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Protect rights and advance gender equality to mitigate climate change

Initiatives to protect carbon sinks are crucial to mitigate climate change and avert its worst effects. Advancing the rights of women and forest-dependent communities will strengthen these initiatives and enable them to have greater impact.

The year 2020 left no doubt that the climate crisis continues to worsen at alarming speed. The impacts of global warming have plagued many communities around the world, and governments are lagging behind the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, having failed to ramp up climate action1. To prevent the worst human rights impacts to come, governments need to take bold action now. Natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost one-third of global emissions2. Thus, protecting terrestrial carbon sinks, such as forests and peatlands, is among the most effective — and urgent — mitigation actions governments can take.

Preserving these valuable ecosystem services will require fundamentally rethinking policies that govern agriculture, forestry and other land uses, activities that lead to the destruction of carbon sinks and are currently responsible for nearly 23% of global anthropogenic emissions2. One of the fundamental shifts required is placing the protection of human rights — in particular, those of forest-dependent communities and women — squarely at the centre of climate policies.

International law provides the legal framework for the protection of human rights, with individuals and communities posited as rights-holders and governments as duty-bearers with obligations to respect, protect and fulfil those rights. Realizing human rights for all requires attention to the needs of marginalized groups, including women, as well as access to information and ensuring non-discrimination and equality, accountability and participation.

Ample evidence shows protecting forest-dependent communities, including Indigenous peoples’ tenure rights, and ensuring women’s participation in local forest governance delivers major benefits for climate3,4. However, conservation and natural resource management have been slow to integrate respect and protection of human rights or address gender inequity, including by fostering women’s involvement in their programmes5. Even more concerning is that human rights abuses are driving some forest destruction. Human Rights Watch research in some of the world’s major carbon sinks exposed how government failure to address rights violations in the context of the destruction of forests and peatlands fuels the climate crisis itself, with serious impacts for communities6,7.

Impunity for rights violations threatening carbon sinks

The impacts of deforestation are harshly felt by communities whose everyday needs depend on these ecosystems. For Indigenous peoples, forest loss significantly threatens the ecosystem they rely on, and preserving that system is central to protecting their rights to health and food, and even the very core of their identity and culture6,7.

Human Rights Watch has documented in Indonesia how a weak legal framework related to land and environment has undergirded the massive destruction by commercial ventures of more than 24 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2017 (refs. 6,8). Oil palm plantations are a major driver of this deforestation, with devastating impacts on forest-dependent and Indigenous peoples’ rights to manage their own territories, food, water and forests, while also reinforcing gender inequalities6. The government’s failure to hold plantation companies accountable for harmful impacts of their operations has resulted in numerous land-related disputes and serious risks to communities’ rights to property, food and a healthy environment, disproportionately impacting women6.

For example, in Jambi, central Sumatra, three decades of land dispossession to oil palm plantations has left Orang Rimba, a forest-dependent people, destitute. Though the whole community is impacted, the loss of the livelihood that women derived from resources in the forest has been devastating. Women who once could obtain all they needed from the forest now beg along a motorway for cash and food handouts.

Women within these communities not only experience loss of access to forests and forest-related livelihoods, they are often excluded from consultations with government or companies. Despite some legal reforms across the globe, rural women continue to have limited control over forests and agricultural land, and are less likely to be included in decision-making about managing land and forests9.

At the same time, women are also on the frontlines protecting forests from destruction, at great risk to themselves. When governments fail to protect their rights, women environmental defenders face serious risks, including killings, gender-specific violence and various forms of legal harassment.

In Brazil, Human Rights Watch research has exposed how government failure to address environmental crimes in the Amazon has left forest defenders vulnerable to retaliation when they report illegal logging7. Osvalinda Marcelino Alves Pereira, a small-scale farmer in the Brazilian Amazon, founded the Areia II Women’s Association in 2011 to develop sustainable organic agricultural practices and to reforest areas affected by logging. When Pereira started the association, loggers operating illegally asked members to stop reforestation measures. But Pereira refused and started reporting environmental crimes instead. Illegal loggers have repeatedly issued death threats to her and her husband, eventually driving them into hiding for nearly two years. Though she has recently returned home, she expressed concern that protection measures provided by authorities were inadequate to guard against further retaliation.

The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019, has sabotaged environmental law enforcement and emboldened criminal networks that drive illegal deforestation, accelerating forest destruction. As in the case of Pereira, these criminal networks will readily use violence and intimidation against anyone who threatens their activities with near-total impunity7. The consequences of the government’s inaction extend beyond defenders’ safety: over 2 million hectares of rainforest have been clear cut since 2019, driving up emissions from deforestation after a ten-year decline7.

