Almost exactly two years ago, the local communities of Mahan forest, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, had plenty of reason to celebrate. On the eve of the International Day of Forests 2015, they received news that their ancestral lands would not be auctioned off for coal mining. This was the result of a long and intense struggle to secure their communal rights over the forest that provide livelihoods to thousands of people living there.
Mahan Forest Victory Celebration in India. © Greenpeace / Sudhanshu Malhotra
The villagers of Mahan may have won a hard-fought victory against the coal companies and the authorities seeking quick cash, but as long as their community rights and their role as stewards of the forest are not fully recognised, the coal under their feet will remain a source of temptation and tension.
And they are not alone. From the First Nations in Canada resisting pipelines for tar sands on their ancestral lands, to the Khanty reindeer herders of Western Siberia trying to protect their lands from oil exploration, hundreds of communities worldwide see their land rights threatened by fossil fuel companies. In fact, an estimated 30 percent of oil and gas production by U.S. companies alone is being sourced on or near indigenous lands.
Reindeer Herder Stepan Sopochin and Children in Russia. © Alexey Andronov / Greenpeace
For decades, we have witnessed widespread destruction of the environment for hungry exploration of coal, oil and gas. This assault on communal lands is not only a tragedy for the affected communities, but for all of us. Research by Rights and Resource Initiative and World Resources Institute has shown that where Indigenous peoples and local communities have secure legal rights to their lands, carbon storage is higher and deforestation rates are lower, thereby contributing to mitigating global warming.
Yet globally, communities only hold legal ownership rights to 20 percent of their customary lands, leaving the door open for states and private companies to reach in, evict villages and cut down the trees in order to reach the fossil treasures beneath. In their wake, once pristine and valuable forests and rivers are turned into barren wastelands.
The Munduruku Demarcate Indigenous Lands in the Amazon. © Rogério Assis / Greenpeace
So while many states and corporations continue to regard our forests and lakes as endless storage rooms for commercial exploitation, Indigenous and local communities respond by standing up for their rights and protecting their environment. They show us an alternative vision of the world - a system which respects our symbiotic relationship with nature and is based on sustainable use and collective management of resources for the benefit of all.
On International Day of Forests, and this entire month, local and Indigenous communities around the world, supported by thousands of citizens, are taking peaceful action under the umbrella of the Break Free movement, to protect their lands and forests, demand recognition of their rights and keep coal, oil and gas in the ground.
By recognising communities’ rights over their ancestral lands, we can and should contribute towards achieving all of these. Because not only the climate, but our very environment and the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people are at stake.
Fionuala Cregan is the coordinator of Land Rights Now, an international campaign to secure land rights of Indigenous People and local communities worldwide. On Earth Day 22 April 2017 participants of Land Rights Now are mobilising across more than twenty countries to show that secure land rights are central to fighting climate change and protecting the earth.