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Rights of Forest Peoples Being Ignored in Climate Change Negotiations

Forest Peoples in Cameroon
Baka women in Cameroon returning from a trip into the forest, which they equate with a pharmacy, supermarket and real home. © Samuel Nnah / Forest Peoples Programme

Lima, Peru – Against the backdrop of the twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP20) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) underway in Lima, Peru, currently, a new report provides alarming evidence of serious rights violations associated with deforestation, and first-hand community testimony of the impact of environmental destruction on the wellbeing and cultural survival of forest-dependent communities. It highlights recommendations from indigenous peoples to support community-led initiatives to address deforestation in their own territories.

The report, “Securing Forests, Securing Rights”, released on December 8 for the first time, was compiled following research and investigations conducted by more than sixty indigenous and forest communities from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Convening in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, in March 2014, rights holders themselves spoke independently of the direct and indirect drivers of forest loss and shared their own assessments of the grave human rights violations and atrocities facing their communities and lands today.

The resulting global call to action – The Palangka Raya Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – demands that governments, international agencies and the international community halt the production, trade and consumption of commodities derived from deforestation; stop the invasion of forest peoples’ lands and forests by logging and timber extraction, agribusiness, extractive industries, energy and conservation projects that deny fundamental human rights; and take immediate and concrete actions to uphold forest peoples’ rights at all levels (including the right to land, territories, and the right to self-determined development).

“We urgently need to overcome the contradiction between government initiatives that seek to exploit the forest and take land from communities, and conservation initiatives like REDD schemes. Both are seeking land and forest but continuously exclude local communities,” said Norhadi Karben, Mantangai, Kapuas, Central Kalimantan.

The report evidences alarming infringements of the rights of forest communities in nine countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, and Peru). In all nine countries, industrial forest concession and land-leasing models were identified as responsible for systemic rights violations and forest destruction. The effectiveness of ‘zero deforestation’ pledges made by governments and business were also critiqued by authors who identified a huge gap between policies on biodiversity and forest conservation, on the one hand, and prevailing unsustainable development models and practices, on the other.

Insecure community tenure rights, perpetuated by discriminatory and outdated land and forestry laws, are identified as key ‘indirect’ drivers of deforestation. In addition, the unsustainable and growing global demand and consumption of ‘forest risk’ commodities including meat, livestock feed (soya), palm oil, minerals, oil, gas and biofuels are highlighted as the main indirect drivers of forest loss and human rights infringements across all nine countries covered by the report.

Forests and Climate Change Negotiations

The report underscores the demands of indigenous peoples for governments in Lima to take a bold stance and adopt a human rights based approach to climate actions and recognise indigenous peoples land rights and traditional knowledge.

Forests and their role in mitigation have been at the centre of climate change negotiations for many years, in particular in negotiations on REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). The Cancun Agreements, finalised in COP16 in 2010, acknowledge the importance of forests in mitigating climate change, the role of indigenous peoples in conserving and managing forests, and adopted safeguards for REDD+ to ensure respect of indigenous peoples’ rights and traditional knowledge. This was a significant step forward in building the foundations of a rights-based approach in multilateral environmental agreements such as the UNFCCC.

Since then deforestation has increased. Human rights violations, land grabs and the seizure of indigenous land have intensified, driven by the expansion of infrastructure, monoculture plantations for food, fuel and fibre, logging, and carbon mitigation actions such as biofuels, natural gas or large-scale hydropower development.

At the same time, the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples have also intensified in terms of restricted access to water, food, drought, alteration of ecosystem balances, and loss of knowledge systems and cultures. The gains achieved in Cancun risk being lost at COP20 in Lima, unless parties take a bold stance and acknowledge that climate change is a human rights issue.