The recent IPCC report was the first to recognize the critical importance of securing indigenous and community land rights as a climate solution. RRI’s Strategic Analysis and Global Engagement Director Alain Frechette discusses the evidence behind this finding.

What does the evidence say about how indigenous and local communities care for and maintain forests?

The evidence in favor of communities with regards to the conservation and sustainable use of landscapes and forests in particular is both compelling and longstanding. There has been research going on for the better part of the last four decades showing that when communities have secure rights to land—and can make decisions on the use, management, and exclusion of others on that land over time—outcomes tend to be better than lands and forests managed by government and/or private sector actors.

So why is this the case? There are many different reasons. Communities tend to have a longer-term perspective on the management and use of their land and resources; they see relevance in managing their land sustainably because their children will inherit it and their children’s children will inherit it. That’s a key component of why communities are successful, but it’s not all. Being connected to their territories gives them a unique opportunity to learn and adapt. Iterative trial and error learning provide them with an intimate knowledge of the plant and animal world, what works, what doesn’t, and how best to engage with such environments. This in turn informs the rules that govern their relationship with the land and the know-how that have allowed them to successfully manage their lands for generations and even centuries.

How do indigenous practices contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity?

Most of the communities who manage resources over time tend to develop a robust understanding of the resource systems they depend on, leading to the development of enduring institutions and ways of engaging where success depends on the sustainability of their interactions. Scientists or experts with all of the world’s “book learning” and understanding of essential ecological principles would still be hard pressed, if thrown into a tropical forest landscape, to manage land as effectively and sustainably.  Communities with a sustained relationship to their land, however, often develop a comprehensive understanding of the intricate balances between the different components of their biophysical world, and the socioeconomic factors that allow them to sustain their land and resources without degrading them or taking more than they need.

Having the authority to make decisions as close as possible to the ground where the learning occurs and where communities can apply knowledge gained by caring for the land for generations is hugely important. Locally adapted institutions that allow communities to make collective decisions on the use and management of their resource assets, and to adapt to their changing circumstances, tend to achieve better outcomes. This gives communities the upper hand compared to decisions made by external authorities in a faraway capital.

Why is it urgent to recognize and protect community land rights? What is at stake if we fail to do so?

We’re at the end of our rope. We’ve essentially reached the limits of how much land can be converted without having implications at a global level. So there is a need to safeguard what remains in terms of our natural biodiversity assets in order to both mitigate the mean global temperature rise and reduce its projected impacts, which is fundamental to our capacity to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Indigenous Peoples and local communities essentially sit on half of the world’s land mass in terms of total area and are crucial to the protection of the biodiversity that will give us system-wide resilience to deal with the dramatic shocks that will occur as a result of climate change and other environmental changes. Given the fact that communities largely occupy the remaining natural ecosystems that support life on earth—and if we are serious about also tackling poverty issues and achieving the SDGs—all of these challenges coalesce around the need to secure community rights as an overarching strategy.

The precariousness of the situation is that indigenous knowledge is rapidly being lost through acculturation, rampant discrimination and threats to their ways of life, challenges in creating a viable future for their youth, or the inabilities of communities to use their land for economic ends even though they may own the land. These are impediments to their sustainable growth that must be resolved in order for communities to adapt and thrive in our current situation, and create conditions where children and youth will be able to learn from older generations and achieve equally sustainable outcomes.

One of the biggest concerns in the IPCC report is around food production, or needing to choose between food and forests. What is your reaction to this concern?

This “food versus forests” conundrum is a false dichotomy in the sense that it is built around assumptions that the current system of food production is the only way to go forward. There is substantive evidence showing that agro-ecological systems where food production is built vertically with diverse crops in integrated landscapes can both increase the production of food needed by communities—not commodity buyers—and create sustainable systems that achieve multiple purposes. These systems reduce the need for chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, intensify use of land hectare by hectare, and can better respond to local community needs.

If we look at our current system and its impacts on deforestation, it is driven essentially by four things: meat, soy, palm oil, and corn. Those four crops are not essential ingredients to sustain human life on earth. They are essential ingredients to sustain an economic model that is no longer sustainable. So we all need to start looking at where our money is going, how it’s invested, and whether or not it is generating social-ecological value as well as economic value. We need to consider how we can change this system so that each hectare of land is maximized in terms of both its agricultural value output and its eco-systemic value. Bringing an end to large-scale agricultural commodity production would undoubtedly be one of the boldest and most important actions governments and the international community could do to curb the rising threats of climate change.

So what can we do now?

One question we continue to consider is: how do we leverage Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge so that it’s valued on equal footing and equal terms to scientific knowledge and considered in policy frameworks and decisions made by governments? To date, Indigenous Peoples and local communities have been treated as potential beneficiaries, as stakeholders to various investments—but not as partners, leaders, or drivers of the changes that need to occur. We are missing a huge opportunity by not doing that .

We also know, from the last 50 years of development, that the one thing that has proven to be effective is securing the rights of women to have access to education and the same rights, freedoms and economic opportunities as their male counterparts. In the context of land rights, women’s ability to make decisions about the use and management of land is important because we know that women and girls are fast becoming the principal land managers of community resources assets. They are usually charged with collecting wood for anything from small scale building to food and fodder to cooking. And they manage the land in terms of producing food crops to sustain both their households and broader communities. So securing women’s rights—the rights to make decisions, the right to engage, the right to inherit land, the right to preserve and protect community resources—is a security against future threats and changes within communities, and a baseline condition that needs to be met for communities to achieve sustainable outcomes.

At the same time, our history of development has been focused primarily around poverty reduction and approaches where we expect the bottom half of the world to reach up to the overspending top. This has prevented us from asking what we can learn from Indigenous Peoples and local communities, how we can support their way of life, and how we should we adapt our own ways. We have lost touch with how to respect and nourish the land, and communities can teach us how to realize once again the sacredness of all this—that if we lose it, we will lose everything else.


About the interviewee: Alain Frechette, PhD, is the Director of Strategic Analysis and Global Engagement at RRI. He has over 25 of experience in natural resource management, biodiversity conservation, and climate change—focusing on international development for the better part of the last two decades. Alain began his career with state and provincial forest and protected area agencies in the United States and Canada before pursuing strategic consultancies with multilateral organizations, development agencies, and NGOs such as IUCN, DFID, the World Bank, and various UN institutions across Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

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