Beyond the impacts on local communities, governments’ failure to protect carbon sinks is having global human rights consequences. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that failure of governments to hold the increase in global average temperature below 1.5 ºC above pre-industrial levels will result in catastrophic impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods10. Climate-related human rights harms are expected to intensify as temperatures continue to rise11.

Protecting rights as a mitigation strategy

Countries around the world can slow deforestation by protecting human rights, including through secure land rights for local communities and by ensuring gender equality and equity in mitigation strategies.

In the Brazilian Amazon, for example, deforestation on lands securely held by Indigenous peoples was, on average, 150% lower than in other comparable areas12. Securing land rights for local communities improves community livelihoods, leading to decreased deforestation. It is also linked to increased oversight by authorities and civil society, improves the community’s forest governance and boosts the community’s interactions with public sector entities that may provide support for conservation7,13.

In cases where governments have taken measures to protect carbon sinks, including afforestation or reforestation projects, women rarely participated in its design and execution5. Furthermore, evidence from around the world suggests that international mechanisms to support climate action have possibly reinforced or even exacerbated existing gender inequalities15.

This is not only a human rights concern but an ineffective approach to protecting forests. Differences in gender roles and social norms result in women using the forest and its products as a resource to directly support their families instead of exploiting its commercial value, creating a strong incentive for conservation3. Programmes that involve women as active stakeholders alter decisions made about forestry within the household and lead to more sustainable practices4. For example, women are more likely to plant trees in their gardens to reduce the distance they walk to fetch firewood or to protect the forests, serving as an important food or medicinal source. Having both men and women as primary stakeholders in mitigating climate change brings different roles, knowledge and skills to work towards the same goal, and is a step to ensure that governments realize women’s rights to participate in decision-making processes that directly impact their rights.

Furthermore, in cases where women have been fully involved in local forest governance that delivers both livelihood and conservation benefits, forest regeneration and canopy growth improved3,4. The inclusion of women in forest management groups also has positive effects on both governance and conservation outcomes16. Applying a gender lens in the forest sector is not only a human rights imperative but also one of the most effective ways to mitigate climate change4.

Governments should incorporate this evidence into climate action. They should adopt policies that protect and restore forests, and simultaneously advance women’s rights and the rights of forest-dependent peoples. Domestically, government policy can work towards this goal by protecting and strengthening land tenure security for local communities, and especially women within these communities17,18. Governments should enhance transparency in land and forest governance, as well as proactively include women from forest-dependent communities in the design of forest landscape restoration and conservation efforts.

At the international level, governments have several opportunities to integrate evidence related to the effective management of carbon sinks into their policymaking. As governments revise their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement, they should ensure that mitigation strategies aimed at conserving carbon sinks protect human rights; in particular, those of forest-dependent communities and women.

When negotiating the creation of a mechanism contemplated under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement that would allow countries to trade carbon offsets, governments should ensure this trade does not undermine ambitious climate action while preventing adverse human rights impacts of any such trade. In particular, the mechanism’s operating rules should incorporate the lessons described above; for example, by making respect for human rights a project requirement and ensuring accountability through a grievance mechanism, thereby encouraging the protection of land rights and ensuring women’s equitable participation in forest governance.

Unless governments implement these and other measures to protect the rights of women and forest-dependent communities, they will be undermining their own efforts to protect carbon sinks, including forests, with catastrophic consequences for the struggle to contain climate change, and ultimately for all of us (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Deforestation in Indigenous territories in the Legal Amazon, Brazil.
figure1

The administration of President Jair Bolsonaro has sought to weaken the protection of Indigenous territories that has long been a cornerstone of conservation efforts in the Amazon14: it halted the demarcation of Indigenous territories, with more than 200 communities to date with pending requests; it introduced reforms that facilitated individuals registering private properties in Indigenous lands awaiting demarcation; and it is promoting legislation that would open demarcated Indigenous territories to mining. Official figures by Brazil’s National Space Research Agency (INPE) Deforestation of the Legal Amazon Satellite Monitoring Project (PRODES), which cover 12-month periods from August to July, show that deforestation in Indigenous lands since the Bolsonaro administration took office in 2019 is higher than it has been over the past decade. Image courtesy of Human Rights Watch.

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All authors contributed to conceptualizing and writing the Comment using case examples from their various research projects at Human Rights Watch.

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Correspondence to Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu.

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Nnoko-Mewanu, J., Téllez-Chávez, L. & Rall, K. Protect rights and advance gender equality to mitigate climate change. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 368–370 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01043-4

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