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What future for the world’s tropical forests and forest peoples?

By James Whitehead, Forest People's Programme, 7th October 2019

If the people whose ancestral lands comprise the tropical forests of our planet emerge stronger from 2020 onwards, so will the world’s tropical forests. The vast majority of global biodiversity is found on indigenous territories, and these lands hold nearly 55 million metric tons of carbon.

Visiting communities at the forest frontier, community members have told me about how they want to protect their territories and manage them on their own terms for future generations. But in those communities, I’ve also been painfully aware of a long shadow. That shadow has come in the form of company men or government officials bearing clever contracts and false promises. It has come in the form of trucks, bulldozers and fire. It has come in the form of intimidation, violence and assassination. This shadow experienced by communities at the frontier is a manifestation of power: local, national and global webs of power.

It stands to reason then that no serious effort to conserve biodiversity and halt deforestation can do so without challenging unjust power and upholding rights. Any theory of change that doesn’t do so is a theory of complacency… possibly a theory of complicity.

With key moments approaching in 2020, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, World Conservation Congress, further pressure on climate change and reaching the year when company ‘No Deforestation Peat and Exploitation’ promises fall due, here are a few areas where concerted effort is needed to challenge power and change the system.

  • Laying down the law: In consumer countries, massive efforts are required in 2020 to put in place laws on deforestation and uphold rights in supply chains. In producer countries there needs to be greater pressure for better laws and stronger enforcement of them. While we work on better laws, we also need to use current laws to challenge the irresponsible and illegal actions of companies and governments. That is why we are establishing the Strategic Legal Response Centre, creatively using the law to challenge powerful corporate and state interests.
  • Pariah diplomacy: Governments like Brazil’s need to feel the heat from the fires in the Amazon and elsewhere. Those countries that roll back the rights of forest peoples and allow deforestation to increase should be hit where it hurts – using sustained diplomatic pressure and other sanctions.
  • Zero Tolerance: 2020 needs to be the year when the major businesses and investors in deforestation risk supply chains say ‘enough is enough’ when it comes to killings and intimidation of both indigenous peoples and other environmental defenders at the forest frontier. We’re working with others, particularly indigenous peoples and the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, to develop that pledge to launch in 2020.
  • Focus on Finance: Investors and major companies are still remarkably detached from what is happening on the ground and loath to take muscular action. Paper compliance and tick-box due-diligence paints a picture that is often a million miles away from the reality our partners face on the ground. We are now doing work on groundtruthing, to ensure that companies and investors find it harder to turn a blind eye to what is happening on the ground at the far end of the supply chains that generate their revenues and returns.
  • Transforming conservation: 2020 needs to be the year when we collectively abandon the broken colonial conservation model and the human rights abuse that so frequently accompanies it. In key global discussions next year we are working with indigenous leaders and others towards a shift where communities are supported in achieving their visions for their territory – where their self-determination is rewarded, respected and reinforced.
  • Citizen voice: One antidote to power asymmetries is the power of people. When I was in London with my youngest son we went to see members of the Extinction Rebellion camped in Parliament Square. As we walked around the square I was able to show him the bronze statues of Emily Pankhurst, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King and draw parallels. We have to find ways to help changemakers change our societies.
  • Fresh visions: There is a power in the dominant narrative – the one which situates homo sapiens outside of nature, the one that is steeped in consumerism and the relentless desire for ‘more’. We need to create space to hear from Indigenous Peoples as we seek to develop new narratives that draw on ancient ones.

At countless meetings I’ve attended, experts have talked about grand plans for ‘the land’ and ‘the forests’ – as if they were full of carbon and wildlife but empty of people. It surprises me how easy it is to forget whose forests we are talking about. As funders it is important to always ask whose land it is, or ought to be, and whether our programmes are working to strengthen those communities, uphold their rights and realise their long-term visions for their land.

As we head towards the big moments of 2020 where key decisions are being taken on the future of forests, climate and nature, funders also need to ask whether our theories of change and those of the organisations we support are fit for purpose. Whether they sufficiently reflect the messy political economies and the complex global systems in which we are working. We then need to look at our portfolios to see whether they are effectively challenging unjust power and upholding rights. Philanthropists are well-placed to be both bold and agile and can be at the forefront of this people- and power-centred approach to protecting forests, addressing climate change and protecting nature.

James Whitehead is Director of the Forest People’s Programme.

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