Hundreds of indigenous peoples from the major tropical forest regions of Latin America, Africa and Indonesia traveled to Paris for COP21, hoping to be heard above the cacophony of voices shaping the long-awaited climate agreement. 

Divided by differences of language and culture, leaders representing millions of forest peoples on four continents had found common ground after several years of negotiations. Their efforts culminated in Paris with the joint release of an evidence-based carbon map that strengthened forest peoples’ claim to be an existing solution to climate change.

“We joined this effort because we realize how vital it is to communicate indigenous contributions to protecting the planet on a global scale,” said Abdon Nababan, Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the organization that provided the data on indigenous land boundaries for Indonesia.

The new analysis shows that indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin, Mesoamerica, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia contain 20 percent of the carbon stored above ground in the planet’s tropical forests.

“Indigenous Peoples worldwide have always been thought of as keepers of the forest,” said Dr. Wayne Walker, forest-monitoring expert at the Woods Hole Research Center and lead contributor to the carbon analysis. “Now we have shown they are also keepers of a huge, rigorously quantified store of carbon and therefore global players in climate change mitigation. We know they are reliable guardians of that carbon — and all the important ecosystem services provided by tropical forests — as long as they have legally recognized rights to their forests.”

Leaders of indigenous groups from the Amazon, Mesoamerica, the Congo and Indonesia—intent on communicating their messages to as many audiences as possible while in Paris— took part in a number of press briefings and other efforts to reach journalists during the COP.

At one event, indigenous technicians showed off their abilities to create detailed maps of traditional lands, and to monitor forests for illegal activities. They used cutting-edge tools like sophisticated computer software, drones, cell-phones and GPS systems, as well as the wisdom of elders to help create detailed maps based on ancestral links to landmarks of great cultural and spiritual value.

In the evenings, indigenous leaders joined advocates and allies at Point Ephemere, a gathering place downtown that looks out on a Parisian canal. There they celebrated the success of #ifnotusthenwho, a global film venture and social media campaign that wove together the stories of forest peoples’ successes and strife as they attempt to save their homes.

A second social media campaign, entitled, #PaddletoParis, brought indigenous peoples and their allies on board a tourist cruiser on the Seine, turning it into a symbolic “canoe,” yet another vehicle for letting the world know they have earned a role in deciding the fate of their forests—not just for themselves, but for the health of the planet.

And when it became clear that negotiators were considering removal of the reference to human and indigenous rights from the main text of the climate accord, the disappointment of the world’s indigenous peoples could be heard through the voice of UN Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who provided a forum for protest.

“You cannot bargain away human rights,” Tauli-Corpuz said at a briefing in the Blue Zone, where she argued that indigenous peoples need to be protected from the loss of their lands, which are threatened by growing demand for food, fuel, mineral wealth and new sources of hydro-electric power.

“When human rights are protected and respected, then climate change mitigation is achieved,” she added, according to a Reuters article that was published on the New York Times website.

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