — there is no political will or systems in place for how funds reach communities.”


Banner image: Mapping and monitoring of territory in the Xingu Basin of the Amazon. Image courtesy of Julian Moura-Busquets / People’s Planet Project.

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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