At last year’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (UNFCCC COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, nature-based solutions were at the forefront of discussions. The term “nature-based solutions’’ was first introduced in 2009 through UNFCCC negotiations and was clarified in 2016 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a global conservation organization, which defines it as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well being and biodiversity benefits.”
On the surface the definition has potential. However, what makes it complicated and controversial are its broadness and failure to include obligations to seek the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous Peoples or to center their leadership and knowledge systems in the co-creation, development, implementation, and evaluation of such solutions. Nature-based solutions are defined so broadly that they are dangerously discretionary. Corporations can and do twist their meaning, lending to proven failures such as carbon trading schemes and monocrop tree plantations in place of true, culturally appropriate ecosystem restoration. Additionally, they are a distraction from the profound solutions that Indigenous Peoples are already developing and implementing, which, to achieve what the world needs at a global scale, requires political and financial commitments from member states to resource Indigenous land tenure, rights, and leadership. As the COP26 International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change’s Opening Statement press release states, “Colonialism caused climate change. Our rights and Traditional Knowledge are the solution.”
A Forest Peoples’ Programme report on “Re-thinking Nature-Based Solutions” summarizes some of the challenges: “The term ‘nature-based solution’ is controversial, not least because among its most enthusiastic supporters are large oil companies, governments of wealthy countries with high emissions, and industries responsible for much of the ongoing damage to our planet. It also attracts controversy because it remains defined loosely to allow it to mean different things to different people...Much of the controversy comes from the inclusion in nature-based solutions of actions to offset emissions, or actions that destroy nature in one area (mining, infrastructure, etc.) and which are ‘offset’ by investment in creating, maintaining, or restoring natural or ‘modified’ systems elsewhere. This controversy echoes concerns raised about offsetting carbon emissions through Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) projects and carbon trading, debates which still rage but where it is increasingly clear as emissions continue to rise year-on-year that cutting emissions is far more crucial. On the ground, REDD+ projects continue to be challenged by Indigenous Peoples and forest communities for failing to deliver equitable benefits and undermining rights guaranteed under international law standards and safeguards, including rights to own and control lands, territories and resources, and rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.”
Indigenous delegates Daisee Francour (Oneida) and Thomas Joseph (Hupa) at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Photos courtesy of Daisee Francour.
Nature-based solutions are yet another tactic that big polluters are using to redirect society’s attention away from their extractive practices and massive carbon footprints. They are the continuation of extractive capitalism, which commodifies our Mother Earth and puts a price tag on carbon sinks, like tropical forests. Carbon markets create a carbon trading system that lets big polluters off the hook—allowing them to continue to not make any true efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and instead purchase carbon credits from those who have lowered their emissions. Nation States, which have earned these carbon credits through their claims of forest management, identify carbon sinks within the country, which are often managed by Indigenous Peoples. They then move to displace those Indigenous communities from their lands to rack up and sell carbon credits to corporations.
Nature-based solutions are a ploy to “greenwash” climate change solutions that co-opt and commodify Indigenous lands, worldviews, and our own terminology. If we want to truly be nature-based, we must rematriate our relationship with Mother Earth; not view her as an extractive, disposable thing, but rather as a relative who we nurture, respect, and live with in a reciprocal manner. This requires a holistic, regenerative, rights-based approach. Because nature-based solutions excludes the importance of Indigenous land tenure, stewardship, rights, and leadership altogether, there is a serious and direct threat that our engagement in these solutions could lead to continued land grabbing, displacement of Indigenous communities, human and Indigenous rights violations, as well as criminalization of Indigenous land defenders and water protectors. Excluding Indigenous Peoples from any solution to climate change, especially ones that invisibilize our leadership and appropriate our knowledge systems, will have a devastating effect on biodiversity protection.
So, how do we center Indigenous Peoples and their knowledge systems in the fight against climate change? Governments, corporations, conservationists, private landowners, and others must start with the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous cultures inherently contain the solutions and adaptation methods needed to address climate change through such techniques as carbon sequestration through forest management, mitigating the danger of massive fires through controlled burns, regenerative traditional agricultural practices, and more. The climate-related potential and current achievements of Indigenous land stewardship is evident in both Indigenous Knowledge systems and in western studies. These activities are truly based in nature, and in the ancient and ongoing relationships and practices among Indigenous Peoples and the lands in which they live. Indigenous land tenure—the legal, guaranteed right of Indigenous Peoples to self-determine and lead activities on their lands—is a primary way to address climate change and one that should be promoted and prioritized at all levels.
In addition to Indigenous Peoples securing land rights to their territories, conservation must honor and embrace Indigenous customary land tenure, which ultimately includes traditional and self-determined governance over said lands. Indigenous governance systems are incredibly dynamic and sophisticated, and ensure the sustainability of both communities and all living things. Indigenous values like respect, reciprocity, relationships, and responsibility guide our traditional governance systems and our stewardship practices and philosophies. These values and worldviews do not exist in mainstream conservation or in the climate change narrative, yet are critical to incorporate in the climate change solutions being presented and implemented. Successfully incorporating Indigenous values and wisdom into practice will require the resourcing and financial backing of Indigenous leadership so Indigenous Peoples can ultimately lead the world towards a more sustainable future.
As Indigenous Peoples, we live in a reciprocal relationship with our lands and territories and we are expert stewards of our environments. Our well being is deeply tied to the well being of our lands. From growing traditional foods to sustainable harvesting practices to gathering medicine for ceremony and ensuring soil health and regeneration, Indigenous Peoples’ Traditional Knowledge, cultures, languages, cosmovisions, and traditions hold the solutions to climate change because they illustrate our original instructions for how we are supposed to be in right relationship with each other, our environment, and all living things. Our ways of being and knowing have long been disrespected, excluded, appropriated, and commodified, and we continue to see this violence against our peoples and lifeways in the climate and social crises faced across the world today.
Indigenous Peoples’ lands, livelihoods, and rights are under direct threat with these proposed “nature- based” solutions. As a global Indigenous community, we have already enacted climate change solutions based on our lifeways, cosmovisions, and the reciprocal relationship with our environments, despite the enormous adversity of land-grabbing, genocide, violence, expulsion from our lands, territories, and natural resources, persisting rights violations, and criminalization faced by our communities. Appropriating the term “nature-based” is not only misleading, but will not reduce emissions or truly address climate change. Rather, countries must stop putting powerful corporate economic interests before the existential threat that the planet faces, and must acknowledge, respect, center, and financially resource Indigenous Peoples’ rights and leadership.