Making communities’ voices count in the fight against climate change

 

Reflections on rights-based approaches to nature-based solutions at the Global Landscape Forum

By Chelsea Jones. Co-authors: Larissa Stiem-Bhatia and Marai El Fassi

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Between 2002 and 2017, the number of environmental activists murdered worldwide increased fourfold, and in 2018 alone 164 environmental activists were murdered. This was one of the many distressing facts discussed at the 2019 Global Landscapes Forum, held in Bonn, Germany from June 21-22. The goal of the GLF 2019 was to act as a platform for the voices of the most marginalized groups in the global environmental crisis. These include local communities, women, youth, and especially Indigenous Peoples.

Recognizing and establishing a universal right to a healthy environment, a right that is still not recognized under UN law, was the key issue discussed. Such a right is becoming increasingly pertinent and pressing in a world where this right is often forgotten or ignored in favour of economic progress or political gain.

The opening session of GLF Bonn 2019, discussing the growing threats to defenders of environmental justice worldwide / Photo: Chelsea Jones, TMG Research gGmbH

The opening session of GLF Bonn 2019, discussing the growing threats to defenders of environmental justice worldwide / Photo: Chelsea Jones, TMG Research gGmbH

There is a noticeable pattern of shrinking civil space and a downward trend in previously increasing civil rights, also known as the “rise of uncivil society”. This trend is the combination of many factors, including the rise of restrictive governments, the increasing power of corporations and overall competition for dwindling natural resources. This shrinking civil space is evident in the treatment of environmental rights defenders worldwide by both governments and the private sector. According to Civicus, the detention of activists is the most commonly used tactic by governments to restrict civic space, and agribusiness is the biggest driver of violence against environmental rights defenders globally.

Efforts are being made to draw attention and international support towards environmental justice and the protection of activists. One example is the Escazú Agreement, signed in March 2018 by 24 Latin American countries, as a response to the growing crisis of violence against environmental activists in the region. This agreement commits countries to uphold access to information, public participation and safety for activists. This landmark agreement has set an international precedent for considering environmental justice as a human right. The large role Latin American civil society played in its passing is astonishing, with a petition of over 33,000 civilians demanding that their governments ratify the agreement.

This is just one example of how giving local communities a voice in environmental decisions can improve sustainable development. Many speakers at GLF Bonn 2019 emphasized the need to look at landscape issues from a local perspective. This could be done by talking with the affected communities to learn how they define their needs and values. Claire Nasike of Hummingbird Foundation gave an example of an African initiative which worked directly with farmers and learned that, rather than more chemical fertilizers or subsidies, what the farmers really wanted and needed were trainings and tools on using just their local resources. By allowing local communities to drive decision-making, they can continue to run initiatives after project donors leave. This is an essential part to ensure post-project sustainability.

Green Stand, an organization dedicated to forest restoration, gives a presentation at the GLF Learning Café / Photo: Chelsea Jones, TMG Research gGmbH

Green Stand, an organization dedicated to forest restoration, gives a presentation at the GLF Learning Café / Photo: Chelsea Jones, TMG Research gGmbH

How can Ecosystem-based Adaptation contribute to rights-based landscape management? Initiatives that strengthen community control over their resources and which provide demonstrable improvements in livelihoods or ecosystem services are needed. Ecosystem-based Adaptation focuses on holistic adaptation, with both ecological and social aspects. Its emphasis on participatory decision-making is a useful tool to give communities and marginalized groups more control over changes made to the ecosystems in which they live. Furthermore, the most recent IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land Use recognizes that securing indigenous peoples’ land rights is an important scaling strategy to keep global temperature increase below 1.5 °C by 2030. It is therefore critical that indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups have access to tools that can help protect their control over their traditional land. EbA is one such tool that can contribute to protecting indigenous land ownership. However, greater support from all involved actors is needed to promote EbA and other nature-based, participatory methods as viable sustainable development tools.

The 2019 GLF Bonn highlighted an important part of the fight against climate change: the need for climate change solutions that not only reduce emissions and protect ecosystems, but which also enshrine the rights of local communities into the use of landscapes and resources. Participatory planning methods are therefore key in order to protect communities’ rights to live in a safe and healthy environment. Ecosystem-based Adaptation, and other participatory, nature-based methods, can act not only as effective climate change solutions, but also as tools for fair and equal access to a healthy environment. Now, more than ever, expanding the implementation of nature-based solutions, coupled with rights-based approaches, is needed.