In the battle against climate change, more funding is being directed to preserving the planet's forests and wilderness regions - often home to marginalised Indigenous peoples. Project COBRA is showing how their skills and experience can help make these vital conservation efforts more successful, with the UN Development Programme keeping a close eye.
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The Guiana Shield region in South America is the world’s largest continuous area of tropical rain forest and home to hundreds of communities of Indigenous peoples. COBRA worked with several such communities to investigate how they manage the natural resources they depend on while ensuring their sustainability. The team looked at traditional crops and crop rotation patterns, fishing techniques deployed and the ways cultural traditions are passed on.
COBRA showed that Indigenous community owned solutions to environmental and social challenges can help implement sustainable development programmes. Policy-makers now have vital information on how to partner with Indigenous peoples to preserve ecosystems and promote social fairness.
The importance of COBRA’s findings is widely recognised and the UNDP-supported Guiana Shield Facility invited the project to discuss how to integrate community owned solutions into their future financing strategies.
Less coherence, less cohesion
“Forest regions are important for reducing and offsetting emissions and there are many international funding initiatives aimed at their preservation,” explains project coordinator Jay Mistry. “However, while these programmes want to safeguard the interests of Indigenous peoples, in practice we see few benefits for local communities. The reasons for this are a lack of coherence in policy-making, insufficient management capacity in the regions and poor governance.”
As a result, Indigenous communities can suffer unintended consequences, says Mistry. Communities that traditionally act collectively based on experiences developed over decades, if not centuries, have problems when authorities insist on individual contracts that pay for the provision of specific environmental services, such as storing carbon in delimited forest areas.
Compensating individuals to abandon established practices, such as rotational farming within forested areas, may lead to a loss of community cohesion, traditional skills and also environmental degradation as individuals are encouraged to grow cash crops intensively using artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Indigenous rotational farming in forests can be highly sustainable if communities are given land rights to their traditional territories. So it is possible to preserve the environment and maintain community cohesion by supporting ‘community owned solutions’ directly rather than a simplistic focus on payments for ecosystem services.
Communities with cameras
“COBRA shows that rather than ‘requiring help’ – as policy-making often assumes –Indigenous communities offer solutions for environmental sustainability,” explains Mistry. COBRA investigated how they sustain their communities and natural resources through encouraging villagers to create their own visual narratives and stories. Often undertaken by younger village members, the process of creating video and photographic recordings reinforced discussion and investigation of what the community considered worked for them.
This participatory process helped to build pride in their own solutions to problems, and encouraged participants to take the lead in managing the challenges they face. It was also vital for communicating to high-level decision-makers and policy-makers.
Sustainable survival strategies identified by communities included: multi-crop farming in response to observed weather variability exacerbated by climate change; traditional fishing practices in response to overharvesting due to the introduction of commercial practices; and building community resilience through novel and fun ways of preserving traditions in response to cultural loss.
From good practice to better policy
COBRA held discussions with the communities structured around the System Viability framework. “System Viability recognises that there are no simple solutions to challenges – any supposedly positive intervention may also have negative impacts. Successful communities have developed a balance between survival strategies in order to maximise resilience in a changing social and environmental context,” explains Mistry.
Discussions covered community survival strategies such as accommodating more ‘western practices’ among young people while preserving traditions. “We gained a better understanding of community owned survival strategies which has allowed us to make comparisons across different organisational scales, between community strategies and regional, national and international policies. We have identified synergies where higher policies support local community strategies that maintain social and environmental sustainability, and also conflicts where they don’t, resulting in a downward spiral of poverty and environmental degradation.”
“Policy-makers are taking up our findings,” Mistry says. “As well as working with the Guiana Shield Facility, COBRA itself is continuing through the Cobra Collective, a social enterprise set up by several project members to promote the identification, recording and sharing of community owned solutions. Our approach is applicable worldwide not only for Indigenous communities, but also for other marginalised rural and urban communities that may not have had the opportunity to promote their own solutions to environmental and social challenges”.