Forest Peoples’ Landmark Appeal to Curb Global Deforestation

2014•03•21 Sophie Chao Forest Peoples Programme

Global outcry over the rampant rate of deforestation across the tropical belt has led to a range of international efforts to protect the world’s remaining forests. This work includes  endeavours promoted by inter-governmental agencies such as the United Nations, international financing institutions like the World Bank, and the private sector’ in recent pledges of “no deforestation, no exploitation”. However, the global deforestation crisis continues and forest loss is even accelerating, especially in tropical forest countries.

Local communities’ forests are being cleared to produce timber, palm oil, soya, minerals, oil and gas for global and domestic markets and for infrastructure and hydro-power. These impositions are often part of large-scale development programmes elaborated by governments and corporations without communities’ involvement, let alone consent, contrary to the law and through corrupt and collusive practices.

Not only does this destruction imperil the planet through climate change, loss of biodiversity and loss of ecosystem functions, it has direct and hugely damaging impacts on the daily lives, cultures, livelihoods and economies of the indigenous peoples and local communities who have lived in and managed these forests since time immemorial, in accordance with customary practices, beliefs and values of sustainability.

Global efforts promoted by agencies like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN REDD) and the World Bank to address deforestation through market mechanisms are failing. This is not just because viable markets have not emerged, but because these efforts fail to take account of the multiple values of forests and, despite standards to the contrary, but because they in practice are failing to respect indigenous and forest peoples’ internationally recognized human rights.

Even international, government and private sector efforts to protect forests from destruction as parks, protected areas, ‘ecosystem restoration concessions’, ‘no go zones’ and ‘set asides’ tend to ignore our rights, deny forest peoples their livelihoods and thus create further conflicts and instability. Clearly, ‘green grabs’ are not the solution to land grabs.
Faced with the urgent need for immediate and accountable solutions to this environmental and human rights crisis, forest peoples’ representatives from nine countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Cameroon, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia and Guyana), as well as supportive environmental and social NGOs, forestry experts and academics, government representatives and representatives of intergovernmental agencies, gathered in a landmark conference held in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in March 2014.

These are the people who experience first-hand the impacts of the export-led, extractivist model of development that continues to be imposed on their forests in ways that neglect their basic human rights and threaten their very survival.

First-hand accounts of the destruction and abuses caused by business-led industrial and often illegal logging, oil drilling, large-scale mining, infrastructure development of major highways and dams and plantation agriculture (particularly rapidly expanding palm oil cultivation), were shared by community members. These are the people who experience first-hand the impacts of the export-led, extractivist model of development that continues to be imposed on their forests in ways that neglect their basic human rights and threaten their very survival.

Land conflicts, forced evictions, repression of freedom of expression and movement, violence, rape and even killings were reported, as well as the lack of access and effectiveness of existing judicial mechanisms to secure remedy for affected communities.

The conference highlighted the powerful underlying factors of the global deforestation crisis, the most prominent and widespread of which are insecure rights to lands and territories, corruption, weak forest protection and governance, unsustainable natural-resource-based and export-oriented economic growth and, crucially, the lack of effective enforcement of the rights of indigenous peoples to own, control and manage their traditional lands and territories. This despite the many international and national laws that recognize such rights.

And yet overwhelming compelling evidence from across the globe testifies to the fact that when forest peoples’ rights are secured and their customary management and use of the forest supported, then deforestation can be halted and even reversed. Simply put, the solution to deforestation lies with those who know the forests best and thus a change in policy to put rights and justice at the centre of deforestation efforts at the national and international levels is critical.

Resulting from this inter-continental sharing of experiences is a landmark Declaration (the Palangkaraya Declaration on Drivers of Deforestation and the Rights of Forest Peoples, an urgent appeal by forest peoples from across the tropical belt to governments, the private sector, international financing agencies and the international community to:

In the Declaration, indigenous peoples and forest community representatives call for reforms in national laws, policies and programmes so that forest peoples’ rights are secured. Developed countries, notably the European Union (EU), and other traders are called upon to halt the trade in products derived from deforestation and land grabs. International financial institutions must strengthen environmental safeguards to prohibit direct and indirect financing of conversion or degradation of critical natural habitats and high conservation value areas. The private sector must establish credible mechanisms to verify compliance with certification standards and their new ‘no deforestation, no exploitation’ policies and to address complaints and redress in the case of non-compliance. NGOs must promote independent monitoring, in close collaboration with forest peoples on the ground, to ensure company and government compliance to the rule of law and respect for our rights.

And together, forest peoples and NGOs pledge to work in solidarity to form a global grassroots accountability network to independently monitor, document, challenge and denounce forest destruction and associated violations of forest peoples’ rights. The Declaration also makes recommendations to upcoming international events including the United Nations Conference of Parties (to UNFCCC) 20 and 21 to be held in Lima and Paris in 2014 and 2015, the United Nations Conference on Indigenous Peoples (UNWCIP) in September 2014, and the post-2015 sustainable development goals.

The Declaration is a powerful call to action to the international community from those communities whose very survival are threatened by the patterns of consumerism and market pressures that overwhelmingly override respect for rights and self-determined development. It points to pervasive notions that State sovereignty takes precedence over international human rights instruments, including those that are binding upon the States that have signed or ratified them. It also raises the difficult question of how a balance can be found between engaging with companies towards improving their practices and avoiding legitimizing ‘greenwashing’ where this is taking place. But what this resonant appeal shows most clearly is that while half the world’s forests may already have disappeared, forest peoples are very much still here and their voices can no longer be ignored. A powerful testimony of their resilience in fighting for their rights, the Palangka Raya Declaration epitomizes a struggle for justice that is well set to continue.

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Forest Peoples’ Landmark Appeal to Curb Global Deforestation by Sophie Chao is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Sophie Chao

Forest Peoples Programme

Social anthropologist and human rights activist Sophie Chao is Project Officer at international human rights NGO Forest Peoples Programme, an organisation which works with forest peoples in South America, Africa, and Asia, to help them secure their rights and negotiate with governments and companies as to how economic development and conservation are best achieved on their lands. Sophie’s areas of research and advocacy include indigenous peoples’ rights, international human rights law, land tenure and acquisition, and agri-business expansion. Sophie is currently based in Jakarta, Indonesia, and is also pursuing an LLM in Law through the UK’s Open University.