Indigenous people keep carbon locked in forests

Forest scenery in Indonesia
Copyright: Flickr/Dede Rohadi /CIFOR

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  • Indigenous people oversee land holding about a fifth of carbon stocks
  • But many lack official rights to land and access to legal system
  • Change is needed to prevent emissions from activities such as logging

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[PARIS] Indigenous people prevent carbon emissions through their stewardship of forests and pristine environments, a side event at the COP 21 summit heard.

A study presented at COP 21’s Global landscapes forum showed that indigenous people oversee around a fifth of the world’s carbon stock, in the form of tropical forests. Altogether, 168 billion tonnes of carbon are stored on indigenous lands — around three times the world’s annual emissions — and this is in danger of being released if the societies looking after these lands are not strengthened, the study found.

“The world has never had such strong evidence of the role of indigenous peoples in conserving the forests that represent the one existing solution to climate change.”

Abdon Nababan, Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago

“We know that the respect and recognition of indigenous people’s rights, land tenure and traditional knowledge have contributed to more sustainable use and management of various ecosystems and landscapes,” said Grace Balawag, the deputy coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership on Climate Change, Forests and Sustainable Development.

The study was presented at the 5 December event in Paris, France, by an alliance of indigenous peoples’ groups from Africa, Asia and Latin America. It was discussed alongside several research papers and initiatives highlighting the role that indigenous people play in preventing the destruction of forests and the release of large carbon stocks.

Forest cover is essential for absorbing and retaining the powerful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the 3,000 forum delegates were told. Protecting and enlarging forested areas would remove more CO2 from the air, an essential part of attempts to stem global warming.

“The world has never had such strong evidence of the role of indigenous peoples in conserving the forests that represent the one existing solution to climate change,” said Abdon Nababan, secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, an Indonesian NGO.

But the event also heard that indigenous communities face problems in getting their role in climate stewardship recognised, as many are poor and lack official rights to their land and access to the legal system.

“We can’t achieve the outcomes we are here for without addressing indigenous people’s rights or their custodianship of our resources,” said Justin Adams, director for lands at US charity the Nature Conservancy.

The risk of not acknowledging such rights was made clear by the huge fires that engulfed Indonesia earlier this year, according to Nababan, an indigenous Indonesian himself. He said the fires would have been less serious if indigenous people had had more rights to manage the area.

To continue to act as custodians, we need the world to recognise our rights as part of any climate change deal, Nababan said. “And our national governments must make this happen if they are serious about reducing emissions.”


Tropical forest carbon in indigenous territories: a global analysis (Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, December 2015)