Last year’s Conference of the Parties (COP27) brought together voices that advocate for just and sustainable solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change. In an attempt to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of global net zero emissions by 2050, President Biden developed “New Initiatives at COP27 to Strengthen U.S. Leadership in Tackling Climate Change.” Although this plan largely focuses on green infrastructure and climate security, it only briefly mentions those who are an integral part of environmental conservation: Indigenous peoples. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Indigenous peoples “account for only around 5 percent of the world’s population, [and] they effectively manage an estimated 20-25 percent of the Earth’s land surface.” Many countries’ climate pledges include land-based climate solutions, but studies have shown that there is not enough land to enact them. In reality, much of this land which is intended to be “preserved” is actually inhabited by Indigenous communities. A recent study by Land Gap Report found that climate pledges are going to increase reliance on land use, yet “recognition of rights to land, resources and/or territory has been partial, limited and fraught, while subject to opposition, violence and elite capture.” In fact, the Land Gap Report found that in order for countries to meet their climate pledges, they would need about “1.2 billion hectares of land.” Instead of using land-based solutions in their climate pledges, it is more impactful and sustainable to secure indigenous land rights. Indigenous land has been proven to hold carbon sinks that already sequester carbon––according to the World Resources Institute, “more than 99% of Indigenous land area in Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana and Venezuela was a carbon sink.”
Environmentalists advocate for land-based solutions because of the process of carbon sequestration in soil. According to Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research at UC Davis, “Carbon is sequestered in soil by plants through photosynthesis and can be stored as soil organic carbon (SOC).” A report by the United Nations outlines the necessity of taking care of land and using it for carbon offset strategies, but as “the pressure to convert natural forests or grasslands as demand for feed, water and urban growth increases, land-based emissions may also increase.” While planting trees and conserving forests, wetlands, and grasslands seems to be a logical and sustainable solution, climate pledges fail to recognize the amount of land it would actually take to offset carbon emissions. These climate pledges also ignore the people who live on those lands. In 2006, the Tanzanian government “voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” but have continued to violently displace the Maasai people, an indigenous group in Tanzania. In 2017, 350 people were left homeless after law enforcement burned down hundreds of Maasai houses. This act of violent “land-grabbing” proves that just because a government commits to social or environmental acts of justice, it does not mean they will follow through with those actions. At COP27, youth representative Mr. Norene Ahmad Yaya said: “Carbon markets and offsets, geo-engineering, ‘Net Zero’ frameworks, ‘Nature-based solutions’, ‘ecosystem services’ do not cut emissions and are new forms of colonization.”
The United States has been able to thrive off of stolen indigenous land, while “those who have been most successful at stewarding and protecting our world’s biodiversity and the important functions that they play for our survival are Indigenous peoples,” said Janine Yazzie, the Southwest Regional Director for Indian Collective and member of the Danae Nation, at COP27. In the United States’ nature-based solutions strategy, the Biden administration seeks to “challenge” Department of Energy (DOE) sites, which account for 2.4 million acres of land, to fulfill a more sustainable role. In doing so, they created a “performance rating system” called Sustainable Climate-Ready Sites, or SCRS, which provides “performance criteria” for each of the sites. If a site achieves each of the performance criteria, they will win a “leadership award.” One of the criteria is “emphasizing collaboration and engagement with communities and Tribal nations,” and although it sounds like a simple and sustainable way to use land-based climate action, Indigenous people are thrown into the conversation and expected to collaborate. Not to mention, Native American Tribes are only briefly mentioned one time in this “roadmap.”
Similarly, Biden’s “New Initiatives at COP27 to Strengthen U.S. Leadership in Tackling Climate Change” is launching an “Indigenous Peoples Finance Access Facility” which is a “three-year, $2 million-dollar program” that “will provide trainings, tools, and workshops to build long-term capacity and enhance access to climate finance.” However, Yazzie argues that:
“It is not enough to have this conversation based on metrics, dictated by concerns around GDP or the impact to corporations and profits, or the ways that this impacts our forms of development. We have to center rights and community well-being if we are really going to envelop the holistic solutions and approaches that are necessary to truly enable effective action for a just transition and a path forward for people and planet.”
In March 2022, the Forest Declaration Assessment conducted a study examining “the role of Indigenous peoples and local communities’ (IPLC) lands as carbon sinks and how they may impact national climate commitments in four countries – Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.” The study suggested that securing Indigenous land and rights is more important than other climate mitigation strategies. Without this recognition, climate pledges not only do the opposite of what they intend, but they undermine the voices of Indigenous communities and contribute to their destruction.
On November 30 and December 1, 2022, President Biden held the second annual Tribal Nations Summit to address Indigenous peoples land and rights. Although it was a necessary step to include Indigenous leaders in the political realm, many people believe he fell short by failing to declare Avi Kwa Ame, also known as Spirit Mountain in Nevada, a national monument. According to a press release from the National Parks Conservation Association, Avi Kwa Ame “is sacred to twelve tribes, including the 10 Yuman-speaking tribes who pay reverence to Spirit Mountain as the center of their creation.” In a press release, Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association released a statement saying, “Amid the climate crisis, the long-term health of Joshua trees and other plants and wildlife in this region is inextricably linked to conservation. Designating Avi Kwa Ame National Monument [would further] our country’s desert conservation legacy…” By declaring this sacred land a National Monument and honoring the agreed monument boundaries, it can be protected and stewarded by the Indigenous peoples who have been looking after it for years. This is yet another example of why ensuring Indigenous land rights is the solution to mitigating climate change and preserving the planet.
It is essential to raise the voices of Indigenous communities; only with unity can the climate crisis be solved. With the effects of climate change rapidly impacting the world already, Indigenous communities continue to be forced off their ancestral land and are “among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change.” Leaders must put an end to these new forms of colonization disguised as climate solutions and protect the planet by protecting the rights of those who have been, and continue to be, its stewards.
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