The world’s Indigenous Peoples and communities are more important players in the battle against climate change than anyone ever knew.

A new report from the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and WRI found that Indigenous Peoples and local communities manage at least 54,546 million metric tons of carbon (Mt C) in the tropical forests they live in globally, or just under one-quarter of the total carbon found aboveground in the global tropics. That’s about 250 times the carbon dioxide emissions from global air travel in 2015!

And this is likely an underestimate. While the study relied on the most complete data available on indigenous and community lands, these landscapes are chronically underrepresented in maps. Some estimates suggest that as much as 50 to 65 percent of the world’s land is managed by Indigenous Peoples and communities. (Learn more on LandMark: The Global Platform of Indigenous and Community Lands.)

Forest Rights Are a Good Climate Mitigation Strategy

It’s clear that Indigenous Peoples and communities play a big role in mitigating global climate change. Many communities and Indigenous Peoples rely on forests for their homes, sustenance and livelihoods, so they tend to manage them sustainably—research shows that deforestation rates inside forests legally managed by Indigenous Peoples and communities are 2 to 3 times lower than in other forests. These forests store climate-warming carbon that would be released into the atmosphere if trees were cut down.

The problem is that governments often fail to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ and communities’ customary rights to the lands they inhabit. When these rights are not recognized, lands can be easily allocated to outside investors for development. The study found that one-tenth of the total amount of tropical forest carbon globally – some 22,322 MtC, or the equivalent of the greenhouse gas emissions from more than 17 billion passenger vehicles driven in one year -- is held by Indigenous Peoples and communities lacking formal land rights.

Improving Indigenous and Community Land Rights to Curb Climate Change

Now that many national governments and other members of the climate change community are gathered in Marrakech for the latest round of UN climate negotiations (COP22), this study calls attention to the significant contribution that Indigenous Peoples and communities make toward achieving national and international goals to mitigate climate change. To support carbon sequestration, we call on the international community and particularly national governments to:

  • Support civil society organizations and community groups in their efforts to secure forest rights by dramatically scaling up funding support and technical assistance to  Indigenous Peoples and communities to document, map and title their lands;
  • Make Indigenous Peoples and local communities part of the climate solution by encouraging national governments to recognize and support community-based forest carbon management as part of their plans for meeting their Nationally Determined Contributions to climate change mitigation; and
  • Develop and adopt institutional safeguards at national and international levels that mitigate the social and environmental risks and enhance benefits to Indigenous Peoples and local communities from REDD+ and other Payment for Ecosystem Service schemes (compensation for forest management practices that preserve carbon stocks).

Without secure land and forest tenure for indigenous peoples and communities, international efforts to keep the global rise in temperature in check will remain a struggle.