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2023’s top 10 Indigenous news stories (commentary)

image: Indigenous elder of the Pataxó tribe in Brazil. Photo credit: Brastock Images. Licensed via Adobe Photo Stock
  • Indigenous experts from leading Indigenous organizations and the U.N. share their list of the top 10 Indigenous news stories from 2023.
  • This year saw many emerging trends, including the creation of funding mechanisms led by Indigenous organizations, criticism of carbon markets, record-breaking heat, and Indigenous women’s growing role as leaders.
  • While the presence and recognition of the role of Indigenous people in conservation continues to expand, experts say the recognition of their rights and inclusion continues to be a challenge.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

1. Indigenous women play a growing role as leaders

Indigenous women are emerging as leaders in addressing climate change, confronting their invisibility within patriarchal structures. In a landmark event in September 2023, over 8,000 women from around the world gathered in Brazil’s capital for the Indigenous Women’s March, demanding recognition for their pivotal role in protecting the country’s diverse biomes. The central message echoed the link between safeguarding Indigenous lands and combating climate change, emphasizing the necessity of including Indigenous women in decision-making processes and politics.

This collective action was spearheaded by four Indigenous women leaders who were elected in 2022 with one appointed by President Lula da Silva.

Elected federal deputy Celia Xakriabá’s statement during the march encapsulated their mission: “We are here to say that we — Indigenous women are the healers of the Earth. We are the ancestral voice of the Earth speaking to us. It is not possible to think of valuing human rights if you kill the Earth.”

During the global climate negotiations (COP28) in Dubai, Minister for Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara, a prominent Indigenous leader, led Brazil’s delegation in climate talks, marking the first time an Indigenous woman held such a critical position. She expressed the government’s commitment to biodiversity conservation and emphasized the need to demarcate Indigenous territories to ensure their full ownership and support for sustainable economies, diverging from the mainstream model of resource exploitation for development.

Indigenous women’s leadership is expected to play a prominent role in the upcoming COP30 in Brazil in 2025. Their influence is expected to shape policies prioritizing environmental conservation and Indigenous communities’ rights, marking a significant advancement in the global battle against climate change.

More than 5,000 Indigenous peoples participated in the 2023 Acampamento Terra Livre (ATL) march in Brasilia on April 26, demanding the demarcation of Indigenous territories and the end of violence against Indigenous peoples. Image by Maiara Dourado / CIMI.
Indigenous women participating in the 2023 Acampamento Terra Livre (ATL) march in Brasilia on April 26, demanding the demarcation of Indigenous territories and the end of violence against Indigenous peoples. Image by Maiara Dourado / CIMI.

2. Landmark victory for Indigenous peoples in the Philippines

In a landmark victory for the Indigenous peoples of Palawan, the Philippine Supreme Court in August 2023 issued a writ of kalikasan against Celestial Nickel Mining and Exploration Corporation, Ipilan Nickel Corporation, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau. This comes on the heels of a successful cease and desist order obtained by the Indigenous communities against the two mining firms operating in their ancestral domain.

This victory holds significant implications for the broader anti-mining struggle across the country, setting a precedent for legal action against activities deemed harmful to the environment. For years, the Indigenous peoples of Palawan have been vocal in their opposition to mining operations on their lands, which include illegal tree-cutting activities and deforestation of Mount Mantalingahan — the highest peak in Palawan and a protected landscape.

The Supreme Court’s decision underscores the urgency of addressing the potential irreparable environmental damage caused by mining operations, the failure of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Mines and Geosciences Bureau to take appropriate action, and the resulting peril faced by the affected Indigenous communities. The court also recognized that mining operations are leading to extreme flooding and contamination of fishing areas in several municipalities.

It should be noted that most of the mining activities in the country are in Indigenous territories. These activities have severely polluted rivers and other water bodies, resulting in serious health problems in addition to land and resource grabs. Indigenous peoples and environment advocates hope that this action by the Supreme Court will regulate mining operations in favor of protecting the environment and communities.

Pala’wan Indigenous settlement in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape. Image courtesy of MMPL Office.

3. Growing list of new studies examine conservation in Indigenous and local community lands

This year saw a long list of studies on Indigenous and local community ecosystem management and their impacts in local and regional contexts. Although there is a lack of data on Indigenous conservation of ecosystems and forests compared to that of state protected areas, this information is increasingly being made available and researched, say scientists. Conservationists expect more papers, using more data, to be published in the coming years as global environmental goals look to Indigenous and local communities to participate in conservation and climate mitigation efforts.

