Looking Back on COP 26 and the Emerging Role of Indigenous People and Carbon Markets

Steve Zwick

Indigenous People made their presence known at last month’s year-end climate talks (COP 26) in Glasgow. Some joined protesters in the streets, but more were in the halls – with concrete grievances and clear proposals that have been surprisingly consistent for over a decade.

17 December 2021 | Brazilian indigenous leader Francisca Arara bristles when Westerners tell her that forest people should oppose carbon markets.

“We know what we offer the world, and we know what kind of resources we require to deliver it,” she said at year-end climate talks (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.

The talks made history both for the massive indigenous presence, which included 28 indigenous representatives engaged directly in the talks and hundreds of others representing their people informally. It closed with the adoption of the Glasgow Pact, which formally recognized “the important role of civil society, including youth and indigenous peoples, in addressing and responding to climate change, and highlighting the urgent need for action”.

For Arara, carbon markets are a way of empowering Indigenous People by paying them for protecting the world’s forests.

“Indigenous People don’t want to be under anyone’s umbrella, regardless of whether they’re in the government or the private sector,” she said. “Markets can deliver the resources we need and the autonomy to utilize them, but only if they’re done right.”

Several traditional and indigenous communities have already engaged carbon markets, but many more are either skeptical of their value or unsure how to engage.

California’s Yurok people, for example, used carbon markets to save their forests and expand their territories, and Indigenous People across Latin America have leveraged carbon markets to solidify their land rights. Non-indigenous forest people, like the Afro-Colombian people of the Tolo River, have used carbon finance to implement sustainable cattle farming, while traditional people across Africa have used carbon markets to both secure their tenure and implement sustainable land-management strategies.

Some NGOs oppose indigenous involvement in carbon markets because, they say, the market economy taints indigenous culture, but prominent indigenous leaders have taken a more pragmatic approach.

“When we hear about carbon markets, it’s not always clear what proponents expect from Indigenous People,” said Chadian indigenous leader Hindou Ibrahim in Glasgow. “If you think you can just show up with money and tell us what to do, that won’t work, but if you start by asking us how we can engage as partners, then we can talk.”

Unfortunately for most Indigenous People, carbon markets that finance the protection of endangered forests (REDD+) are often out of reach – due, ironically, to rules created to ensure environmental integrity. Specifically, at the project level, REDD+ payments can only flow to forests that pass “additionality” tests showing the forests are at high risk of being lost without the payments.

This works against Indigenous People, because they tend to protect forests even at great cost to themselves and with no compensation from the rest of us. Indeed, Carbon Market Watch recently accused an indigenous project in Colombia of overstating its baseline, or the probability of loss, because “indigenous management of the land is generally associated with lower deforestation threats” than was the neighboring land.

The tragic irony isn’t lost on Arara.

“Those who pollute the most and destroy the forest end up making the most money,” she said. “Meanwhile, those of us who preserve the forest barely see a penny for the work we do.”

She represents the Arara nation in the Governors’ Climate and Forests Taskforce (GCF Taskforce), a global alliance of states, provinces, and indigenous territories working to slow climate change by saving forests. She also heads the indigenous caucus within the GCF Taskforce, and she came to Glasgow to support the launch of another alliance: the Peoples Forests Partnership (PFP), which unites indigenous organizations, NGOs, and green businesses.

The PFP promotes direct carbon payments to indigenous communities but is agnostic on the source of those payments. They can come from markets, governments, or other sources, but they have to come in support of time-tested indigenous land management practices, and they must flow directly to indigenous organizations, with the goal of delivering $20 billion annually by 2030.

Antoinette Royo, Executive Director of the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, sees the  Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use as an opportunity for indigenous organizations to stand up for themselves by demanding control over $1.7 billion that the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands have committed to supporting indigenous forest management.

“Indigenous Peoples and local communities need to receive this directly,” she said. “But the reality is that just 1 percent of climate finance goes to Indigenous Peoples.”

Long Time Coming

Although the PFP launched in Glasgow, it’s built on concepts that indigenous leaders of the Amazon have been advocating for more than a decade, beginning with the Peruvian indigenous organization AIDESEP (Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest).

AIDESEP is an umbrella organization of 109 indigenous federations representing 1,800 indigenous communities, and in 2010 they initiated a program called REDD+ Indigena Amazonico (Amazon Indigenous REDD+, or “RIA”).

RIA aimed to promote  REDD+ based on indigenous Life Plans (Planos de Vida), or indigenous land-management strategies.

Life Plans originated in Colombia in 1992, and they typically identify and map important hunting and harvesting areas, sacred historical and ceremonial sites, and of course, forested areas categorized by the quality of cover and species.

RIA gained support across the Amazon when Shuar leader Juan-Carlos Jintiach championed it as head of COICA (Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin), which coordinates the activities of nine national indigenous organizations, including AIDESEP.

“It was obvious from the start that additionality was going to work against Indigenous People,” said Jintiach. “I understand why additionality exists, but ironically it only works for us if we give up our dedication to the forest, which is not what we want to do.”

By the 2014 climate talks in Lima, other indigenous leaders had begun pressing the point. Fermín Chimantani, then serving as co-president of Peru’s Amaracaeri Reserve, presented his people’s Life Plan there and passionately argued that carbon finance should flow to his people based on these activities, rather than on standards imposed from outside.

