The closely watched COP26 climate summit in Glasgow featured at least one document that deserves greater attention: a statement by donor countries recognizing the contributions of Indigenous peoples and other local communities to climate mitigation and the growing threats to their collectively held lands.

Panelists at COP26 event in front of banner reading UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021
Participants of Indigenous and local community organizations at COP26. Photo by Karwai Tang/ UK Government

“We are demonstrating our commitment today by announcing an initial, collective pledge of $1.7 billion of financing, from 2021 to 2025…," the donors said on November 2, "(and) call on other donors to significantly increase their support to this important agenda.” The financing will support Indigenous peoples and other local communities and their organizations and various activities to secure, strengthen and protect Indigenous peoples and local community land and natural resource rights.

It's about time.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it bluntly at the opening of COP26 when he said that even in “the best-case scenario, temperatures will rise well above two degrees … The science is clear. We know what to do.” Certainly, research has shown that Indigenous peoples and local communities and their lands contribute significantly to climate mitigation. To avoid a future where rising global temperatures rise 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), ushering in potentially catastrophic consequences, these initial investments to secure and protect Indigenous peoples and local community lands will help countries achieve their climate targets and commitments.

Below are several key insights from the research providing the evidence for this connection:

1. Half the World’s Land is Held and Managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities

Indigenous peoples and other local communities are the single largest group of private landholders on Earth. While estimates range from one-third to two-thirds of the world’s land, most experts believe Indigenous peoples and local communities hold and manage at least half of the world’s land, including both formally recognized land and customarily held land. In addition to sequestering and storing carbon, conserving biodiversity and delivering other valuable global public benefits, this land supports over two billion people — almost a quarter of the world’s population — including more than 370 million Indigenous people. Only 10% of the world’s land, however, is legally recognized as belonging to Indigenous peoples and other local communities and even less is formally registered with the government and officially documented with a land certificate or title. As a result, most Indigenous peoples and local community land is held solely under customary tenure arrangements and given today’s many threats, is vulnerable to be taken by governments and corporations, with significant social and environmental implications.

2. Indigenous Peoples and Local Community Land Sequesters and Stores Carbon

Forests and other natural climate solutions can contribute upwards of 37% of carbon dioxide emissions mitigation by 2030 and most of the world’s forests are on Indigenous peoples and local community land. We’ve long known that such lands store a considerable amount of carbon in the soil and biomass. Recently, however, we’ve also learned that Indigenous peoples and local community lands sequester a good amount of carbon. For example, Indigenous lands in the Amazon (29% of the basin) sequestered 5.6 billion Mg CO2e from 2001 to 2020. Moreover, 94% of Indigenous land area was a carbon sink from 2001-2020, sequestering -1.4 megatons (Mg) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per hectare per year. Meanwhile, the Amazon outside Indigenous lands was a net emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) at 0.6 Mg CO2e/ha/year.

3. Secure Tenure Leads to the Sustainable Management of Community Land

Indigenous peoples and other local communities with tenure security commonly manage their lands sustainably. There is a significant and growing body of literature which shows that tenure security is not just correlated with positive forest outcomes but that it actually leads to such outcomes. These outcomes, now documented around the world, are as good and often better than the outcomes for government-managed areas such as parks. In the Brazilian Amazon, for example, the demarcation, registration, and documentation of Indigenous lands over a 34-year period produced a 66% reduction in deforestation. This change did not occur in untitled Indigenous lands.

Victoria Tauli Corpuz speaking at COP26 podium at COP26
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, re-elected president and executive director of Tebtebba and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, speaking at COP26. Photo by Jack Sauverin/UK Government

4. The Costs of Securing Community Land Are High for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, Low for Governments

The costs to Indigenous peoples and local communities of protecting their lands are often high and even fatal, with many land and environmental defenders killed each year. In 2020, 227 defenders were killed — an average of more than four people a week —the most dangerous year on record. The registration and documentation of customary land rights is critical to bringing customary rights into the formal statutory system. Research, however, shows that where procedures for titling Indigenous peoples and local community land even exist, they are usually complex, costly, time consuming and not available to Indigenous peoples and other local communities without external financial and technical assistance. In the Philippines, the process requires 56 legally mandated steps; in Indonesia, 21 different government entities are involved. Most Indigenous peoples and local community land has not even been surveyed or mapped with any precision, a common step in all formalization procedures. In many countries, customarily held Indigenous peoples and local community lands are not labeled on government maps and, as a result, are essentially invisible.

The costs to government of securing Indigenous peoples and local community lands, however, are quite low when compared to the value of the ecosystem services from those lands. In a recent study, these costs were estimated at $68/ha in Brazil, $45/ha in Bolivia, and $6/ha in Colombia — accounting to at most 1% of the value of carbon mitigation and other ecosystem services from Indigenous peoples and local community lands. The costs of other forest management approaches, such as tree planting and restoration projects and voluntary zero deforestation supply chains are often higher and far less effective. Securing Indigenous peoples and local community land is also a cost-effective approach for climate mitigation when compared with other carbon capture and storage measures such as for coal-fired power plants and natural gas-fired power plants.

After the Pledges? Now to Deliver on Actions

Key international climate and other environmental instruments now recognize the role of Indigenous peoples and other local communities and their land in forest health and climate mitigation, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and New York Declaration on Forests.

In 2019, the IPCC report, Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry, also recognizes that: “(i)nsecure land tenure affects the ability of people, communities and organizations 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 … Land policies (including recognition of customary tenure, community mapping, redistribution, decentralization, co-management, regulation of rental markets) can provide both security and flexibility response to climate change…”

At COP26, a number of Indigenous peoples and local communities were members of their country’s formal delegations and participated in official meetings, including the World Leaders Summit. Armed with the evidence of recent research, these peoples and communities were able to make strong, compelling cases for their causes. The science also undoubtedly contributed to the governments and donors pledging the initial $1.7 billion to Indigenous peoples and other local communities and their causes. It is now important that this money actually materializes, reaches Indigenous peoples and local communities, their organizations, and partners, and delivers on actions to secure and protect Indigenous peoples and other local communities and their lands.