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Recognising indigenous peoples on the International Day of Forests 2015

March 21 2015

Malaysia. IWGIA archive photo.
Forests are the lifeline and cultural heritage of millions of indigenous peoples around the world.

In recognition of the International Day of Forests, our partners, the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) are drawing attention to the vital role forests play in the lives of indigenous peoples.

“It is urgent to upscale the recognition of the forest rights of indigenous peoples through the demarcation and proper implementation of laws recognising the collective land rights of indigenous peoples. Securing indigenous peoples’ customary land rights and sustainable livelihoods is necessary for the success of forest-based solutions to climate change and for sustainable development,” said Secretary General of AIPP, Joan Carling, in a press release.

Sustainable management of forests

According to a World Bank study, traditional indigenous territories encompass up to 22 percent of the world’s land surface and coincide with areas that hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. This co-existence is a result of indigenous people’s commitment to low carbon and sustainable management of their forests.

Despite indigenous people’s environmental stewardship, the legal recognition and collective rights to their lands, territories and resources afforded to them by international human rights standards continue to be denied by many states. Massive logging operations, the expansion of palm oil plantations, and conversion of forestlands to commercial projects continue to threaten the homes of millions. Paradoxically, the traditional livelihoods of indigenous peoples such as shifting cultivation, gathering non-timber forest products, and hunting are being cited as serious causes of deforestation and forest degradation. 

The lifeline and cultural heritage of millions

In Asia alone, forests are the lifeline and cultural heritage of more than 100 million indigenous peoples. Despite the fact that evidence based studies indicate their traditional livelihoods are not to blame for forest degradation, 10 countries in Asia have policies prohibiting or phasing out shifting cultivation/ rotational agriculture. Aside from violating indigenous peoples’ civil and political rights, these policies result in food insecurity, malnutrition, and the loss of biodiversity and traditional knowledge.

While countries like the Philippines, India, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia have made important strides in the legal recognition of indigenous peoples’ land and forest rights, the implementation of these laws remains weak. The lack of political will to fully recognise the land rights of indigenous peoples remains a major obstacle to the sustainable management of forests and ensuring the success of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation).

Raising awareness of the implications of REDD for indigenous peoples

REDD is a programme aimed at mitigating climate change, which could help strengthen indigenous communities' forest tenure and income generation. However, it also has the potential to become yet another threat to indigenous peoples’ lands and livelihoods by supporting projects such as bio-fuel plantations and the establishment of ‘carbon protected areas’ in indigenous peoples’ forests.

IWGIA’s programme on REDD seeks to raise awareness among indigenous communities about climate change and its potential effect on indigenous peoples’ livelihoods. The programme, which has been implemented in various Asian countries, is also concerned with advocacy and the training of community leaders to respond effectively to national REDD+ initiatives.

In cooperation with the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact (AIPP) and its partners, IWGIA created the Climate Change Monitoring and Information Network (CCMIN), which is a website dedicated to sharing information about REDD and climate change. It focuses especially on climate change issues related to indigenous peoples, and can be translated into more than 50 languages.

A call to action

AIPP urge the international community to recognise the collective rights and vital role of indigenous peoples in sustainable forest management. Furthermore, they underline the importance of identifying the real causes of deforestation and forest degradation, instead of shifting the blame to indigenous peoples and local communities.

To read more about AIPP and the International Day of Forests, click here.