The idea of “nature-based solutions” to the climate crisis is gaining ground. At the heart of successful nature-based solutions is recognizing the rights of the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who manage many of the world’s forestlands and biodiversity hotspots. This includes respecting communities’ traditions, ending the criminalization of land rights defenders, and justice for the indigenous and community women who play a critical role in managing the resources we all rely on.
Gender justice within community-held territories is a climate solution
Up to 2.5 billion people worldwide — more than half of whom are women — manage their territories collectively. Women and girls play a critical role in the sustainable management of community lands and forests, while meeting the livelihood needs of their families and larger communities. In the context of rapidly changing economic and political structures, this role is only growing.
Yet few women hold legally recognized rights to the lands and forests they protect, and are often cut out of decision-making spaces at all levels. This hinders communities’ self-determination and their capacity to adapt to a rapidly changing global environment.
“Some people think we hear ‘climate change’ and don’t know what it means, but we are seeing these changes—in the weather, in heavy rains and the sea,” explained Candida Jackson, a community leader from Honduras. “Ancestrally, we are the ones to educate our younger generations about how to use and conserve forests, lands, soil, water, air. We understand the changes and we know how to reforest.”
Failure to recognize women’s land rights threatens communities and the environment
Indigenous peoples and local communities manage over half the world’s land, yet only have secure legal ownership over 10% of global land. There is ample evidence of the link between recognizing community land rights and positive climate outcomes and such benefits can only be achieved when the rights of all community members are fully recognized, especially those of women and girls.
A global study of 30 countries representing three-quarters of the developing world’s forests found that none provide adequate recognition of women’s rights to community forests. Women’s governance rights — voting and leadership — were the least protected. Without secure rights, women are often excluded from negotiations with private and government actors that could affect their territories for generations, as well as climate and development processes like REDD+. Until their rights are recognized, we risk losing the vital contributions of forest communities.
Indigenous and community women are transforming leadership — from the inside out
Indigenous and community women are exercising leadership grounded in their communities’ collective defense of their rights and lands, and in the process are gaining a voice in international fora.
“Indigenous women must be present in these processes,” said Cris Pankararu, a young indigenous leader from Brazil. “But we are not in front of nor behind the men. Our role is to be beside them — to build partnerships and to help grow the movement.”
This change often starts in communities themselves. Indigenous and community women have established their own organizations, such as ONAMIAP (the National Organization of Andean and Amazonian Women in Peru) and FECOFUN (the Federation of Community Forest Users in Nepal), to shift community norms toward respect for women’s rights.
They have also built regional movements and networks — such as REFACOF (the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests) and the Coordinating Body of Women Territorial Leaders of Mesoamerica — to make visible their critical contributions and strengthen their capacity to engage with decision-makers. Their combined successes include establishing quotas for women’s participation in decision-making bodies, modifying community norms, creating training programs for women, and winning seats in local elections.
“We can help ourselves by creating our own organizational policies,” explained Rukka Sombolinggi, the first female general secretary of the world’s largest indigenous network, AMAN in Indonesia. “When we want to ask others to change, we have to first change our own structures. It’s the only way we have legitimacy.”
The world is taking notice, but much more is needed
Speaking at Climate Week in New York, Sonia Guajajara, the national coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples (APIB), reflected on the long journey toward more meaningful participation in the international climate movement: “For a long time, women could be present in these spaces, but we could not say anything. Now, we are here as leaders defending our rights and our causes directly. Being in this international space, participating at the UN — this is a victory.”
Yet too often, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are still treated as potential beneficiaries of climate and development programs — not as partners, leaders, or drivers of the changes our world needs. We must leverage indigenous and community women’s knowledge and invest directly in their conservation, governance, and leadership. We, as a global community, are missing a huge opportunity by not doing so.