Op-Ed: To Fight Climate Change, Let Indigenous People Lead the Effort to Protect Tropical Forests

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Matt Clark

By Mathew Clark
President and CEO of Nature and Culture International

Matt started with Nature and Culture in 2015, as an advisor in the Loja, Ecuador office. For seven years prior to that, he was the Executive Director of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, a conservation organization in his native Portland, Oregon and also served as treasurer on the board of an Oregon-wide network of conservation entities. Additionally, he’s worked extensively for Native American tribal governments in the US, supporting their treaty fishing and water rights. Matt first fell in love with Latin America — its vibrant cultures, stunning landscapes and incredible biodiversity — while in Honduras in the 1990s as a Peace Corps volunteer. He has a BA from Stanford University in English Literature and Human Biology and a Master’s in Environmental Management from Yale University.

Tropical forests have been in the headlines a lot recently, for all the wrong reasons. Wildfires, illegal deforestation, difficult politics, and the list goes on. However, amidst all the doom and gloom, there are also reasons for hope. One such bright spot is the multi-stakeholder efforts gaining traction in the Pastaza region of Ecuador.

But first, a step back. Why tropical forests? Because, at the moment, tropical deforestation puts only slightly less carbon pollution into the atmosphere than does the United States (and more than the entire European Union combined).  Stopping tropical deforestation means keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and is one of the best nature-based solutions we have against climate change.  By one estimate, tropical forests could contribute more than 20% of the climate mitigation needed to keep average global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius, the target agreed to in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Thankfully, the global community is taking action on tropical deforestation. For example, the Leaf Coalition, a public – private partnership of governments, businesses, and non-governmental organizations (including among the world’s largest) recently pledged $1 billion to protect tropical forests. The idea that tropical forests are critical to maintaining a livable, or at least comfortable, future on this planet is mainstream now, as it should be.

Despite the urgency, it behooves us to pause and consider not just why to protect tropical forests but how to do so most effectively. Otherwise, we risk pouring money into strategies that don’t work. There’s a saying that the Amazon rainforest is where conservation projects go to die. While I don’t take such a pessimistic view, conservation in the Amazon is complex for myriad reasons: conflicting legal systems, global commodity pressures, dams, roads and other infrastructure, corruption, gold-mining mafias. The list goes on.

“Indigenous peoples have lived on their lands, including those in tropical forests, since time immemorial and they know how to take care of them.”

To save tropical rainforests, let Indigenous peoples lead the effort. That’s the punchline of this essay.  Indigenous peoples have lived on their lands, including those in tropical forests, since time immemorial and they know how to take care of them.  When RAISG, a consortium of non-governmental organizations mapped and analyzed deforestation trends in the Amazon rainforest, they found that Indigenous territories there had lower deforestation rates even than protected areas.  Indigenous peoples truly are nature’s greatest guardians.

Shuar Woman

This is easy to say but much harder to put into practice. There are entrenched political and economic interests that are indifferent or even hostile to meaningful, rights-based participation by Indigenous peoples because that would disrupt lucrative activities on Indigenous lands (that Indigenous peoples often don’t benefit from). Even when intentions are good, it’s a challenge to foster participatory decision-making that centers Indigenous needs, wants, and worldviews. It can be done though. Pastaza, a province in the Ecuadorian Amazon, shows how.

More than a decade ago, the Pastaza Provincial Government began incorporating conservation principles into the province’s Zoning and Development Plan. Concurrently, several of Pastaza’s Indigenous nationalities began, with Nature and Culture International’s support, enrolling portions of their lands into Ecuador’s SocioBosque program, which pays communities for conserving their communal forests.

These early achievements set the stage (more below on how) for the creation, in 2017, of a 6.2-million-acre provincial protected area. Subsequently, the partners in this effort — the provincial government, Pastaza’s seven Indigenous nationalities, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), and several conservation NGOs — developed and are now implementing a REDD+ plan to reduce deforestation and create a conservation-based economy in the protected area.

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+ for short) is a United Nations framework intended to guide and fund developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation. There’s a lively ongoing debate as to REDD+’s pros and cons. Some criticisms about REDD+ are ideological: nature shouldn’t be commodified. Some are practical: REDD+ payments are linked to reducing deforestation rates so areas with historically low deforestation have limited ability to secure REDD+ credits. In other words, REDD+ rewards improvement, not being good in the first place. One of the most salient criticisms is that, by and large, REDD+ benefits haven’t reached the Indigenous peoples who do the most to save tropical forests.

Although REDD+ has shortcomings, we should improve, not abandon it.  And there are exciting advances creating REDD+ models that include Indigenous peoples in decision-making and ensure that Indigenous communities see real benefits. That’s what happening in Pastaza.

As a member of the Governors’ Climate and Forests (GCF) Task Force, the Pastaza Provincial Government has formally endorsed GCF’s Guiding Principles for Collaboration between Subnational Governments, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, as has CONFENIAE. These 13 principles, based on Indigenous rights recognition and security, participation, and benefits sharing lay out a collaborative framework between sub-national governments and Indigenous peoples to protect forests and mitigate climate change.

To operationalize these principles in Pastaza, an inclusive governance structure has been created to oversee and manage the provincial protected area and the REDD+ plan being implemented within. The governing consortium includes a Consultative Council comprising representatives of the seven Indigenous nationalities in Pastaza, each of whom have a vote, as well as a technical working group comprising 10 conservation non-profits. The Consultative Council recently forged an agreement that outlines a Free Prior and Informed Consent process before any REDD+ implementation activities proceed in indigenous territories. In terms of benefit sharing, the government, Indigenous and NGO partners in Pastaza are committed to incorporating Indigenous territorial life plans into the provincial area management plan. These life plans will be funded through REDD+.

Three other factors have contributed greatly to Pastaza’s success. First, we received generous funding support from several entities, including the Governors’ Climate Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative to develop the REDD+ Plan. Second, unlike many other Latin American countries, Ecuador has completed a national REDD+ Implementation Plan, which served as a support and guide for Pastaza’s subnational plan.  And as mentioned above, efforts are being made to align provincial plans and Indigenous territorial life plans in meaningful ways.  This is not to say that national, subnational and Indigenous conservation visions and policies always align, but when they do, it can have a positive amplifying effect.  Last, Pastaza enjoys the peer support of the 39 other state and provincial members of the Governors’ Climate Fund.

Formal structures are important, but successful partnerships are based on trust. Twenty years ago, I heard a tribal leader from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation say in a meeting with a US government agency, “Paper doesn’t talk to me.” What he meant was that there’s no substitute for face-to-face human connections to build trust: eating together, laughing together, just sitting together.

That’s why the early activities in Pastaza were important. We phased the milestones in Pastaza sequentially and achieved them gradually. Slowly but surely, we layered success atop success. This was deliberate, to build trust. In our world of fleeting attention spans and instant gratification, this kind of patience is hard to muster and rarely aligns with short funding and political cycles. But it’s necessary if we are to achieve the lasting results we want.

Read more about our work in Pastaza here.