Rights, Climate, and Conservation

Faced with growing environmental threats, the international community has begun to invest in solutions. This includes expanding the global network of protected areas in order to meet biodiversity, climate, and sustainable development goals. The only viable path to meet these goals—including efforts to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030—is to recognize the rights of the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who have long acted as guardians of these lands.

Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) research strengthens the growing body of evidence—captured in reports by the IPCC, IPBES, and others—that recognizing community land rights leads to lower deforestation rates, higher carbon storage, and higher biodiversity. This includes tracking the amount of carbon stored in Indigenous and community lands. Communities manage nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon, including 22 percent of tropical and sub-tropical forest carbon. Ensuring that their rights to these lands are recognized and protected is vital to keeping the forests standing and the carbon from being released into the atmosphere, which would hasten the climate crisis. Recognizing rights is also critical for meeting targets to restore damaged lands.

Given their key role in conservation, restoration, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and biodiversity protection, Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendant Peoples, and local communities—and in particular women within these groups—would appear to be natural allies for governments, conservation organizations, and other actors seeking to stem the loss of forests and biodiversity. However, joint research between RRI and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples found that “fortress conservation” is still common. This model, which upholds sequestering lands and forests and emptying them of people, not only drives human rights violations against local peoples, but is also ineffective as it ignores the traditional knowledge and lived experiences of communities.

RRI therefore engages with international climate instruments to ensure that rights are not just included as a safeguarding measure to prevent human rights violations, but also embraced as a key means of achieving global goals to protect our climate. RRI research on the critical connection between secure community land rights and improved climate outcomes is featured in the most recent IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land. To ensure the findings featured in discussions about the report and subsequent climate discourse, RRI worked with Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and community organizations from 42 countries spanning three-quarters of the world’s tropical forests to produce an Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and community response to the report. The response ensured that community land rights was a central element of discussions around the report, and opens a window for future advocacy to ensure that land rights are part of the sustainable development, climate, and conservation goals.