Armed with drones, GPS, cell phones and aps, Indigenous communities collecting information for claiming traditional lands, documenting crimes and complementing satellite and web-based data

PARIS—As negotiators continued today to wrangle over a climate agreement, an indigenous techies and experts teamed up to demonstrate new tools they will use to ensure governments, industry and others adhere to promises to protect the globe’s tropical forests.

During a briefing for journalists on the sidelines of the United Nations climate change conference in Paris, tech savvy indigenous leaders from the forests of Cambodia, Guyana and Indonesia—in Paris to receive the Equator Prize—demonstrated their skills with mapping, drones and GPS systems.

They were joined by experts with the World Resources Institute, the Rights and Resources Initiative, and the Forest Peoples Programme, all with their own cutting-edge interactive satellite and online mapping technologies.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights, moderated the tools and technologies briefing today, noting the vital role of the information provided by the tools and technologies being tested in tropical forests worldwide.

“This information is critical to demonstrating a baseline required by financing mechanisms aimed at supporting forest conservation, as well as providing the ongoing monitoring required in order to ensure compliance,” said Tauli-Corpuz. “These new tools also provide forest peoples for the first time with the ability to report illegal activities—not only to law enforcement, but to a global audience that is increasingly interested in investing only in products that can show a clean supply chain—traced all the way back to the source.”

New studies released this week at COP 21 suggest just how important it is to ensure compliance with commitments to reducing deforestation as a critical strategy for slowing climate change. According to one peer-reviewed study, a 50 percent drop in deforestation across the tropics would keep 1.135 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere.  A second report, by the Woods Hole Research Center, reveals that 20.1% of the carbon stored above ground in all the world’s tropical forests is stored in indigenous territories of the Amazon Basin, Mesoamerica, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Indonesia. The authors acknowledge that this estimate is conservative.

“We have been able to demonstrate to our government exactly where there are activities that are destroying the forests,” said Sopheak Phon, of the Prey Lang Community Network, Cambodia, which is working to protect a 500,000-hectare forest in the Cambodian lowlands, the largest primary lowland evergreen forest remaining in the country. “These communications technologies allow us to document illegal logging and large-scale land grabs for mining, agri-business and logging concessions, and our government has begun to depend on this evidence for their investigations of forest crimes.”

Research suggests that community-run forests worldwide are richer in biodiversity, and contain more carbon than other forests, including those managed by governments as national parks. This growing body of knowledge is inspiring calls for recognition and enforcement of the rights of forest peoples to their traditional lands– including protected areas and those set aside for carbon sequestration.

“We’re just also starting to recognize that securing rights for community forests can be very cost effective,” said Nancy Harris, a scientist with the World Resources Institute.

“Indigenous and traditional communities offer a mitigation option that is immediately available to us right now. And we certainly need all the immediate short-term options we can get.

In Guyana, a group of 17 Wapichan communities has created a “living digital map” of their traditional lands, mapping and cataloguing their territory in great detail and accuracy. The main maps have 40,000 digital points collated and cross-checked with satellite images using methods developed by US NGO Digital Democracy, a partner of FPP and the Wapichan. The map includes detailed notes from interviews with elders about the importance of every creek, homestead and forest clearing.

The story of the map is included in a new report by the Forest Peoples Programme about the Wapichan. It describes the technologies they are using to document their land, detailing as well the tactics they will use protect their territory, using traditional knowledge and methods of land use to manage and protect a large community forest for hunting and gathering, for rotational farming, and for science and tourism.”

But the Wapichan insist that they have a right to full legal title. Fredericks and his fellow field investigators use smart phones, GPS units and a community drone to detect deforestation and other environmental damage caused by illegal logging and mining in the Wapichan territory.

“Our land is being taken away from us often without us even knowing,” Nicholas Fredericks, village leader and coordinator of land use monitoring for the South Central Peoples Development Association (SCPDA), Guyana. “Outsiders have a financial view of the land. They see it as money. We see it as life. We have to win.”

A recent study by Rights and Resources Initiative suggests that indigenous peoples and local communities lack legal rights to almost two-thirds of their traditional lands, despite claiming or having customary use of up to 65 percent of the world’s land area. But RRI coordinator Andy White noted that new tools and technologies are beginning to be used to support claims to land, as well as reports of illegal activities on the forests in the hands of local peoples.

“We are at a tipping point in providing a level of transparency that is unprecedented in monitoring what goes on it the world’s most remote tropical forests,” White said. “And we would not be able to do this without this collaboration with young indigenous peoples and the work they are doing with their new array of tools. Because of the work of technical staff with the global NGOs, and indigenous technicians on the ground in forest communities, the world is poised to deliver and dramatically scale-up protection of the world’s forests and rural lands.”

Petrus Asuy, a Benuaq with Indonesia’s Maura Tae community in Kalimantan, has used tools and technologies that he and his community have learned through training from the Environmental Investigation Agency to fight for the protection of community forests against coal mining and now palm oil plantations.

“We have used community mapping, demarcation of our customary territory, and advocacy with government and industry to try to get legal recognition of our land rights,” said Asuy, “But we are still fighting.”  His community conducted investigations and gathered evidence that to put a temporary stop to illegal logging activity.

Harris presented a new online interactive platform that integrates high-resolution forest biomass maps with forest change data, “to consistently and transparently track emissions from deforestation across the tropics.”

Global Forest Watch Climate will provide important data for monitoring deforestation across large areas,” Harris said. “Historically, we have not been able to do that, and, as we say in my world, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

White and Harris demonstrated as well a new tool that will prevent investors and governments from arguing ignorance of conflicting claims to land by local communities.

Landmark, launched by WRI and RRI on November 10, is the world’s first interactive global platform to provide maps and other critical information on lands that are collectively held and used by Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

Landmark will make clear that these lands are not vacant, idle, or available to outsiders,” said RRI’s Andy White. “Landmark was created to fill a critical gap in indigenous and community rights, which we now know are fundamental to preventing emissions from the deforestation that fuels climate change, particularly contributions from developing countries.”

With the growing pressures on land and natural resources, and climate change and poverty reduction becoming greater global concerns, the Rights and Resources Initiative is launching the International Land and Forests Tenure Facility.

The Tenure Facility will serve as an independent, international institution aimed at addressing a root cause of conflict, poverty, and environmental degradation: the lack of secure land tenure for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

The first of its kind, the Tenure Facility focuses on securing land and resource rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities. It is unique in that it focuses on the implementation of policies to recognize rights and provides grants and technical assistance to Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ organizations.