“I’ve been working on our Life Plan since the 1990s,” he said. “We’ve created governance structures; we’ve valued our ecosystem services such as water filtration, biodiversity conservation, and evapotranspiration, and we’ve shown that we can use our indigenous vision to save and manage our forest.”

Point-by-point, he argued that by following their Life Plan, his people were already achieving what top-tier REDD projects aspired to: they had empowered women, they had restored degraded habitat for endangered species, and they had created livelihoods built on sustainable agricultural activities that led to a healthier forest community — and, therefore, a healthier forest. What they lacked was the seed funding to fully implement their plans.

Seven years on, most Indigenous People of the Amazon are still facing the same challenge.

“You could argue that Indigenous People are self-sufficient if we have a territory, and that’s true in terms of food and water,” said Harol Rincon Ipuchima, General Secretary of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC). “But it’s not true if we’re to continue combatting illegal logging, illegal mining, and illegal encroachment, or to participate in the cash economy with sustainable agriculture, including fish farming and non-timber forest products.”

He, like Jintiach and Chimantani before him, argues that Life Plans should form the basis of carbon payments because they represent forest management programs that are preventing forest loss.

It’s a concept that seemed to be gaining momentum after the 2015 Paris Climate Talks, in part because jurisdictional approaches to REDD+ made it possible for state and federal governments to spread carbon finance based on activities they felt would do the most good for forests within their jurisdictions – instead of codified additionality tests.

Over the past year, two developments took the wind out of this approach. First, Peru agreed to base its national forest reference level on historical deforestation rates instead of trends within its jurisdiction. The Peruvian government argued the shift was necessary to attract international finance, but it put a definitive cap on REDD+ finance flowing into the country. At the same time, emerging risk allocation mechanisms, drawing on new research, started prioritizing areas near recent past deforestation – another blow to indigenous territories.

Three Peruvian indigenous organizations – AIDESEP, the Confederation of Amazonian Nationalities of Peru (CONAP), and the National Association of Administration Contract Executors (ANECAP) – cried foul, and the Peruvian government says its exploring new tools for financing the maintenance of standing forests

Proponents of the PFP say they may already have one.

New Financing Mechanisms

Mike Korchinsky founded wildlife conservation company Wildlife Works more than 25 years ago, and he says corporates may now be willing to support forest maintenance in ways they weren’t back then.

Wildlife Works is one of several organizations facilitating the PFP – together with Ecosystem Marketplace publisher Forest Trends, the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), Everland, and Greencollar.

In Glasgow, Korchinsky said new technologies and practices make it possible to model the impact that Life Plans have on both carbon stocks and biodiversity. He plans to submit a draft methodology to standard-setting body Verra for public consultation soon, but said the idea isn’t to generate offsets.

“The idea is to quantify the impact of their activities on the forest in a verifiable way and then to see if companies will pay for it,” he said.

“This wouldn’t be an offset because we want to move beyond the model of preventing loss and towards the model of supporting maintenance,” he added. “It’s the kind of thing no one would have paid for 20 years ago, but times have changed, and we won’t know if they’ll pay until we try.”

Direct International Funding

While project-based funding can and does flow directly to indigenous organizations, intergovernmental funding has always been elusive, as Jintiach pointed out in 2015.

“We’ll find ourselves talking to governments directly and asking them why they always have these bilateral government-to-government discussions, and then we’ll see $100 million change hands, and we’ll say, ‘What’s that for?’, and they’ll say, ‘That’s for indigenous people,’” he told Ecosystem Marketplace then.

The problem persists, and many indigenous leaders attribute it to a paternalistic attitude from governments, NGOs, and even reporters.

“A journalist once asked me if we had the capacity to actually govern ourselves,” said Wrays Perez, Social Technical Coordinator of the Autonomous Territorial Government of Wampís Nation (GTANW).

“I answered: ‘Why shouldn’t we have this capacity? We’ve been doing it for thousands of years.’”

A New Indigenous Fund

Gustavo Sanchez, President of the Red Mexicana de Organizaciones Forestales Campesinas (Red MOCAF), pointed out that the Measoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests has managed millions over the years and launched a new fund at COP26.

“This fund is based on the experience of the communities, and it comes with plenty of flexibility to react to their realities and not the priorities of the donors,” he said.

His organization works with thousands of communities across Mexico, and he stressed that not all of them have the same objectives.

“One community may want to engage in a more business-friendly model – by sustainably harvesting timber,  for example – while another may take a more purely conservational approach,” he said. “It’s crucial that funds come in with the flexibility to finance activities that support the goal of sustainable forest management and not the idealized goals of someone thousands of miles away.”

He added, however, that indigenous people must also continue making inroads in Western institutions such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which inaugurated its Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) at the 2018 talks in Katowice.

In Glasgow, Parties adopted the LCIPP’s second three-year work plan, and Arara emphasized the need for Indigenous People to seize the moment – for their benefit and the benefit of the world.

“We need to learn how to engage bureaucracy and not just dismiss it,” she said before addressing the audience. “But we also need to remind people that we’re not here to be colorful props for the selfies you send home. We’re here because we’re doing the most to save the world and the forest, and you need us.”

Steve Zwick is a freelance writer and produces the Bionic Planet podcast. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace, and prior to that he covered European business for Time Magazine and Fortune Magazine and produced the award-winning program Money Talks on Deutsche Welle Radio in Bonn, Germany.

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Photo Credit: UN Climate Change – Iiara Worth

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