Humanity has just received our second red alert about the imminent collapse of Earth’s life-giving systems. The release this week of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report, coupled with last October’s equally distressing global warming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), confirms we face not one, but twin, crises. Homo sapiens are in one race against global warming, and in another against the collapse of nature. Every ecosystem in the world — terrestrial and aquatic — is in trouble.
Buried in both reports is this redeeming upshot: global scenarios on species extinction and global warming lack adequate consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. Their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems is undervalued, and their chosen pathways toward future development are too often ignored.
Meanwhile, solutions exist. Indigenous peoples and local communities – guardians of the majority of Earth’s carbon-rich and biodiverse ecosystems – have, according to IPBES report, “been proactively confronting such challenges in partnership with each other and with an array of other stakeholders.” They have wisdom stemming from generational interdependence on nature and nature’s contributions for their subsistence, livelihoods and health. It is precisely this wisdom we need today informing global solutions to these crises.
In Indonesian Borneo, there exists a modest but important example of what is possible when the knowledge, practices, and values of local communities determine conservation interventions. It’s a microcosm of what’s possible when a radical social transformation is enacted. Locally designed solutions have halted rampant deforestation in a 250,000 acre tropical rainforest in Borneo – a lung of the planet – while simultaneously improving people’s health and reducing poverty.
Since 2007 at Gunung Palung National Park (GPNP), in Indonesian Borneo, indigenous and local communities have reversed deforestation by developing locally-designed, consensus-based solutions. When asked during multiple meetings in 40 communities what they would require to stop illegally logging in the rainforest, as a collective these communities concluded they would need access to affordable quality healthcare and training in organic farming. Out of these meetings came the idea to erect a clinic staffed by Indonesians and facilitate trainings with expert organic farmers from the neighboring island of Java. Villages receive variable discounts on their health care based on rates of illegal logging, but everyone can always access care with non-cash payment options like rainforest seedlings used for reforestation.
Their local solution, in other words, quite naturally (maybe predictably) deconstructed the false boundaries between their own human development and the protection of their rainforest ecosystem.
Their design is working. Since 2007, these communities have facilitated an almost 90% decline in the number of households participating in illegal logging in GPNP, and a more than 50% drop in infant mortality. The loss of primary rainforest has ceased, 50,000 acres of secondary forest have regenerated, and habitat for 2,500 endangered Bornean Orangutans has been protected. This magnificent rainforest, an important lung of the Earth, is healing. And that is extremely relevant for people wherever you live. The remaining primary forest in GPNP stores as much carbon as is released in 14 years of pollution from San Francisco.
If this success could be scaled globally, saving rainforests would get us 20-35% of the way towards keeping Earth’s warming within 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. It would also mean greater habitat protection for the thousands of plant and animal species inhabiting these forests. Plants and animals that complete Earth’s life-giving systems by pollinating our food crops, regulating our temperatures, cleaning our air and water, and providing scientists with the molecules needed to cure cancer and other diseases.
For generations, indigenous and local peoples (if they weren’t completely ignored) have been told how to manage their ancestral lands – despite having the closest connection to these ecosystems. In our case, we trusted them to know the solutions, and they turned the prevailing model of development on its head. They, quite naturally, designed a system’s approach - linking their health, household economy, occupation and rainforest - and created the beginnings of a restorative economy.
Their story is a refutation of the doomsday climate narrative that says we are in a nearly hopeless race against time, one that ordinary people have become powerless to affect. While technological innovation and complex policy solutions are surely needed to protect nature and slow global warming, there is plenty for the rest of us to do. We can start by listening to indigenous peoples and local communities from Vancouver, B.C. to Akanko, Japan. We can follow their lead and preserve their knowledge, and – in so doing – we can protect the lungs of our earth.