Protecting Forests and the People Who Protect Trees

Only a fraction of the nations committed to lowering carbon emissions have also promised to uphold land rights for indigenous forest peoples.

From left: Center for Global Development Senior Fellow Frances Seymour, Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelagos Deputy Secretary General Mina Setra, activist Diana Rios, and actor and activist Alec Baldwin speak onstage during the Ford Foundation–United Nations Development Programme Forests for Climate event at the Ford Foundation on April 21 in New York City. (Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

Apr 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Conserving forests and protecting forest activists need to become priorities in the global fight against climate change, says a coalition of activists, scientists, and nongovernmental groups.

“We cannot stop the rising fever that our planet is already running without giving more attention to preserving forests,” said Mina Setra, the deputy secretary general of Indonesia’s Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago. “Forests are indispensable to protecting climate, and the role of indigenous people in protecting those forests needs to be acknowledged and supported.”

Setra, along with indigenous leaders from Peru, Panama, the United States, and Guatemala, an array of policy and scientific experts, and actor Alec Baldwin, spoke to reporters on Thursday in New York on the eve of the signing of the Paris climate accord at the United Nations.

The gathering included Diana Rios, an Asheninka leader from Peru, whose father, Jorge Rios, was murdered by illegal loggers in 2014, along with three other environmental activists, just weeks before that year’s U.N. climate conference in Lima.

“What can we do in order to face this problem of deforestation?” she said. “This has cost the life of my father and other leaders…but this is my duty. This is my home.”

The Peruvian government gave the Asheninka title to about 198,000 acres of Amazon rainforest in the wake of the murders, but illegal logging has continued, and Rios’ life remains under threat.

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Baldwin called Rios’ determination in the face of personal tragedy “inspirational,” commenting that “regardless of the outcome of the election, I say: Diana Rios for secretary of the interior.”

“There can be no successful climate agreement and no future for our planet without protection of the world’s forests,” Baldwin continued. “If we’re serious about climate change, we have to be serious about these rights.”

The Paris accord is the first international agreement to include forest conservation financing for developing nations in the global response to climate change. World leaders from 175 countries signed the historic but nonbinding agreement, which aims to limit global warming by 2100 to “well below” 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), on Friday, coinciding with the 46th anniversary of Earth Day.

Forests provide most of the world’s land-based carbon storage, and forest loss is the second-leading cause of climate change, after burning fossil fuels.

“I think most people gathered in New York this week don’t appreciate how important forests are to achieving the goals of the Paris agreement,” said Frances Seymour, a forest and climate policy expert with the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. Clearing forests is “like throwing a hand grenade into the only proven method we have for removing carbon from the atmosphere,” she said.

According to a report from the coalition, called the Rights and Resources Initiative, 161 nations have submitted to the U.N. plans for lowering carbon emissions, but only 21 of them—accounting for just 13 percent of tropical and subtropical standing forestland—committed to upholding the land rights of indigenous forest peoples. Brazil, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which collectively contain much of the world’s remaining tropical forests, did not acknowledge indigenous land rights in their submissions.

A palm oil plantation has replaced the forest Serta grew up in as part of the Dayak Pompakng indigenous community of East Kalimantan, Indonesia. “Indigenous peoples without forests are not indigenous peoples anymore,” Setra said. “Our contribution to [curbing] climate change has stopped, without us wanting it to happen.”

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A new analysis from the Woods Hole Research Center suggests that halting tropical deforestation now would reduce global carbon emissions by about 5 billion tons. This could give the world about 10 to 15 additional years to make the transition from fossil fuels to non-carbon-based energy, with a 75 percent chance of holding global warming to 3.6 degrees.

“It’s another good argument for saving forests,” said Richard Houghton, a senior climate scientist at Woods Hole, who coauthored the study.

“Conserving forests is not as sexy as geo-engineering,” Houghton said. “It’s planting trees. But we know how to do it, and we know the consequences. I don’t think we know the consequences of most geo-engineering.”