rethink sustainability

Indigenous communities – on the frontline in the fight to protect tropical forests

Indigenous communities – on the frontline in the fight to protect tropical forests
© “Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative”

Decades of pressure from extractive industries such as mining, oil and industrial agriculture have resulted in unprecedented deforestation and land degradation. Logging, largely the result of these industries, has pushed our tropical forests towards a potentially catastrophic tipping point. Continued forest degradation risks creating a vicious cycle – if these ancient ecosystems lose the ability to sustain themselves the vast carbon stores they hold could be released, exacerbating climate change and causing further degradation. Protecting and restoring the world’s tropical forests is now high on the global agenda, but for the indigenous communities that live in and around tropical forests this is an old fight. For generations they have been on the frontline, protecting forests against clearance and the forces of extractive industry, often in the face of discrimination, harassment, and even deadly violence.

Tropical rainforests are one of our most precious natural resources, providing ecosystems services far beyond their geographical reach

Rivers in the sky, carbon and conflict on the land

Tropical rainforests are one of our most precious natural resources, providing ecosystems services far beyond their geographical reach. Approximately 20 billion tonnes of water vapour are lifted into the atmosphere by the Amazon rainforest every day, creating clouds that stream across continents and underpin global weather systems. Disruption to these systems can have profound consequences – periods where they have been absent or off course have seen marked changes over an area ranging from Brazil to California, causing drought in some parts and floods in others1.

The rainforest is also one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks, storing more than 100 billion tonnes of carbon2 and taking in 2 billion tonnes of CO2 annually. But there is evidence that this capacity to mitigate climate change is weakening. Through ongoing forest degradation, fires, warming and moisture stress, the Eastern Amazon may already have turned from carbon sink to carbon source, and the Western Amazon may now simply be carbon neutral. If these processes continue we risk a worsening spiral of forest degradation, where carbon stored in Amazonian vegetation is released to the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change, in turn increasing forest loss and escalating further carbon release3.

At over 5 million km² the Amazon rainforest is by far the largest tropical rainforest on earth, and its size is matched by the complexity of our human interaction with it. The Amazon transcends geopolitics and culture, cutting across nine South American countries and providing a home to millions of indigenous peoples. It is also a battleground, where the interests of governments, multinational corporations and local communities frequently collide, and where extractive industry comes into conflict with climate concern on a local and global scale.

At over 5 million km² the Amazon rainforest is by far the largest tropical rainforest on earth, and its size is matched by the complexity of our human interaction with it

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Local communities meet global forces

In the Amazon, as in other tropical rainforests, deforestation is primarily driven by land use change, as woodland is cleared and land converted for industry. In the Eastern Amazon, traditional small scale forest clearance for subsistence farming has given way to industrialised agriculture, with substantial plantations and cattle ranches erasing ancient primary rainforest. In the Western Amazon agriculture plays a smaller role, but here the threat is perhaps greater – deforestation for oil.

The Amazon sits on over 5 billion barrels of oil and its exploitation has brought havoc to ecosystems and communities. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, for instance, pollution from oil extraction has had devastating human as well as ecosystem impacts. Cancer rates in polluted areas are 5 times higher than national averages and birth defects and miscarriages are widespread.

Where once forests were cleared almost exclusively for local or domestic consumption, increased pressure for land-use change now comes from international consumption. 50% of Ecuadorian crude oil is sent to California, with China also providing significant demand through oil-for-cash debt arrangements. Across the region fully a quarter of tropical deforestation is driven by overseas consumption, with China and Europe the biggest importers of tropical forest-risk commodities.

Indigenous communities have long protected the Amazon rainforest against outside interests, preserving a resource which in many other places was exploited and destroyed long ago

©  “Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative”
 

Managing forests better

Indigenous communities have long protected the Amazon rainforest against outside interests, preserving a resource which in many other places was exploited and destroyed long ago – in Europe, for instance, primary old-growth forest is now extremely rare4. Recent research has demonstrated the important role this plays in climate mitigation – Amazonian forests in legally recognised Indigenous Territories secure greater carbon stocks, produce lower carbon emissions, and see deforestation and land-use change at just one fifth the rate in other rainforest areas5,6.

