What Will Save Our Forests?

Critical Insights from Indigenous Peoples in and around UNCOP17

In this article I wrote for Earth Island Journal earlier this year detailing the fatal flaws of the climate mitigation scheme known as REDD (for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), I quoted World Bank President Robert Zoellick as calling REDD, “the best chance, perhaps the last chance, to save the world’s forests.”

photo of two women conversingphoto courtesy Orin Langelle

Well, I hope I did a fair job of gracefully skewering the Bank president’s arrogant and unfounded assessment of what I perceive as the deranged, colonialist, land-grabbing nightmare scenario that REDD represents. Even if I did succeed in my humble aspiration, an important question remained unanswered: If top-down, financially-incentivized, multilateral-driven climate mitigation programs don’t work, then what does?

In a seminar held this week at the University of Kwazulu Natal – just one of many civil society events coinciding with the UN climate summit in Durban, South Africa – representatives of Indigenous Peoples, peasant movements, and women’s movements from many countries shared their perspectives on the most appropriate, equitable, and effective methods of forest conservation and climate change mitigation. They also spoke about the kinds of support they need for these initiatives – the do’s and don’ts of “helping” people protect their forests. Across the board, they agreed that what is needed is recognition of Indigenous territorial rights, autonomy, traditional knowledge and governance systems; land reform, food sovereignty and sustainable alternative livelihood options; and a definitive end to destructive activities like logging, mining, large tree plantations and land grabbing.

(They also had a good bit of ire left over for the “Green Economy,” the brand that global elites have given to their efforts to save the planet without diminishing the 1%-99% greed-versus-need ratio. But that’s another story.)

Out of the aforementioned seminar, the Indigenous Peoples’ Biocultural Climate Change Assessment Initiative (IPCCA) published this declaration, which begins with the perspective that “the harmonious relationship between humans and Mother Earth has been broken. The life of people and Pachamama has become a business.”

Their findings, it turns out, are validated by science, as confirmed by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which recently published this report showing that the people who best protect forests are – what do you know? – those who have lived in them for generations.

Fiu Mataese Elisara, from Samoa, is the Secretariat of Global Forest Coalition and was part of the IPCCA initiative, and has been speaking to me at length about these issues. (In the interest of full disclosure, Fui is my roommate here in Durban, because I’m working as Media Coordinator for the Coalition. But that doesn’t make my citations of his profound insights any less authentic).

With cocoa-colored skin and a shock of white hair that leads locals to confuse him for a younger version of Nelson Mandela, Elisara is extremely articulate on the question: “It’s a pity that Indigenous Peoples have to submit to these limited approaches to ‘development,’” he says, “when we know, from centuries of experience, that our own biocultural values may very well provide the solutions for the problems of today.”

Fiu traveled to South Africa this week from Samoa, a 48 hour journey. As a member of Climate Justice Now!, this Tuesday he was able to make an intervention into the official COP process (meaning, in Summit-speak, he had the opportunity to make a statement that will be considered in the official negotiating text to be delivered to heads of state here next week). The time allowed for his intervention: one minute.

Talking with me after his one minute of global political impact, Elisara lamented, “Our ways might be considered ‘primitive’ in the eyes of the world, but our methods are not only sacred, holistic, and appropriate to our cultures, they have served us for generations. And they continue to work.”

Being from Samoa, Elisara is especially concerned about climate change, because his is one of fifteen islands in the Pacific under imminent threat of indundation. Some say – and, in the interest of full disclosure, I agree – that this may constitute the single grossest case of cultural genocide the world has yet witnessed.

Nightly, Elisara laments the COP process: “We’re talking about sovereign nations, about whole peoples, wiped off the face of the Earth…And they are talking about business, about making money. We are like a species going extinct.”

Marlon Santi is a Quichua man from Sarayacu, Ecuador, and the former President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon. In the midst of sensitive political wrangling at home, where financing for forest protection is a contentious issue, Santi has taken a very firm stance against carbon markets, against green capitalism, and against REDD. As part of the IPCCA initiative, and again at a press conference inside the UN COP yesterday, Santi said: “For my people, the forest is sacred. It is life in all its essence. We can protect Pachamama only if this is respected. REDD and other market mechanisms have turned our relationship with forests into a business. As we are targeted, this is not only a new form of climate racism but also represents a false solution which undermines the climate regime.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, Santi pulled me out of a pit of quicksand after canoeing a river in the upper Amazon while visiting his family’s sacred territory in 2001. But this doesn’t diminish the sincerity of my respect for his economic analysis.)

Jadder Mendoza, Misquita from the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, said at the same press conference, “In Latin America and the Global South, we’ve been classified as poor, while the rest of the world is developed. But the countries that are developed are where the majority of emissions come from. Conversely, in our countries, we have poverty, hunger, and low indices of development – and we have the lowest emissions.”

Mendoza emphasized that the “developed” world and the “under-developed world” have patently different understandings of what development means. “The development agencies have all been capitalizing and building experiences around the knowledge of our communities. There’s been an important capitalization of our cultures, but done with a folkloric, anthropological approach. When we think about development, we need to think about what development means. For us, development is not understood in terms of consumption patterns. It is also about finding happiness in our lives.”

“In the same vein,” he said, poignantly referring to REDD, “protecting the environment is not about taking a picture of nature and putting it in a museum.”

Tom Goldtooth, a Diné and Dakota man and Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, is one of the strongest voices out there against REDD and in favor of community forest management. Yesterday afternoon, he spoke before a gathering of southern African peasant farmers under a tent near a highway overpass, miles from the UN COP, about his concerns with forestry schemes, like REDD, that are based on carbon market speculation.

“Before you trade anything, you have to determine, whose property is it? Before they can trade seeds, they have to determine who owns that seed. Some corporations own that seed. Well, who owns the carbon dioxide in the air? That’s what they are working out in the carbon markets and at these UN climate conventions. That’s why we call the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change the World Trade Organization of the Sky.”

(More disclosure: when I was stranded with colleagues on the side of the road in an unappetizing Durban neighborhood shortly after his talk, Goldtooth swooped up in a rental car and saved us from almost-certain robbery of our laptops and cameras. But that doesn’t make my respect for his tireless efforts on behalf of threatened Peoples any less sincere.)

You may have noticed by now that while I have again condemned market-driven climate mitigation schemes, I failed utterly to elaborate on what, in fact, the alternatives are. For this, I offer two defenses:

One: It’s all here, in the IPCCA declaration.

And two: With possibly-well-meaning global technocrats, pathological corporate vampires, and blood-sucking financial industries digging their claws into the planet’s dying flesh until whole peoples are driven extinct, and racing against armageddon to turn everything under the clear blue sky into a commodity, the best thing we can probably do for forests, and for the people who live in them, is to simply leave them alone.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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