Opinion

Rights for us mean forests
for all

Though one of us lives in Central America and the other in Indonesia — nearly half the Earth’s circumference away from each other — we have the same urgent message for the decision makers who are gathered in Indonesia this week to discuss how best to slow climate change.

For hundreds of years, we — the indigenous peoples of the tropical regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America — have protected the forests that are now of such great interest in the battle against the changing climate.

We want to continue to play the role of global guardian of these precious resources, but we need your help.

In the face of tremendous and unprecedented pressures from the global quest for food, fuel, fiber and mineral wealth, our forests are under siege, and we can do little to protect them until our rights to our lands are recognized and respected.

If you have come to Indonesia this week to discuss your role in saving the world’s forests, and you are serious in your search for solutions, you will stand with us.

Some of you are in Jakarta to discuss ways the private sector can grow and profit — while continuing to conserve forests; others are in Lombok to decide the next steps in implementing UNREDD, a global strategy of the United Nations aimed at preventing the destruction of forests in 46 tropical nations.

If you understand the vital need to protect forests as fundamental to any climate change strategy, then you will ensure that we have strong rights over the forest lands we inhabit.

And we have evidence that indicates you would be right to engage with our communities.

In a global study released last year, researchers concluded what we already knew. When they compared deforestation rates on lands protected by governments to those on lands legally managed by indigenous communities, they reported that, when given the opportunity and the means, local forest communities are able to significantly outperform government agencies in preventing deforestation.

And we know what happens when the forests are turned over to people whose only motive is short-term gain, whether it’s to grow food or fuel, or mine for iron or gold.

In recounting the trajectory of our battle for the rights of our peoples to lands in Panama and Indonesia, we have good news,
as well.

Thousands of indigenous peoples in Panama live on lands to which they have strong rights that are enshrined in the nation’s legal system. And in Indonesia, our Constitutional Court has annulled the government’s claims to the forests our indigenous peoples claim under customary law.

But we still have a long way to go before we can protect our forests from the fires and bulldozers that tell us of decisions that have been made in the capitals of our countries, and without our say.

A decision may be made this week in Lombok that could put the full force of the United Nations on the side of Panama’s indigenous peoples, who had rejected their nation’s version of UNREDD because the plan put their rights at risk. We have high hopes the UN will support Panama’s indigenous leaders; a recent report from the UN observers indicated that local REDD officials had failed to negotiate in good faith.

And in Indonesia, the court’s decision to return some tens of millions of hectares of forest land to indigenous peoples is only the first step in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s quest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the country by 26 percent.

The government must give us the tools we need to manage these forests and to create official maps that establish beyond a doubt which forests belong to us.

If our governments and the private sector are willing to partner with us, rather than eject us from our forests, we would be happy to share our centuries-old knowledge of how to care for and protect our forests. We have been doing REDD for hundreds of years, and would be happy to do it for 500 more.

Abdon Nababan is secretary general of Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of Indonesia’s Archipelago (AMAN). Betanio Chiquidama is leader of the National Coordinating Body of the Indigenous Peoples of Panama, or COONAPIP.

Paper Edition | Page: 7

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