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Today, people are uniting around the world to advocate for Indigenous communities’ rights to their ancestral lands.  It is time for everyone to join together and insist on #LandRightsNow.  Indigenous people from Ashéninka in Peru to the Züüngar in Mongolia struggle to have their rights to their homelands legally recognized. This is not a new problem.

In fact the Rainforest Foundation was created to address exactly this issue almost 30 years ago—at the time we worked only in the rainforests of Brazil.  We began partnering with the Kayapo in Brazil and the Rainforest Foundation US has continued to help Indigenous communities throughout the Americas. We partner with Indigenous communities so that they can protect the forestlands we all depend on.

Just last year some of our partners received land titles in Panama and in Peru enabling them to stand up to loggers, ranchers and mining interests who want to cut down the forests for profit. Sadly, neither of these titles came without great sacrifice. In Panama the Wounaan fought for their title for 50 years.  In Peru, the sacrifice was unthinkable–the government ignored the Ashéninka’s land claim until four of its leaders were murdered after standing up to illegal loggers.  No one should have to put their lives on the line to protect our rainforests, but that is exactly what Indigenous people are doing every day!

There is still so much work to be done, the United Nations estimates that Indigenous people and community-based regimes live on and protect 50% of the land, yet they only have the legal right to 7% of these lands!

Indigenous communities are frequently forced off their lands, sometimes they flee because mining and oil drilling have contaminated their lands rendering them inhabitable, other times they are threatened and run off by powerful people who cut down their forests to create palm oil plantations or enormous cattle ranches, sometimes they are threatened by loggers eager to cut down the ancient trees that make up their forest homes. When they are forced to leave their homes these indigenous peoples frequently end up homeless, living on the fringes of society and in urban slums completely divorced from their forest homes. Indigenous communities almost never receive compensation for their losses.

Mappers from Pijibasal work hard to document their land claims and ensure that no one is destroying their forests.
This is not only a human rights issue, it is also an ecological disaster!  Indigenous communities tend to have close ties to the land, they have protected it for centuries and their cultures are deeply interconnected to the lands they inhabit. The relationship between Indigenous communities and their sacred sites and traditional lands has kept many forests safe for millennia.  Yet because their right to their ancestral lands are not recognized, they are easily dispossessed of their lands when someone from the outside decides their lands might have value. Corporations, Nation States and powerful individuals  increasingly recognize the value of Indigenous lands.  For example, more than 50% of the world’s gold is on Indigenous lands. In addition, because they have not cut down their forests, Indigenous communities now hold a disproportionate share of the last stands of ancient forests.
Decades ago, the Rainforest Foundation recognized that Indigenous people had a history and amazing track record of protecting their forest homes and began partnering with them to protect our rainforests. Today, more and more research proves that forests under the control of Indigenous people are healthier, more diverse and even trap more carbon than other forest lands.
Through extensive hiking, flying drones, and using GPS systems the Mapping Team produces an initial map of the community’s ancestral lands.

This year we are working to ensure that the communities of Bajo Lepe & Pijibasal, Maje Chiman, Maje Embera Drua and Rio Hondo & Platanares receive legal recognition from Panama!

Indigenous communities face an uphill struggle to protect their land and environmental rights. For example, in Peru it takes Indigenous communities 27 onerous steps to get a land title, but only 7 steps to obtain permission to mine in the Amazon, yet mining frequently ends up poisoning pristine forest lands and contaminating rivers. But even those numbers don’t fully illustrate the lengths Indigenous communities must go to in order to title their lands.  Often far away from the nearest government office, Indigenous people might have to travel for days on canoes, hike through jungles far away from their homes and even figure out how pay for travel to cities far away to present each document the government requires. Indigenous communities are sometimes expected to pay for officials to travel to their ancestral lands to document their claims. Any mistake on a document presented to a government official can often postpone the next step in titling by a year or more.  In addition, the corruption of government officials means that documents can get “lost” or forgotten, processes might be suspended for the most spurious of reasons and counterclaims to the land are often given disproportionate weight by officials in the pocket of local landowners and corporations. Finally, because Indigenous communities are frequently geographically isolated, it is also easier for those who want their lands to intimidate and even murder Indigenous people that speak out, organize and advocate for their rights.
But there is good news!  With your help we can continue working with our brave partners who are determined to get their land rights. Several communities in the Peruvian are fighting for titles to their lands as are communities Guyana. In Panama the situation is even better; we expect the communities of: Bajo Lepe & Pijibasal, Maje Chiman, Maje Embera Drua and Rio Hondo & Platanares to receive legal recognition from  Panama in the upcoming months.  Your support helps this important work continue.

Want to learn more?

Read more about Land Rights and their connection to our environment in the newest report published by Oxfam, International Land Coalition, & Rights and Resources Initiative: Common Ground: Securing Land Rights and Safeguarding the Earth