Here are the findings of some of the studies of the year:

  • Indigenous lands in Brazil’s Amazon have the potential to absorb over 7,000 tons of noxious fumes from forest fires every year, estimated a study. This would prevent about 15 million cases of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases annually, which would otherwise cost $2 billion to Brazil’s public health system.
  • Deforestation rates were lower and reforestation rates higher in Indigenous territories where land tenure had been formalized, found a study that looked at changes in forest cover in 129 Indigenous territories in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest between 1995 and 2016.
  • Protected areas and Indigenous territories in the Amazon Rainforest experienced just one-third of the loss of primary forest compared to non-protected areas, according to a report. Between 2017 and 2021, protected areas lost slightly less forest than Indigenous territories, but deforestation was lower in Indigenous territories.
  • Subsistence communities can drive forest loss to meet their basic needs when external pressures, poverty, and demand for natural resources increase, according to a study unveiling triggers that turn livelihoods from sustainable into deforestation drivers.
  • Locally managed marine areas in Fiji strengthened the mechanisms believed to advance conservation efforts but ultimately led to few social, economic, or even ecological benefits, according to a study.
  • However, in the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean, another study found that well-enforced marine protected areas are not only beneficial for conservation but can also lift up the socioeconomic status of the local and Indigenous communities that live near them.
  • Forests in 15 tropical countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities are associated with improved outcomes for carbon storage, biodiversity, and forest livelihoods, found a study.
A fisher in Fiji.
A fisher in Fiji. Image by Tom Vierus / Ocean Image Bank.

4. Carbon markets and the energy transition grow as climate strategies of concern

This year saw more bombs drop on carbon markets, which received a high level of negative press and exposure compared to previous years: a Guardian investigation found most carbon credits were “worthless,” the head of a top carbon credit certifier left his post, and a litany of new reports on the negative impacts of certain carbon projects on Indigenous and local communities kept pouring in. Allegations of land rights violations, barring access to resources, sexual abuse, lack of consultation and miscalculations of carbon storage were a regular occurrence in 2023.

Although some experts say not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” as high-quality, regulated carbon markets can store billions of tons of emissions, while Indigenous people remain divided on their potential, an overall wariness of the trade remains. Among the key questions are: Who will control these ecosystems, and how will they manage them, in addition to the people who inhabit them?

As carbon markets were increasingly pushed as an essential climate mitigation strategy at the U.N. climate conference COP28, human rights organizations say important improvements need to be made in the trade to increase the integrity of its credits. High-integrity credits ensure that credits are unique, real, additional, permanent, and measurable, as well as ensure that communities, especially Indigenous peoples and local communities, benefit the most from these programs.

Agreement on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which deals with the regulation of these markets, failed to break a deadlock at COP28.

And as efforts towards another climate mitigation strategy, the clean energy transition, get more serious, so does the prospect of mining for critical minerals on or near community lands to feed these renewable technologies. Research published this year in Nature Sustainability suggests that almost half of all mining operations aimed at meeting increased demand for these critical minerals are found either on or near Indigenous and communal lands, raising alarm bells within Indigenous rights organizations.

A cobalt mine in central Africa.
A cobalt mine in central Africa. Image by Fairphone via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

They fear the increasing demand for transition minerals could lead to their eviction or subject them to the adverse effects of pollution and environmental degradation involved in mining, significantly impacting their livelihoods. In response, Indigenous, civil society, and human rights groups are pumping more energy, time, and resources into pushing for a “just” energy transition across local, international, and private institutions, as well as highlighting the need to respect Indigenous rights as highlighted in the U.N. declaration on Indigenous rights.

5. On the frontlines of record heat

July in 2023 was the warmest month on record, going back to 1880, with some scientists saying it’s likely the warmest in around 125,000 years since the last interglacial period ended. The combination of climate change and the warmth produced by a newly developing El Niño (a naturally occurring warmer period not seen since 2016) helped supercharge the hottest June, July, and August on record. The U.S., Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and China saw deadly record-shattering heat waves, floods, and drought, while unprecedented wildfires in Canada turned skies orange on North America’s east coast.

Given that many Indigenous peoples live close to the land and depend directly on local resources, they’re especially vulnerable to the massive changes now sweeping our planet. Rising temperatures, fires, drought, and floods have threatened forests and ecosystems that tribes rely on for hunting, gathering, farming, and logging.

“The heat is unbearable or almost unlivable,” says Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an Indigenous activist from the Mbororo people in Chad. “During … April, the temperature was almost 52° Celsius [125.6° Fahrenheit]. All this has an impact on my Mbororo people, who find themselves with drought and a great lack of water for cattle and humans.”