Successive international forest management pledges have recognised what is in effect a global environmental service. The Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use from last year’s COP26 reaffirmed the key role that indigenous peoples have to play in the stewardship of forests, and promised to increase financial support for indigenous communities7.

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‘Rights’ leave space for exploitation

International agreements have also recognised the importance of advancing the legal rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC) Forest Tenure Joint Donor Statement, also from COP26, included at least USD 1.7 billion funding directly for indigenous communities, including money for securing, strengthening, and protecting land and resource rights8.

Indigenous rights are, in theory, already protected across the Amazon region – all but Colombia adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, and many Amazonian nations enshrine indigenous rights in their constitutions9. But constitutional protection doesn’t necessarily translate into protection on the ground.

In Ecuador, regarded as having strong constitutional rights for indigenous people, the state retains sovereign right to all below ground non-renewable resources, and although a right to consultation exists for land development, recent court cases have highlighted flaws in the process. With representations made only in Spanish rather than in native languages, carefully managed one-sided pitch presentations, and no requirement for consent, Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo described the consultation process as, “a deception, it’s a trap.”10

As the importance of tropical rainforests in mitigating the impact of climate change is increasingly realised, indigenous communities are becoming rightly valued for the vital work that they do

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On the frontline of sustainable investment

Natural Climate Solutions, including the preservation and restoration of forest areas, particularly tropical forests, can provide around 30% of the emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to 2 °C11, a global service that outweighs the immediate value of extractive industry. To achieve this, investment is needed, connecting finance to action on the ground so as to put resources into the hands of the people who best understand how to work in harmony with the forest, and who for millennia have taken care of this vital ecosystem on behalf of all of us to safeguard our future.

Supporting sustainable forest use, creating a circular bioeconomy, and connecting indigenous communities to responsible global marketplaces will disrupt incentives to destroy or degrade the rainforest. For this responsible finance is needed, identifying where sustainable value lies and directing capital investment to build infrastructure and scale value-generating forest-preserving and restoring activities.

As the importance of tropical rainforests in mitigating the impact of climate change is increasingly realised, indigenous communities are becoming rightly valued for the vital work that they do. As the world risks crossing multiple climate and environmental tipping points there are important lessons we should learn from indigenous peoples’ approach to protecting our ‘big house’ – the planet.

 

2019-12-amazon-sacred-headwaters-report.pdf (amazonwatch.org).
Deforestation, warming flip part of Amazon forest from carbon sink to source - Welcome to NOAA Research.
Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change - PubMed (nih.gov).
Protecting old growth forests in Europe - a review of scientific evidence to inform policy implementation | European Forest Institute (efi.int).
5 Alejo, Camilo, Chris Meyer, Wayne S. Walker, Seth R. Gorelik, Carmen Josse, Jose Luis Aragon-Osejo, Sandra Rios, et al. 2021. “Are Indigenous Territories Effective Natural Climate Solutions? A Neotropical Analysis Using Matching Methods and Geographic Discontinuity Designs.” PloS One 16 (7): e0245110.
6 Walker, Wayne S., Seth R. Gorelik, Alessandro Baccini, Jose Luis Aragon-Osejo, Carmen Josse, Chris Meyer, Marcia N. Macedo, et al. 2020. “The Role of Forest Conversion, Degradation, and Disturbance in the Carbon Dynamics of Amazon Indigenous Territories and Protected Areas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117 (6): 3015–25.
Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use - UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) at the SEC – Glasgow 2021 (ukcop26.org)
COP26 IPLC forest tenure Joint Donor Statement - UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) at the SEC – Glasgow 2021 (ukcop26.org)
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples | United Nations For Indigenous Peoples.
10 Ecuador’s consultation process for Indigenous lands comes under the microscope (mongabay.com).
11 Why NCS > Natural Climate Solutions Alliance | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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