It seemed impossible to predict at the start of 2020 that a virus like COVID-19 would infect over 85 million people and claim over 1.8 million lives worldwide. Now, as countries race to administer vaccines, growing evidence suggests that the likelihood of pandemics like COVID-19 will only increase in the coming years.
Public health, environmental, and human rights experts discussed the burgeoning threat of pandemics during a Sustain What webinar on December 9, hosted by Andrew Revkin, founding director of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. At the center of the discussion was a critical yet often overlooked strategy for pandemic mitigation: securing the rights of forest guardians.
The need for stewardship
Forest degradation is one of the most significant drivers of pandemic risk. And as the global demand for products like palm oil increases, so too does the encroachment on natural lands. In 2019, the tropics lost about 30 soccer fields worth of trees every minute. Such rapid environmental change introduces new species and favors the survival of some species, like rats and bats, over others. Loss of biodiversity and habitat can lead to more infections within animals, and human invasion of natural habitats gives those diseases more chances to infect humans.
“The barriers to forest encroachment are what are protecting us from pandemics,” said disease ecologist Peter Daszak during the webinar. “They’re our immune system.”
While it may have only recently attracted the attention of policymakers, the nexus between planetary health and public health is far from a new concept. “This is what Indigenous people — my brothers and sisters — have been living by for thousands of years,” said Norman Jiwan, an Indigenous activist from the island of Borneo, Indonesia. “It’s why the majority of Indigenous landscapes are still intact.”
In the latest 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, lands managed by Indigenous peoples were found to have experienced less biodiversity loss and deforestation on average than lands that were not. Forest stewardship further improved when Indigenous and local communities had formal land and resources rights.
“Formalization creates a sense of land security, and that in turn creates incentives for communities to invest in where they live,” said Peter Veit, director of the Land and Resource Rights Initiative at the World Resources Institute. But despite the public health and ecological benefits of Indigenous land tenure, governments around the world continue to undermine it.
The vulnerability of Indigenous rights
Indigenous and local communities are estimated to hold as much as 65 percent of the world’s total land area. Their rights to legal ownership, however, extend to only 10 percent of that land, even less of which is registered with a government certificate or title. The rest is held through what are called customary tenure arrangements, which are based on tradition and trust rather than legal documents. These arrangements make Indigenous and community land ownership legally insecure — or, as Veit put it, “ripe for being taken.”
In Jiwan’s home of Borneo, this reality is already playing out. The rainforests of Borneo, long inhabited by local Indigenous peoples, are among the oldest and most biodiverse forests in the world. Last year, the Indonesian government announced 89 different infrastructure projects, many of which are slated to be built on the island, to help jump-start the economy. The $100 billion national infrastructure plan is accompanied by a sweeping deregulatory omnibus bill that, among other provisions, enables the government to subvert Indigenous rights by unilaterally defining land as “abandoned.”
“If your economic model focuses on the macroeconomy and not building community resilience it will, in the long term, threaten the biodiversity, the forests, and Indigenous peoples,” said Mina Setra, an Indigenous activist from Borneo who works for the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago. “Today, we still face criminalization, even murder of our leaders, because of protecting our territories.”
Setra and Jiwan are part of a larger network of Indonesian organizations that have submitted a report challenging the omnibus bill to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. They are also working to pass the Bill on the Recognition and Protection of Indigenous Peoples Rights, which has circulated in the legislature without deliberation for over a decade.
The path forward
Due to pandemic-induced postponements, 2021 is set to feature an unprecedented number of international environmental convenings — the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, the World Food Systems Summit for Sustainable Agriculture in New York City, and the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference in Glasgow, to name a few.
What happens — or does not happen — at this year’s events will be particularly consequential for Indigenous peoples and the future of forest conservation. In the wake of COVID-19, Indonesia is far from the only country looking to rebuild its economy, and there is a historical precedent of governments pursuing opportunities at the expense of Indigenous lands.
“I think Indigenous peoples everywhere are in the mode of bracing for impact,” said Setra. “We have so many different conferences and commitments, but do they really change the situation on the ground?”
In addition to formalizing land tenure for local and Indigenous communities, Veit said mitigative action will have to involve the international enforcement of stricter industry standards. Financing institutions need to be held accountable for their investments, and company supply chains need to be monitored for environmental, public health, and human rights impacts.
“My people have proven that we are part of the solution,” said Jiwan, “and we will keep fighting to stop any process that is going to destroy our forests and our livelihoods.”
To watch the recording of the Sustain What briefing, click here.