Although many researchers and activists consider Indigenous peoples to be Earth’s best land stewards, their communities haven’t been receiving the funding or resources necessary to adapt to a hotter, drier, stormier, fiery world, many times due to the lack of access to their traditional lands. Often inhabiting remote areas far from government aid, communities lack resilient infrastructure to adapt to climate change and have long histories of suffering oppression, official neglect, and poverty.

“We sow our plants and when the time of flowering comes, the drought dries them up and they die,” says Mariano from rural Indigenous Guatemala.
“We sow our plants and when the time of flowering comes, the drought dries them up and they die,” says Mariano from
rural Indigenous Guatemala. Image by S. Billy / EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

6. 100th anniversary of a historic moment

This year marked 100 years since the Indigenous leader Deskaheh, chief of the Six Nations Hereditary Council, undertook a journey to Geneva, Switzerland, to speak before the League of Nations, the predecessor of the U.N. He sought to defend the rights of Indigenous peoples before an international audience that included only recognized nations. For Indigenous advocates, his gesture became an enduring symbol of the struggle for Indigenous rights within the framework of the U.N.

Indigenous organizations have continued in Deskaheh’s footsteps throughout the last century, gradually gaining visibility in international advocacy spaces. Significant milestones include the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007.

In 2023, Indigenous organizations highlighted another milestone in collaboration with governments around the world through the Forest and Climate Leaders Partnership (FCLP), meant to martial efforts to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030, as 145 countries pledged in the Glasgow forests declaration at the U.N. climate conference in 2021. In the initiative, governments from 27 countries are partnering with Indigenous groups such as the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATC) to maintain high-level political leadership on forest, land use, and climate change issues. During the U.N. climate conference COP28, they presented a platform to support Indigenous peoples and local communities in forest climate action and strengthen collaborations to maximize the impact of climate investments.

Continued efforts to participate in U.N. processes and collaborate with governments and funders are important to drive change, say Indigenous advocates.

“For tropical forest governance processes, we emphasize the need to remind and demand from states their environmental commitments, since as Indigenous peoples, we see how certain governments, with permission or complicity, contribute to the destruction of the environment we inhabit,” says Juan Carlos Jintiach, shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize and Executive Secretary of the GATC. “We urge solidarity and unity. We cannot undertake this struggle in isolation. We need to ask for help and make our proposals visible.”

Attendees from Brazil pose during the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 5, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Image by COP28 / Mahmoud Khaled via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed).
Attendees from Brazil pose during the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 5, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Image by COP28 / Mahmoud Khaled via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed).

7. Funding mechanisms led and created by Indigenous groups are an emerging trend

Despite Indigenous peoples’ role in conserving 80% of the world’s biodiversity and stewarding 36% of intact forests and 24% of carbon in tropical forests, Indigenous and local communities received less than 1% of global climate funding in the last decade, according to the latest estimate.

In the face of this reality, a significant trend is emerging: the creation of financial mechanisms by Indigenous and local groups to ensure funding flows directly to their communities and organizations. Shandia, the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GACT) initiative, is part of this effort in social justice, environmental protection, and, above all, in finance. Also part of this emerging trend are funds such as Nusantara in Indonesia, launched in 2023, and the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests’ Territorial Fund which was also strengthened. Strategic funding plans also advanced for the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) national fund in Brazil and the Central African Indigenous network’s (REPALEAC) mechanism in the Congo Basin.

These organizations are increasingly consolidating themselves as key rights actors in accountable financial management through their platform to secure direct funding to communities for their efforts in combating climate change, conserving biodiversity, and supporting their self-determined development goals.

Shandia acts as a high-level political platform to monitor and evaluate why funds are not arriving and creates instruments to correct these errors. Data collected by a Shandia study in 2023 and presented at the U.N. climate summit COP28 shows that only 0.19% of funds from one of the bilateral donors and 7% from one of the philanthropic funders of the Forest Tenure Funders Group Commitment, which pledged $1.7 billion in 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow, were transferred directly to Indigenous and local community organizations.

An Indigenous man throwing a fishing spear.
Traditional management techniques included closing off fishing areas when community leaders passed away or limiting fishing during spawning season. Image © Elodie Van Lierde | WCS.

8. Big promises from new global nature fund

On August 24, 2023, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) — the world’s largest source of multilateral funding for biodiversity — ratified and established the new Global Biodiversity Framework Fund. The new fund plans to raise nearly $250 billion to help budget-strapped countries meet the targets of the Global Biodiversity Framework to restore nature worldwide by 2030 as agreed during last year’s U.N. biodiversity conference, COP 15.

In a first-of-its-kind move for the GEF, 20% of the fund will be channeled to non-state actors, like Indigenous peoples and local communities, to support their initiatives to conserve biodiversity. While Indigenous communities welcome the move and are hopeful the new allocation will help them achieve their own conservation efforts, they are skeptical about the barriers to accessing the funds, including delays and a difficult application process.

