Why land-rights justice for Indigenous Peoples and local communities must be at the heart of the climate movement

Vanessa Terschluse

Did you know the root of the conservation movement as we know it in the Western world can be traced back to colonialism?

As Europeans arrived in their soon-to-be-colonies in the tropics, they brought with them forms of land-management that were based on resource exploitation focused on economic growth. According to historians and anthropologists, the conservation movement was born when colonialists realised that they had to preserve at least some part of these ecosystems to support their ongoing extraction of natural resources, citing forest reserves in the Caribbean created to preserve natural resources for colonial extraction as some of the world’s first natural parks.

Why does this matter today?

Because climate change, the biodiversity crisis and the collapse of our ecosystems are all challenges that are deeply connected, as well as having a common cause: land-use change. This term refers to the conversion of the use of a piece of land by humans, from one purpose to another. In a world where we value products over nature, and profit over the benefits to our health, wellbeing and the climate that ecosystems bring us, land-use change often takes the form of deforestation in the name of agricultural activity, urban development or industrial output. All of this plays a key role in making the climate crisis worse; agriculture alone is responsible for one third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

So, while conservation projects set out to tackle this by doing – often brilliant – work to preserve the natural world, if we don’t look into the roots of what we today understand as conservation work, we fail to address the problems and challenges it has undoubtedly created, and ultimately miss the opportunity to create a more just and sustainable world for people and planet alike. Throughout history, the establishment of reserves – such as the aforementioned ‘national parks’ created in Tobago and St Vincent in 1764 – has often led to the expulsion of Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) from their ancestral lands.

In many cases, IPLCs find themselves forced to leave the land their ancestors have lived on and watched over for centuries, as new rules and legislation prevent them from being able to support themselves adequately on the land they know and love. This was the case with the Caiçara community in Paraty, Brazil. Caiçaras are the traditional inhabitants of the southern coast of Brazil, and form a distinct community of descendants of Indigenous Peoples, Africans and Europeans. Despite having inhabited the southern coast of Brazil for centuries, and inherited a way of life based on subsistence agriculture and small-scale fishing from their Indigenous ancestors, their livelihoods are now being threatened by the expansion of the real-estate market on Brazil’s southern beaches, and strict environmental laws.

At the same time as approval was given for the construction of new beach houses locally, two national reserves created in Paraty prohibited the local Caiçara community from using land or marine resources in the area. Seeing themselves unable to support their families and community, the Caiçara were forced to leave, finding new shelter in the favelas (informal settlements) of Rio de Janeiro. Systems in which we allow for settler colonial activity to continue to expand, while taking IPLCs land away, not only exacerbate injustice, but also contribute to the environmental crisis we are all in. If we want to have a liveable future, there is no way around restoring ownership and land-management rights to Indigenous peoples.

Why IPLCs must reclaim their land-rights

In addition to holding long-standing rights as the primary owners of their lands, IPLCs play a significant role as custodians of the natural environment, often achieving greater conservation results and sustaining and protecting more biodiversity in comparison to government protected areas. Research has found that despite making up less than 5% of the world’s population, Indigenous people support 80% of the world’s biodiversity . By guaranteeing the land-rights of IPLC communities, we are helping to move the needle on species protection and averting the worst impacts of the climate crisis. By ensuring that ecosystems are healthy, we can support the wellbeing of the global community, considering that key factors that underline our every-day activities – such as access to clean water, food and medicine – are all dependent on nature. Avoiding the worst impacts of climate change is also dependent on a healthy and thriving natural world, since ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest play a major role in storing carbon and regulating global temperatures.

How can we ensure IPLC land-rights are recognised and upheld?

While up to 2.5 billion people worldwide depend on land that is held, managed or used by Indigenous and local communities to survive, and that land together covers more than 50% of the world’s surface, IPLCs legally only own one-fifth of these lands. Recognizing that IPLCs have managed and protected these lands for centuries, sometimes even millennia, as well as the important role they still play today in protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, the land rights movement aims to re-establish ownership and management rights to IPLCs. This is achieved through safeguarding the rights of IPLCs to determine their own way of life, express themselves culturally, and live on the lands they are so intimately connected with – as well as make management decisions which are crucial to protecting ecosystems and fighting climate change.

man with boat on lake correct
The Caiçara community in Paraty, Brazil, have been forced out of areas they have inhabited for centuries as a result of strict environmental laws.

Four organisations and individuals to support

Interested in learning more? There are multiple individuals and organisations working to ensure IPLCs have their rights respected. Here are four that are inspiring us to expand our understanding of the IPLC rights movement and be vocal advocates for IPLC land-rights.


IYARINA is a research station located in the Ecuadorian Amazon, within a Kichwa speaking community on the South bank of Río Napo. Language plays a particularly crucial role in how we make sense and relate to the world around us. Research has shown that the lack of usage of Indigenous languages presents a great threat to the role of Indigenous people as stewards of their land, as well as creating barriers for the inter-generational passing on of knowledge related to land management practices. IYARINA tackles this by focusing on the preservation and teaching of Indigenous languages in the Ecuadoran Amazon, the recording of the oral tradition of Indigenous knowledge and its adaptation to practical scientific projects, as well as capacity-building and mentoring with Indigenous youth. Projects such as IYARINA, where knowledge-holders can pass their wisdom on to students, not only celebrates and communicates the value of Indigenous knowledge and culture – consolidating Indigenous People’s role as rightful stewards of the ecosystems they are connected to – but also ensures that Indigenous land management practices are centred in the management of fragile ecosystems. By keeping these practices alive, they have the opportunity to become best practices, becoming widely scaled and contributing to species protection and climate mitigation on a global level.

2. Alice Pataxó

Alice Pataxó is an Indigenous communicator and activist from the Pataxó people. Through her work, Alice aims to raise awareness about how the Brazilian government’s current environmental and agricultural policies present threats to Indigenous land rights, as well as to challenge the colonial perspective of Indigenous People in Brazil. Alice, now 19, has been a local leader in her community since she was 15 years old, and has over 120K followers on her social platforms, and reached over 5K followers in her YouTube channel Nuhé (a term referring to the resilience of the Indigenous People of Brazil) within a month of creating it. Invited to speak at the UN Climate Change Conference of Youth, COY16, Alice used the opportunity to dismiss the claims by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro that Brazil’s forests are in no need of protection, and impressed Malala Yousafzai with her eloquence and determination.

3. Seed

As Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network, Seed is creating a movement of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people focused on climate and land justice. Seed acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are at the frontline of the most dramatic climate impacts in Australia – such as flooding, extreme heat and exacerbated bushfires – and that Indigenous Peoples must be at the heart of the solutions to the climate emergency. One of the clearest examples of this is the 2019/2020 bushfires, now referred to as the ‘black summer’ in Australia: research has since shown that Indigenous land management and traditional burning of the land could have prevented the event from reaching the dimensions it did.

4. Aretha Brown

Aretha Brown is an Indigenous activist and artist, advocating for Indigenous voices to be heard in Australia. Her leadership in campaigning to make teaching on Australia’s Indigenous history compulsory – a crucial step to educate and decolonise the nation – led her to become the only woman and the youngest person ever to be elected as the Prime Minister of the National Indigenous Youth Parliament in 2017.


Learn more and advocate for the indigenous peoples and communities with  Campaign For Nature, Nia Tero, BOA Foundation, and If Not Us Then Who.


Did you enjoy this blog? For more on climate justice and Indigenous rights, take a look at the following: Amplifying frontline voices at COP26 – Elenita Sales on climate justice and representation