Indigenous Knowledge & Climate Crisis: Nonette Royo

Nonette Royo

Indigenous Peoples and local communities live on and manage more than half of the world’s land, yet they only have legal ownership of 10% of these territories. Robust Indigenous and local land rights are vital for managing forests, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preserving biodiversity, and improving livelihoods. 

Nonette Royo, Executive Director, Tenure Facility, has spent more than 30 years fighting for the tenure rights of Indigenous Peoples in the world’s tropical forests, in regions ranging from Latin America, to Southeast Asia and Africa. As Executive Director of Tenure Facility, Nonette has helped to map, and protect some 18 million hectares of land – an area equivalent to the size of Cambodia – which is expected to double this year. We spoke to Nonette about how a clear commitment to inclusion underpins her work to strengthen the tenure of Indigenous Peoples and boost their ability to preserve and protect traditional lands and resources.

How does Tenure Facility support Indigenous Communities to protect nature?

Tenure Facility offers grants and technical assistance directly to Indigenous Peoples and local communities, who are self-determined and work collectively, in their efforts to secure tenure, with a particular focus on mitigating climate change, reducing conflict and promoting gender equality.

Behind the scenes of our richest natural ecosystems, from the tropical forests of Peru, to Guyana and Indonesia, Indigenous Peoples act as guardians, helping these natural realms to survive and thrive. To boost their ability to tend, nurture and protect their territories, Tenure Facility shortcuts the process of getting funds to Indigenous Peoples. 

Members of the Indigenous Siekopai community who reside in the Amazon jungle along Ecuador’s border with Peru. Credit: Andrés Yépez/Tenure Facility.

Traditionally, funding for Indigenous Peoples has been beset by bureaucracy, such as onerous testing of their abilities to manage financial resources. This is a major challenge. For example, a recent report showed that 0.13% of climate funding has actually been reaching Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities for tenure and forest management. We’ve proved over the last five years that large amounts of funding – of around one million US dollars per year – can be successfully channelled into Indigenous Peoples who are best placed to drive impactful, accountable nature protection.

Our mission is to strengthen the capacity of Indigenous Communities to protect the forests where they live – and upon which we all depend for biodiversity and as carbon sinks. We conducted deep consultations with Indigenous Peoples on how to achieve our mission – and found that strengthening land rights was critical to boosting their ability to preserve, protect and enjoy their traditional lands. We also support knowledge-sharing across local communities, enabling conservation tools and insights to be shared within Indigenous networks that share the same languages, but which can span different countries. 

How does securing Indigenous land rights translate into nature protection?

Once, when Indigenous Peoples were isolated in their territories no one challenged them. But over time, external parties increasingly entered their territories to steal resources, such as timber and precious metals. Indigenous Peoples’ land rights were questioned, often violently, with miners and loggers often forcing communities out of their ancestral lands.

To stop this, it’s vital for Indigenous Peoples to secure legal tenure of their land. They need our help to come to the table, to show the world their ability to protect land, for their own livelihoods – and for the greater good. Primary forests sustain communities and economies at large, from contributing to healthy soils for agriculture, to storing vast amounts of carbon, to storing freshwater in aquifers. Research over the last five years also shows that deforestation rates are three to four times lower in territories with secure tenure – ownership is key to conserving what we have and restoring what we’ve lost.

A group of women involved in the management of a local community forest concession and reforestation efforts in the southwest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ley Uwera/Tenure Facility.

How did you become a champion for Indigenous Peoples?

I was raised in the forests of the Philippines where Indigenous Peoples were very prominent. It was clear very early on in my life that territories were being violently stolen. People were dying defending their homelands. I had a strong desire to help – but frankly I was also afraid to die in the process. I was faced with the question, “Is the only way to protect my ancestral lands to take up arms, or is there a better way?”

This question led me to explore how the law could be used as a tool to turn land tenure from a violent fight, into a negotiation. After decades of conflict, I wanted to stop the violence from affecting my own friends and family even further, as well as people facing similar troubles in other countries. So, I studied the legal routes to solving land rights issues peacefully. 

National constitutions usually assure that everyone in a country has the right to be recognized and respected, which provides a starting point for the case to implement tenure rights within existing laws and policy. In further study of historical documents I realised that there is a corpus of documents supporting collective rights for the use and ownership of land. For example, in the late 19th century when the Philippines was governed by the United States. I found that the governance of Indigenous territories was affirmed by the US Supreme Court, ascribing land right rights to the community. 

For cases to stand up in the courts we had to establish legal standing, so we measured and mapped the boundaries of key territories to establish ‘titles’ for land. This gave indigenous Peoples a seat at the table – from which they could express their abilities to manage the land sustainably – providing long term benefit to the country and to their own communities, as opposed to razing and extracting from the land just for short-term gain. 

At this time, around 30 years ago, the Philippines faced huge deforestation; so it was imperative that the law began to be applied to protect it. Over time, however, nation states began to make global commitments to protect the climate and biodiversity in the international arena. Subsequently, these targets began to be translated into laws and policies which would unlock the vast potential to boost Indigenous Peoples’ abilities as key partners for delivering on nature and biodiversity commitments. From these origins in the Philippines we progressively scaled Tenure Facility’s model, in regions such as Indonesia, and onwards to Latin America and Africa.

How can Indigenous knowledge help us to solve the climate crisis?

From the perspective of Indigenous Peoples, the climate crisis is not just a heating crisis – it’s a crisis of lifestyle. Humankind’s relationship with nature is in crisis due to a loss of respect for, and connection to nature. The longevity of Indigenous Peoples stretches back thousands of years as they live by the central principle of “only take what you need, and leave the rest for future generations.”

Members of the Gond tribe, breaking and flaking seeds to extract oil in a forest village in east-central India. Credit: Rohit Jain/Tenure Facility.

Indigenous knowledge can help us to return to the wisdom of our ancestors to survive and overcome the climate crisis. Everyone – whether white, black or whatever colour – has the inherent ability to coexist with nature. But somehow we have put ourselves in a place that is so safe and sanitised – with everything bought from stores – that we have created the illusion of separation from nature. In reality, everything that we consume and use is from the natural world, and our disconnection from our source places puts humankind into existential danger.

When we visit our partners, whether in the Amazon, or the forests of Guyana, we witness the palpable, lived experience of Indigenous Peoples as part of the natural ecosystem. Soil and land use are fundamental to everything, including water. As well as balancing the climate, forests and land ensure the balance of our water cycle, holding moisture, and storing and transmitting freshwater through aquifers to rivers and seas. Respect for the conditions which support life is central to Indigenous knowledge.

The existence of Indigenous Peoples is inextricably linked to nature itself – if nature fails, their communities fail, and vice versa. We can relearn the value of this connection from Indigenous Peoples – it’s not just about science, it’s about being part of nature, to protect the conditions for our mutual survival. 

These are not just ordinary communities. These are Peoples who have lived over long periods of time through knowing the territory, tending to the forest and adapting their livelihoods around nature. There is meaning to the ways that the seasons shift, in how nature expresses herself, if we know how to listen. As the climate has changed Indigenous Peoples have adjusted their ways – especially their use of the land – to reflect the changes in the seasons. As well as being indispensable to our mission to tackle the climate crisis, Indigenous knowledge can also contribute to better decision-making when it comes to climate adaptation.

Originally published on Climate Champions, read the full article here


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