Some Indigenous representatives urge the GEF to rethink documentation requirements and the need for capacity building in the communities and respect the individual community’s differences while designing the modalities for the GBFF.

A Brazil nut producer in the Amazon rainforest.
Melquiades, a Brazil nut producer in the Amazon rainforest. Image by Yoly Gutierrez/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

9. Indigenous women receive spotlight in Congo Basin conservation efforts

This year, the efforts of Indigenous peoples and local communities, especially Indigenous women, were identified as an indispensable component in achieving the objectives of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating biodiversity loss in the Congo Basin.

The forests and ecosystems in the Congo Basin make up the world’s second-largest rainforest in the world, after the Amazon rainforest. Sprawling across several African countries, they are rich in biodiversity, with both emblematic and endemic species, and are vital to the global climate by absorbing nearly 1.5 billion tons of carbon per year. Despite the contribution of women in nature conservation and climate resilience, their contribution still needs to be supported or addressed.

With the support of the minister of forest economy of the Republic of Congo as an ambassador of Indigenous women in Central Africa, the minister of justice and human rights of the Republic of Congo, the Network of Indigenous and Local Populations for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa (REPALEAC), Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), the Central African Forests Commission (COMIFAC) and other international partners, the first sub-regional forum of Indigenous women and local communities in Africa was held in May in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. It brought together some two hundred participants from over 20 countries worldwide.

The forum aimed to strengthen and promote the involvement of Indigenous women and local communities from Central Africa and the Congo Basin in biodiversity conservation and climate resilience. A roadmap of priority actions was drawn up to support their efforts and enable their direct access to climate and biodiversity funds.

A woman farmer in Yanonge, DRC. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

10. Summit of the world’s largest carbon sinks recognizes Indigenous peoples

Twelve years after the first summit in 2011, the second summit of the world’s three forest basins was held in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, in October. It welcomed delegates from the world’s largest three tropical forests and carbon sinks: the Congo Basin in Africa, the Amazon Basin in South America, and the Borneo Mekong Basin in Southeast Asia.

Placed under the auspices of the United Nations and the African Union, the summit brought together a large number of participants, including heads of state, funding agencies, international institutions, and representatives of Indigenous peoples and local communities across the regions.

The summit aims to create a global ecosystem alliance with governance based on South-South cooperation. These regions alone account for 80% of the world’s tropical forests and two-thirds of terrestrial biodiversity, playing an essential role in regulating the carbon balance. The summit seeks to implement, within the framework of the United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration, the first global coalition to restore 350 million hectares (about 865 million acres) of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

This summit presented an opportunity to address the concerns of Indigenous peoples on tropical forest and biodiversity conservation efforts. At the end, the summit recognized Indigenous rights, financial support for Indigenous and local conservation efforts, and the amplification of community voices and concerns as custodians of these tropical ecosystems.

The Congo River. According to recent research, the degradation of tropical forests in Amazonia and Southeast Asia may soon make them net emitters of carbon, leaving the Congo Basin as possibly the last significant land-based tropical carbon sink. Image by Ahtziri Gonzalez/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Joan Carling is an Indigenous activist from the Cordillera with more than 20 years of working on Indigenous issues from the grassroots to the international level. She currently serves as the the executive director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI). She was the General Secretary of the Asia Indigenous People Pact (AIPP) from September 2008 to December 2016. She was appointed as Indigenous expert of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2014-2016) by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. She was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by U.N. Environment in September 2018. Juan Carlos Jintiach is an Indigenous Shuar leader shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize and executive director of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATC). He is also the coordinator of international economic cooperation and autonomous Indigenous development for COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin) and is an elected official who represented the Indigenous peoples of Latin America at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. He is a focal point in the Indigenous People’s Caucus within the UNFCCC. Joseph Itongwa is an Indigenous advocate in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo and is the coordinator of REPALEF (the Network of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems). Joseph has been director or coordinator of several local and provincial organisations defending human and Indigenous peoples’ rights. As such, he has represented Indigenous peoples in international meetings of the U.N., the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the World Bank.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here:

Joan Carling, Joseph Itongwa, and Juan Carlos Jintiach
Joan Carling, Joseph Itongwa, and Juan Carlos Jintiach
  Joan Carling is an indigenous activist from the Cordillera, Philippines, and the executive director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI). Joseph Itongwa is an Indigenous Walikale from the North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the coordinator of the Network of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems (REPALEF). Juan Carlos Jintiachuan is an Indigenous Shuar leader shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize and executive director of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATC).
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