Whenever climate change mitigation tactics are discussed, one plan that inevitably comes up is that of carbon capture. An easier method to curb carbon emissions is to keep the carbon in the ground. In other words, leave the forests standing. Following on from this, it is perhaps not so strange that the people who would be most invested in protecting forests are those who live in it. In our third and final discussion on forest health and climate change, we take a look at the role played by indigenous and forest-dwelling people in preserving forests.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), tropical forests hold about 247 gigatons of carbon and deforestation accounts for as much as 15% of the world’s total carbon emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a specialized agency under the UN that works to eradicate global hunger, estimates that indigenous people manage about 28% of the world’s land surface, making them critical to climate change mitigation.

Evidence of the need to make forest-dwelling people equal partners in driving conservation continues to mount. A 2018 report by the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, published by the global network Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), is very clear on this. According to the report, based on studies in 28 countries including India, indigenous people and local communities invest up to $1.71 billion in conserving forests in developing countries.

Conservation scholarship is now increasingly of the view that forests should not be viewed as a “static entity" but as a dynamic one which includes the activities of human beings. This is what a paper by ecologist Meghna Agarwala and others, in a new book called Nature Conservation In The New Economy: People, Wildlife And The Law In India, argues, on the basis of field studies in central India’s forests. And yet indigenous people are still viewed with suspicion by governments and conservation agencies—governments consider them a hindrance to development projects and agencies view forest dwellers as endangering an otherwise pristine natural landscape.

But here’s the thing. In the case of India, as Agarwala’s paper surmises, human beings have interacted with forests for so long that it’s almost impossible to say if any Indian forest is truly “natural". Humans have always been part of forest ecosystems, and to equate forest-dwelling people with industrialized deforestation seems a specious argument. India’s landmark Forest Rights Act, 2006, although poorly executed and increasingly undermined, has a mechanism called community forest rights (CFR). This gives statutory rights for decentralized management of forests by forest-dwelling communities. If implemented in letter and spirit, India can not only save its forests but also lead the way globally.

In next week’s Climate Change Tracker, we discuss how community mobilization can force governments to cut carbon emissions. Follow the series with #MintClimateTracker.

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