Africa: Defending the Defenders - Tropical Forests in the Front Line

press release

"Climate change is hitting hardest those who have done least to cause it, especially the world's indigenous peoples from the Arctic to the tropics," said renowned actor and activist Alec Baldwin speaking at the 18th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on 23 April 2019.

Identifying the lack of land rights for indigenous peoples as a major problem, he warned his audience: "If you are serious about fighting climate change, get serious about empowering the people who are protecting the world's forests."

Tropical forests are critical for addressing climate change and achieving sustainable development. They are a treasure trove of biological diversity and home to indigenous peoples and forest communities, who have protected and managed them for generations.

Now, however, many of these communities find themselves on the front lines of the deforestation crisis, their lives and livelihoods threatened by illegal logging and mining operators, poachers, agribusiness, drug traffickers and even governments.

In 2017 alone, 207 environmental defenders were killed protecting their lands, territories and forests from destruction, a disproportionate number of them indigenous people.

As the threats to forest defenders are growing, new responses are also emerging.

UN Environment's Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, an international, multi-faith alliance working to bring moral urgency and faith-based leadership to global efforts to protect tropical forests and the rights of indigenous peoples, hosted an event in New York on 23 April entitled Forest Defenders: New Threats and New Responses.

The meeting compiled lessons from existing initiatives about best practices in defending the defenders of rainforests and explored where religious leaders and faith communities can add value to this effort.

Examples included the announcement of a new Global Campaign Against the Criminalization of Indigenous Peoples, a Defending Land and Environmental Defenders Coalition, and an innovation called the Community App, which uses smartphones to support indigenous peoples govern and defend their forests.

"People of faith are natural environment defenders building on their religious beliefs and sacred scripts. Mobilizing faith leaders is essential to bring back the values and ethical principles of faiths to restore and protect forests and God's creation," says Iyad Abumoghli, UN Environment's coordinator of the Faith for Earth initiative.

Forest defenders versus activists

Niamh Branigan from UN Environment's Law Division says: "It's important to note that in developed countries we are seeing, and will continue to see, more and more people choosing to defend their environment even when its destruction, removal, depletion or pollution may not threaten their immediate survival or livelihoods. Maybe the point is that anyone can become an environmental defender, and in a world where our natural world is under threat from many quarters, this will be a rising trend."

Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment's Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration, adds: "In the long term, defending our own and everyone's food and water security requires that we slow down climate change, no matter if the emissions happen next to our homes, or in another country. In that sense, we all need to become environmental defenders."

UN Environment's Interfaith Rainforest Initiative is part of a wider effort on the part of UN Environment and its partners to mobilize greater awareness of environmental rights violations around the world and the need for Member States, business and civil society to promote, protect and respect environmental rights as captured in UN Environment's environmental defenders policy and its Environmental Rights Initiative.

Speakers at the event, attended by some 600 people and webcast around the world, included Norwegian Ambassador to the United Nations Mona Juul, who reaffirmed Norway's strong commitment to the Initiative, and Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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