Efforts to save the world’s forests could soon get a boost from proposed laws in the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States to restrict the import of agricultural commodities linked to deforestation. These three markets’ consumption of such products is a driver of a quarter of all deforestation linked to international trade.
Protecting carbon sinks—ecosystems like forests that absorb and store planet-warming gases—is crucial to address the climate crisis, so this is welcome news. But these proposed laws would be more effective if they also protected the rights of Indigenous peoples, who have proven to be among the most reliable forest custodians.
The United Kingdom’s proposal would bar only products linked to deforestation that is unlawful in the country where it occurs. Making this distinction might prove very difficult for UK authorities to enforce for products from areas where lax law enforcement enables companies to pass illegal deforestation off as legal. This approach could also create a perverse incentive to legalize unlawful deforestation.
European Commission officials pledged that they would ban products linked to any deforestation. They plan to monitor deforestation remotely through satellite imagery. But even this approach has its limits. Brazil’s world class satellite monitoring program, for example, must contend with cloud cover impairing visibility. Moreover, loggers’ tactics–such as only cutting the valuable timber and leaving other vegetation–can ‘fool’ the satellite.
There is an obvious solution: support local communities who are already protecting the forests. Loggers’ tactics for eluding detection are ineffective against forest guardians patrolling their lands on foot.
Indeed, Brazilian law enforcement officials told Human Rights Watch they relied on locals to report environmental crime.
There are many such examples among the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, a coalition of Indigenous leaders whose territories amount to 840 million hectares of forested land in Africa, Indonesia and Latin America that hold 246 gigatons of carbon.
In one case, a community in Peru deployed an early warning system to monitor and successfully reduce deforestation in their territory. In another case, Indigenous groups from Colombia and Brazil took to the courts to protect forests, filing a suit against a French company for its alleged link to land invasions and deforestation in their territories.
This is not to say states should offload their responsibility for enforcing environmental laws to Indigenous peoples—only that they should recognize them as essential allies, uphold their land rights, and support their successful initiatives to monitor and reduce deforestation.
In an encouraging sign, US lawmakers have pledged to introduce a bill, but they have yet to unveil it. Drafters should take into account the evidence that Indigenous peoples are among the best forest protectors.
The evidence is solid. In Bolivia, the rate of deforestation on lands securely held by Indigenous peoples is about 35 percent of what it is in other comparable areas, in Brazil it is 40% and in Colombia half. Studies in Asia and Africa suggest that strengthening protections for communities’ land rights also leads to regeneration of degraded forests.
Harvesting forest products is an integral part of many Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, and serves as a continuous incentive to protect forests, along with cultural and spiritual factors. Moreover, their traditional knowledge about forest management makes Indigenous peoples effective stewards of local ecosystems.
To play this role, however, these communities need protection from violence and intimidation, and from efforts to drive them off or deny them access to or control over their traditional territories.
The solution is laws that protect forests and people. At a minimum, laws that regulate imports of agricultural commodities should require businesses to ensure their products are not associated with acts of violence and intimidation against Indigenous peoples, abuses of their land tenure rights or failure to obtain their free, prior and informed consent to projects that may impair their rights. These laws should bar agricultural commodities credibly alleged to be linked to abuses of these rights from entering markets.
This would require businesses to identify where the agricultural commodities they use in their products come from, assess the risk their operations pose to Indigenous peoples’ exercise of their rights, and mitigate these risks. They should ensure that communities’ consent is sought in good faith when business activities affect them and conduct local audits to determine whether their mitigation measures are effective, including by consulting forest guardians.
The possibility that these products might be linked to rights abuses is reason enough for protecting Indigenous peoples in the laws that regulate their imports. But in addition, addressing rights violations is critical to ensure the success of efforts to reduce deforestation.
Tuntiak Katan, a member of the Shuar people, is the general coordinator of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATC) and vice coordinator of the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA). Luciana Téllez Chávez is a researcher in the Environment and Human Rights program at Human Rights Watch.