Opinion: Time for action that protects biodiversity, the climate and indigenous rights

Ellen Dobbs

From the beekeepers of Cameroon to the seed gatherers of Brazil, indigenous rainforest communities are invaluable to conservation. Their success highlights a crucial truth – that projects bringing a wide range of benefits are a powerful tool for protecting our planet.

The Xingu Seed Collection Network generates essential income for family farmers and indigenous communities. Photo credit: Ayrton Vignola.

This story first appeared on the Conservation Optimism blog. Photo: The Xingu Seed Collection Network is a strong community that communicates regularly through WhatsApp, sharing knowledge and advice. Photo credit: Tui Anandi (ISA).

18 February 2021 | From the beekeepers of Cameroon to the seed gatherers of Brazil, indigenous rainforest communities are invaluable to conservation. Their success highlights a crucial truth – that projects bringing a wide range of benefits are a powerful tool for protecting our planet.

Indigenous peoples are the stewards of our precious rainforests and will be key players in fighting against the climate crisis. Their skills and knowledge ultimately benefit us all: land managed by indigenous peoples has been found to harbour more biodiversity than protected areas such as parks and wildlife reserves. But communities are threatened daily by activities such as mining and logging, often denied land rights and access to essential services such as healthcare.

When the world stands with indigenous people, astonishing change is possible. In the Peruvian Amazon, legal recognition of indigenous and community forest rights has cut deforestation by up to 81%. The lesson is clear – champions of biodiversity, and those seeking to tackle climate change, must work closely with these communities. This means supporting their battle for rights and social justice and helping them to boost resilience and food security through sustainable economic opportunities.

Inspiring lessons from Brazil and Cameroon

In the Amazon, seed collection is key to reforesting degraded land. Rede de Sementes do Xingu co-ordinates more than 500 seed collectors, administrators and buyers in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. This network offers local people a vital income and has contributed to the reforestation of more than 6,600 hectares of degraded land in the Xingu and Araguaia Basin.

The network has been a lifeline during the coronavirus pandemic, providing health advice as well as distributing essential healthcare supplies such as hand gel and facemasks. Sadly, some seed collectors and community leaders have been killed by the virus – a new threat to people already facing enormous challenges. But even in such a difficult year, network members have managed to collect 19 tonnes of seeds from 112 different native species, generating an income exceeding 80,000 US$.

Meanwhile, slash and burn agriculture also threatens large parts of Cameroon’s rainforests. Local NGO Cameroon Gender and Environment Watch helps people in the Kilum-Ijim region become beekeepers instead – a more sustainable way of earning a living. They also encourage participants to be vigilant against forest fires that could threaten their hives. The NGO provides training, organisation and equipment to support farmers in this transition, and helps them sell their products (honey, soap and candles) at a fair price. So far, it has planted 80,000 native bee-friendly trees and trained 1,070 people. One-third of trainees are women, who have not traditionally taken up roles in beekeeping.

Organisations focused on biodiversity, climate change or indigenous rights should back initiatives such as these, recognising that such inclusive projects can bring success in all three areas. Conversely, work that does not may be fundamentally flawed.

We need system change – not crumbs of comfort

Natural climate solutions are an increasingly popular area for businesses to support with corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity, including the purchase of carbon credits or participation in the voluntary carbon market (which also draws in governments and NGOs). But even well-meaning businesses may not be delivering their intended aims, if the work supported does not take a holistic view of interlinked challenges.

Initiatives may tout an impressive carbon-saving figure, for example, but what is the long-term effect on indigenous livelihoods and local biodiversity? Many schemes don’t involve benefit-sharing with local communities. We can’t ignore the fact that corporate activity is often a driver of the very fundamental threats faced by indigenous communities every day. Those of us in the climate and conservation sectors should pressure corporate partners to deliver systemic change, not isolated benefits.

Holistic thinking is at the heart of the 2021 Ashden Award for Natural Climate Solutions. This award is seeking outstanding initiatives strengthening the resilience of indigenous and rainforest communities – recognising their crucial role in taking on the climate crisis.

The winner will receive a £20,000 grant, while all finalists are given marketing and business support, and access to Ashden’s network of funders, investors and expert partners. Ashden will also fund a powerful promotional film about the winner’s work. Entry is free and applications close on 3 March 2021!

Ellen Dobbs is a programme manager at the climate solutions charity Ashden, focusing on energy access and climate justice.

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Join Ecosystem Marketplace’s Director, Stephen Donofrio, for a webinar hosted by Ashden and BloombergNEF, “Investment, indigenous rights and natural climate solutions” on Tuesday 20 April 2021 @ 1:00-2:00pm GMT

Register here.

By preserving and nurturing their rainforest lands, indigenous people create climate benefits for everyone. When these communities are threatened, we are all in danger. This webinar will examine how a market-based approach can encourage investment in natural climate solutions that deliver for people and planet.

Speakers will include:
• Stephen Donofrio, Director, Ecosystem Marketplace (Forest Trends)
• Eduardo Malta, Biologist specialising in reforestation, Rede de Sementes do Xingu
• Warangkana Rattanarat, Thailand Country Director, RECOFTC
• Amy Grace, Head of Special Projects, BloombergNEF
• Chhavi Sharma, International Programme Manager, Ashden