Q&A: Indigenous peoples in the driver's seat for a sustainable future

A pilot project in Boca Pariamanu, Peru. Photo by: Rights and Resources Initiative

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Over half the world’s land is lived on and managed using customary and traditional systems. Yet indigenous peoples and local communities have formal, legal ownership of just 10 percent of land globally. Insecure land rights can often lead to protracted conflicts with governments and companies, climate change — when land is not protected from deforestation — and human rights abuses.

To help make a practical difference, a new international mechanism, the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, was officially launched on October 3 during development talks at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency headquarters in Stockholm. Its aim is to help ensure communities can protect their land and natural resources, while also improving sustainable land management.

“Indigenous peoples themselves have to be actively involved in monitoring development,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the Rights of indigenous peoples, at the launch of the facility.

In practice, it is hoped that the facility will help communities overcome some of the bureaucratic, political, and economic obstacles that prevent them from being able to secure their land and forest rights. By providing grants to implement tenure reform within existing government and international structures, the facility aims to share important legal and bureaucratic knowledge, as well as key innovations and tools.

Projections state that if the facility invests at least $10 million a year for its first 10 years, protected, community and indigenous tropical forestland could increase by more than 40 million hectares — around the same size as Sweden, or the U.S. state of California. This could help prevent deforestation and therefore more than 0.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.

Speaking in advance of the upcoming COP23 in Bonn, Germany, next month, Paula Caballero, global director, Climate Program of the World Resources Institute, reminded the audience at the launch that indigenous peoples and local communities are critical to solving the climate crisis.

“Insecure tenure threatens the communities, the forests they protect, and therefore our possibilities of delivering on the Paris targets,” she said, citing WRI research demonstrating that forests that are managed by local communities have lower deforestation.

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Rights and Resources Initiative, the creators of the facility, came together with Sida, the Ford Foundation, additional partners and indigenous leaders from around the world ahead of the Third International Conference on Community Land and Resource Rights and discussed the outcomes of the six pilot projects that began two years ago, as well as the lessons learned and adjustments made as the pilots become fully fledged projects.

The Ford Foundation has currently pledged $5 million. Speaking about the initiative, the foundation’s President Darren Walker said that because of the risks, collaboration is the best way to achieve impact — but it’s important to work with partners who share the same values.

“Until we put people at the center of our strategy, we will continue to fall short of our aspirations,” he said at the launch.

“For too long, development has had a rhetoric of empowerment — but when you actually look at the design and implementation, often those most affected are in the backseat, not in the driver’s seat.”

— Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation

This human-centered mindset is in-keeping with Walker’s leadership at the Ford Foundation, following a different approach to much of the new wealth that is flowing into philanthropy. The foundation is focusing on human rights, social justice, and empowerment — including land tenure — as opposed to a cost-effectiveness philosophy that then goes into things such as anti-malaria bed nets, vaccines, and cash transfers.

On the sidelines of the event, Devex spoke with Walker about this approach and how the aims of the Tenure Facility fits in with the foundation’s broader focus. Here are some highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity. 

What’s your view on the tension between funding that unlocks peoples’ rights and justice, versus funding for things such as vaccines and cash transfers?

I believe that we can have both development and justice aligned to make the world a better place. In my view these are not oppositional ideas, nor is it a zero-sum game. I believe we need efficiency strategies, as well as justice strategies in philanthropy. From our standpoint, justice is essential to achieving long-term peace and harmony in the world. Justice being where people have rights — particularly those who have been historically marginalized — and are given the power that they deserve to ensure that together, we plan for a more sustainable and successful future.

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. Photo by: Hervé Cortinat / OECD / CC BY-NC

Could you explain how the Tenure Facility is helping address some of the issues facing indigenous peoples, in terms of secure land rights?

The Tenure Facility makes it possible to finance the acquisition of land and to ensure that local people have stewardship of their lands for long periods of time ­— generations, we hope. And in doing so, we will help with their economics, bring more gender equality, more attention to human rights, and at the same time mitigate climate change. The two objectives of reducing inequality and helping the planet are achieved through this facility.

And how does protecting land rights fit into the foundation's larger focus on equity and equality?

If you care about justice, you see two existential threats in the world today. You have to worry about climate change, and you have to worry about inequality — growing inequality, which we believe is a scourge. By putting forests and land at the center of this question of inequality and climate change, we find a solution that allows us to protect the forest and improve the lives and livelihoods of people who live on these lands.

Why is it important to ensure high-level engagement with these issues?

It's important to engage high-level actors because we need development actors to understand the importance of strategies like the Tenure Facility in reducing inequality in the world. We are putting people closest to the problems in charge of finding the solutions. At the Ford Foundation, we believe that we cannot solve the world's problems without having the people who are most affected, most impacted, and most marginalized at the table with us.

What can be done to bring actors across all sectors together to partner more effectively?

We do this by formalizing and codifying our rhetoric. In this case, the governance structure of this independent tenure facility will include indigenous peoples. In fact the chairwoman of this 10-year facility is herself an indigenous woman. Therefore, we believe that we have to make our actions align with our rhetoric. For too long, development has had a rhetoric of empowerment — but when you actually look at the design and implementation, often those most affected are in the backseat, not in the driver seat.

How can the international community come together to tackle the inequality and the marginalization of women, indigenous peoples, and rural communities? Devex and our partner, the Rights and Resources Initiative, are exploring the initiatives supporting land and resource rights and the role of stakeholders across sectors to partner for impact.

About the author

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    Helen Morgan

    Helen Morgan is an editorial associate at Devex. She has a background in human rights, radio and journalism, and has written for a variety of international publications while living and working in Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai. She is now based in Barcelona and supports editorial content on campaigns and media partnerships at Devex. She is currently studying a master's degree in contemporary migration.