Why land rights are key to helping tribal peoples – and our forests

While growing up on Camiguin, an island in the southern Philippines known for its seven volcanoes and the lanzone fruit that only grows in that region, Nonette Royo went into the forest with her father. “Often times he would look me straight in the eye and say, ‘Liquors, woods, Lanzones — they feed us, you feed them back. You work with the people who know how,'” she said at the recent TED conference in 2022.

For thousands of years, indigenous people have been doing just that: tending the land that feeds them. Indigenous peoples are the world greatest conservationists, and modern scientific reviews are to prove that indigenous peoples treat their environment and their land better than others.

Nonette Royo [Photo: Stacie McChesney/TED]

As executive director of the Tenure Facility, Royo helps tribal peoples and local communities secure their land and forest rights by funding better mapping and legal advice to tribal communities fighting for their lands in court. With support from TED’s Audacious Project, a funding initiative that brings together change-makers and philanthropists, Royo announced last week that they are expanding their work to include up to 50 million hectares of land and forests across the Amazon, Congo Basin and in tropical Asia will protect 5 years. Not only will this benefit the 15 million people who live and protect these regions, but it will also prevent 140 million tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere over a decade.

Royo joined the Tenure Facility in 2017 having recently completed pilot projects that secured such tenure for nearly 1.8 million hectares of land and forest in Cameroon, Indonesia, Liberia, Mali, Panama and Peru. Since then, the Tenure Facility has helped tribal peoples advance their collective legal recognition of land and forest rights for up to 14 million hectares, benefitting 700 million people in 12 countries.

Tribal peoples already care for and protect more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity, but in many cases their land rights are not legally recognised. Or, says Royo Fast companythe government will say it recognizes their rights, but it fails to put resources behind that recognition — making it difficult to ward off threats like illegal logging.

Even without government support, indigenous people continue to protect their lands and monitor deforestation. But the government’s failure to support them is deadly: In 2020227 people were killed trying to protect forests, rivers and other ecosystems. “With their deaths and the deaths of the forests, something within us is also lost,” Royo said on the TED Stage. “The ability to survive the climate crisis.”

[Photo: Stacie McChesney/TED]

Without legal recognition of land rights, there are conflicts. It started with colonial encroachment, and now, says Royo, “the same country is home to the resources that the government wants to access and control because it’s important to the nation, to development, to progress, to GDP and all of that . So there is always this challenge of coexistence.”

The Tenure Facility’s work helps resolve conflicts that have long existed between Indigenous communities and private parties such as governments. It is also part of a broader trend towards coexistence, thanks to growing climate awareness. Experts recognize that indigenous stewardship is critical to addressing climate change and global conservation goals. At the recent United Nations climate summit, Cop 26, indigenous peoples held talks — a first for that summit — and the summit at least promised $1.7 billion to the indigenous people in recognition of their role in protecting our land and especially the forests.

This changing understanding of the need for indigenous responsibility, as well as the pressure on nations to meet their climate goals, may set the Tenure Facility up for even more success. “There’s a trend of knowing that you’re being watched, that there’s going to be monitors… and then there’s a very strong emphasis on the importance of the forest,” Royo says. “These strengths help establish the need for the Wardens of the Standing Woods.” Why land rights are key to helping tribal peoples – and our forests


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