Indigenous peoples and other local communities have long argued that they play a central role in safeguarding more than half the world’s land, including much of its forests. The world’s leading climate scientists agree.
In its new Special Report on Climate Change and Land, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes the importance of securing community land for climate change, writing “Insecure land tenure affects the ability of people, communities and organisations to make changes to land that can advance adaptation and mitigation (medium confidence). Limited recognition of customary access to land and ownership of land can result in increased vulnerability and decreased adaptive capacity (medium confidence). Land policies (including recognition of customary tenure, community mapping, redistribution, decentralisation, co-management, regulation of rental markets) can provide both security and flexibility response to climate change (medium confidence).” The IPCC is the internationally accepted authority on climate change. Its reports have the agreement of the world’s leading climate scientists and the consensus of participating governments.
Indigenous peoples and other communities from more than 40 countries and representing more than three-quarters of the world's tropical forests quickly released a statement in support of the IPCC’s recognition.
The Science Is Clear: Indigenous Groups and Communities Are Critical for Fighting Climate Change
IPCC’s recognition is based on the growing body of scientific and other literature and data showing the importance of formally recognizing and securing the customary lands of indigenous peoples and other communities in order to reduce emissions. For example, recent research shows that indigenous and community lands are a globally important carbon sink, holding at least 22% of the carbon stored in tropical and subtropical forests and at least 17% of the total carbon (including soil carbon) stored in forests. There is considerable potential for more carbon to be stored on degraded indigenous and community lands if they were secured, better protected and restored.
For a deeper dive into the IPCC special report on land, check out our other blog posts:
- Forests in the IPCC Special Report on Land Use: 7 Things to Know
- How Effective Is Land At Removing Carbon Pollution? The IPCC Weighs In
- 7 Things to Know About the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land
Many indigenous peoples and other communities in the Amazon Basin, the world’s largest tropical forest, sustainably manage their lands and forests. In Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia, deforestation rates on tenure-secure indigenous lands are significantly lower than on similar surrounding areas. In Peru, titling of indigenous land quickly and significantly reduces forest disturbance and clearing. Well-managed forests with low deforestation rates often hold more carbon than disturbed forests — good news if we are to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
The benefits of tenure security extend far beyond the climate, too. Tenure security helps indigenous peoples and communities protect their land from intruders like illegal loggers or miners, and from expropriation by governments or big businesses. Secure land rights create powerful incentives for indigenous peoples and communities to invest in the management of their lands by providing them with confidence they will benefit from their long-term investments. Land is a source of local livelihoods and subsistence, and as such, tenure security is critical to indigenous groups’ and communities’ wellbeing and very existence. And there are countless ecosystem services that indigenous and community land provides society overall, from pollination and nutrient retention to climate and water flow regulation to soil erosion prevention.
Challenges to Securing Indigenous and Community Land Rights
While national laws in many countries now recognize community lands and customary tenure arrangements, only 10% of the world's land is legally recognized as belonging to indigenous peoples and communities, with another 8% designated by governments for these groups’ use. In Africa, the region with the most community land, an estimated 79% of the land is held by communities, yet only 27% is recognized under national laws. While traditional institutions and customs have historically provided indigenous groups and communities with tenure security, growing threats from agribusinesses, cattle ranchers and others are leading to insecurity and loss of land.
Even less of the world's community land is officially recorded in a government cadastre and documented with a land certificate or title. Titling is an essential step that integrates customary rights into legal systems, yet recent research found that in many national laws have no procedure to register or title indigenous groups’ and communities’ land. In other nations, laws limit the type of indigenous and community land that qualifies for formal titles. Even when indigenous groups and communities are legally entitled to seek formal land titles, the procedures are often complex, difficult and costly, and the process can stretch on over decades.
The IPCC report acknowledges that secure land rights do not alone guarantee improved forest management and calls for a range of “policies that enable and incentivize sustainable land management for climate change adaptation and mitigation include(ing)… empowering women and indigenous people.” In addition to strong and secure land rights, measures that empower indigenous people and communities include providing them with performance payments or other positive economic incentives; establishing strong procedural rights such as access to information, participation and justice; and building local capacity so that communities’ representative bodies can be powerful agents for change.
Strengthening indigenous and community land rights is not commonly thought of as a climate mitigation and adaptation strategy, but the IPCC report is clear: These groups are critical for the world to have any chance of holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). National policymakers and international development agencies must heed the IPCC’s call and strengthen land tenure for indigenous peoples and communities.