It is widely acknowledged that the funding required to avoid catastrophic global warming is beyond what is available in public or philanthropic giving. Following calls to action by activists and the public, donor governments now spend increasing time and money on efforts to catalyse private investment in response to the climate crisis. This includes “nature-based solutions”, such as the protection and regeneration of forests and other ecosystems.
Indigenous people are uniquely placed to advise on investments in the environment. Research shows that conservation and environmental outcomes are enhanced in areas under Indigenous protection. Scientists now increasingly turn to Indigenous knowledge to inform ecological research, recognising that even modern technology cannot replace generations of environmental stewardship. Indigenous people understand better than anyone how to protect the natural environments that are central to nature-based solutions.
As efforts to scale up investment in nature increase, so does the use of language that is traditionally found in the trade and finance world. Terms such as “ecosystem services”, “carbon trading”, “natural assets”, and “green bonds” appear frequently in discussions on nature-based solutions. While intended to resonate with the private sector and generate necessary investment, use of this type of language frames the value of nature in largely financial and economic terms, and excludes Indigenous communities and perspectives from the conversation.
Indigenous understandings of nature are crucial to tackling the climate crisis
The World Bank estimates that there are 500 million forest-dependent people globally, of which around 200 million are Indigenous people. Although they make up only 6% of the global population, it is thought that 36% of intact forest landscapes, and 80% of the worlds biodiversity, are within Indigenous lands. This means that Indigenous people will be disproportionately affected by investment decisions in forests and nature, and also have the greatest potential to support the protection of these important ecosystems.
In order to truly understand what’s at stake for Indigenous communities, investors need to understand the relationship between these communities and their environments. For the Waorani people of the Amazon, for instance, the natural world plays an important cultural and spiritual role. The forest forms part of their identity, and the health of the forest ecosystem is linked to perceptions of individual and collective health. The Marind people of West Papua rely on the forest for subsistence, but also hold a kinship relationship with the natural world through a belief in their shared descent from ancestral spirits. In North America, the Rarámuri concept of ‘iwfgara’, though difficult to translate, encapsulates the view of the interconnectedness of all natural life.
These are just a few examples of the cultural and spiritual importance of nature that is widespread among Indigenous communities. Rather than being viewed as an asset or service on which an investor can place a price, the natural world holds important cultural and spiritual value for Indigenous people. This value is rooted in traditions and beliefs which are deeply local, and do not map easily onto the language that frames the value of nature in economic terms.
Excluding Indigenous perspectives from the conversation
The language we use when devising solutions to global challenges is important because it frames the discussion in ways that influence the outcomes. It allows those who are well-versed in certain terms to engage comfortably in debate, while creating a barrier for those who are not familiar. Most often, these barriers actively exclude the most marginalised and affected populations.
The use of economic language in the discussion of nature-based solutions prioritises a one-dimensional view of nature that excludes Indigenous perspectives. Not only does this impede meaningful participation of groups who understand how to protect and restore nature, but it can also create conflict where an economic valuation does not align with Indigenous perspectives on the value of a natural asset.
Conflicting perspectives put Indigenous communities and environments at risk
The call for scaled up investment in nature-based solutions comes as violence against environmental defenders increases annually. Last year saw the highest number of environmental defenders killed on record, with 40% of the 212 people killed belonging to Indigenous communities. On average, four defenders have been killed every week since December 2015. These figures do not include the threats, intimidation and sexual violence perpetrated against environmental defenders and their families and communities.
Honduran Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres reflected that companies “want to privatise our rivers, the water and the forests”. She was assassinated in 2016 for her work in defence of the environment.
This brings into sharp focus the conflicts that occur when local and Indigenous understandings of environmental value clash with those of external investors. It would be a mistake to assume that these issues only affect traditional investment projects. There are increasing reports of conflicts and rights abuses related to “green” investment, including renewable energy infrastructure, projects linked to carbon offset schemes, and implementation of UN forest protection initiatives.
These cases signal an alarming lack of meaningful participation of local communities in investment decisions. Those that are designing investments in nature-based solutions must ensure that affected communities participate throughout all stages of project development.
Indigenous people must be involved in investment decisions
It is critical that we scale up investment in the protection and restoration of forests and other ecosystems. The adoption of “investor-friendly” language to define the value of nature may help to raise the funds required to meet climate targets, but this cannot preclude the meaningful participation of Indigenous people in decision-making.
Doing so will not only exclude those who are best placed to advise on nature-based solutions, and risk conflict between Indigenous people and investors where perspectives of value are not aligned; it also puts the sustainability of environmental outcomes at risk if governments and investors see the value of nature purely in financial terms.