Indigenous protesters block a highway in Brazil.

Members of the Kayapo tribe block the BR163 highway during a protest outside Novo Progresso in Para state, Brazil on August 17, 2020.

(Photo: Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

Stop Marginalizing Indigenous Knowledge in Climate Negotiations

Indigenous Peoples are living the change that all recent scientific reports call for; this provides a baseline for policymakers and governments at COP28.

The unimaginable is becoming reality. The Aral Sea, with its historically thriving shipping and fisheries, has dried and is now the Aralkum Desert. In the Amazon, an unprecedented drought left the basin’s largest rivers almost completely dry, impacting hundreds of communities without means of navigation, food, or drinkable water. In 2023, wildfires in Canada burned an area larger than Greece and more than double the 1989 record year in Canada. These forests have never before burned like this in thousands of years of existence, since mile-high ice sheets receded at the close of the Pleistocene.

In this year of catastrophic drought and fire, more than 160 countries are attending the United Nations’ annual climate summit in Dubai. And this gathering comes at another historic inflection point. Just weeks ago, global average temperature passed a critical threshold exceeding 2°C hotter than preindustrial levels—an ominous signal of a changing climate.

Yet solutions are no further than big forests and other thriving natural systems that miraculously persist around our human footprint. Overwhelming evidence points to forests as essential to a livable planet. We cannot waiver in our commitment to forests. Forests are more than a landscape accessory; they capture carbon, shield us from environmental disasters, and sustain irreplaceable elements of humanity’s collective wisdom and sense of wonder.

We urge global leaders to acknowledge that discussions about the future of forests are inseparable from Indigenous Peoples.

In no small way, all big forests are home to Indigenous Peoples. By no accident, 40% of the world’s most intact ecological systems, including over one-third of the best remaining large-scale forests on Earth, or intact forest landscapes, are on lands managed and loved by Indigenous Peoples in relationship with plants and animals of their territories for millennia. In contrast to the concept of untrammeled wilderness, many of the most life-sustaining ecosystems on Earth are, in part, engineered and designed across generations by Indigenous Peoples.

Evidence supports Indigenous Peoples’ effective forest management. Research by the World Resources Institute in January 2023 underscores this reality. Between 2001 and 2021, forests under Indigenous stewardship in the Amazon acted as carbon sinks, removing the equivalent of the U.K.’s annual fossil fuel emissions. Why? The time-honed practices of Indigenous Peoples are simple in their framing and profound in their impact. For instance, in western Canada, shifting government policies that maximized the sustainable “take” of a given resource, to Indigenous practices of setting minimum thresholds for how much of a given resource to “leave” behind for a system to thrive, has resulted in abundant forests and fisheries that are setting global standards.

Worldwide, ecosystems are thriving through management by Indigenous Peoples. The practices of Indigenous Peoples result in the lowest deforestation rates in the Amazon. The boreal region in Canada is the largest remaining intact forest on the planet and holds about 12% of the world’s land-based carbon reserves. Scores of Indigenous nations are creating Indigenous Protected Areas, and together, they stand to protect well over 500,000 square kilometers. In northern Manitoba, four Indigenous nations have proposed protecting 50,000 square kilometers of the Seal River Watershed, which holds 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon—equivalent to eight years’ worth of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, the knowledge systems that underpin Indigenous practices are routinely marginalized in climate negotiations. This is a perilous omission. Indigenous Peoples recognize that people and the land are interdependent: “If we take care of the land, the land takes care of us.” Indigenous Peoples are living the change that all recent scientific reports call for. This provides a baseline for policymakers and governments at COP28.

We urge global leaders to acknowledge that discussions about the future of forests are inseparable from Indigenous Peoples. As the global community gathers in Dubai, we must continue foregrounding forests as an essential climate solution. Furthermore, decision-makers must commit to a simple step in our policymaking—provide Indigenous Peoples and their governments, including forest guardians, with the respect and direct financial resources they need to continue to sustain their homelands and waters. Establishing a fund to compensate nations most impacted by Climate Change for “loss and damage” is a step. Indigenous Peoples’ care for their homelands and waters in all regions of the Earth must be eligible for this funding, and, more generally, for the highest levels of financing that global leaders at COP28 commit to.

Time’s running out. A vibrant future for humanity is rooted in the wisdom of those who have cared for forests for millennia and still live within them today. In fully respecting and resourcing Indigenous Peoples’ care for their territories, we chart toward a future where our relationship with the Earth is abundant, and our collective cultural and social futures can be rich in thriving forests and a livable climate.

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