At the conclusion of every UN climate summit I’ve covered since Paris in 2015, I’ve written a story that summarizes the highlights (few) and disappointments (many) in a kind of post-COP analysis. Because of the massive global media attention COP26 drew (nearly 4,000 credentialed journalists), that story was largely written by others before I landed back in North Carolina.
Instead, with this final story from COP26, I followed an idea that came to me during my return flight home. I decided to focus on what seemed to me to be two significant positive developments from a climate summit that was declared a failure before it even started. Those two elements — one old and easily grasped, the other new and technologically futuristic — could turn out to be climate game changers in the decades ahead. That is, of course, if they receive the international support and billions in funding required to enable both to, in one case flourish, and in the other, reach proof of concept on a global scale.
Let’s be clear. The coordinated effort to save the planet by holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial times has virtually no chance of succeeding without these efforts I write about, in combination with accelerated efforts to decarbonize industrial economies and halt deforestation and biodiversity loss in the world’s great forests. G-20 leaders have simply wasted too many decades making problems worse for any shortcuts or easy fixes to this existential climate crisis.
Torbjørn Gjefsen of Rainforest Foundation Norway, writing in my notebook, makes sure the spelling of Joseph Itongwa’s name and tribal association are correct for my story. Joseph spoke French through a remarkable interpreter who was on the phone he is holding.
A few days before leaving for Glasgow and COP26, I had a Zoom call with Torbjørn Gjefsen of Rainforest Foundation Norway in Oslo. We spoke at length about the issues he and his group are most focused on: promoting and supporting indigenous rights in tropical countries around the world. He wanted me to do a story from the climate summit; he was pushing on an open door. Here’s why I was eager to write this story.
In September 2018, I covered the Climate Action Summit in San Francisco organized by then California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mongabay wanted me there primary to write about an issue then largely underreported and little recognized: that if tropical countries were serious about preventing deforestation and meeting their carbon reduction pledges under the Paris Agreement, they had no better means of doing both than by returning land tenure and civil rights back to the Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) who have occupied the land, as one tribal leader told me, “since time immemorial.”
Years of meticulous scientific research comparing places where rights had been returned to those where IPLCs were still largely marginalized demonstrated the impact of doing the right thing by nature and humanity.
In Glasgow, during my first two days on site at the Scottish Events Center at the end of the summit’s first week, Torbjørn arranged for me to interview, through translators, Indigenous leaders from Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. It was an honor to talk with each one of them and share their stories at a summit where for the first time their presence was met with praise, recognition and billions in funding for the important role they can play in their home countries in climate mitigation.
As my story explains, the momentum tribal leaders felt in Glasgow will only translate into action if the leaders of those countries allow it. DRC? Yes. Brazil and Indonesia? Not until there are regime changes.
On February 12, 2020, with a letter to “all persons of good will,” Pope Francis sought to reclaim the mantle of global environmental leadership he established in mid-2015. That’s when he the released of the first-ever papal encyclical (Catholic teaching document of the highest order) on environmental protection and climate change — Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home.
My story for Mongay here picks up that thread with Dear Amazon, a papal letter in response to the first-ever Vatican meeting in October 2019 to focus on a specific region of the planet — Amazonia. While topics at the so-called synod focused largely on environmental protection and the rights of the indigenous peoples who live in those jungles, the mainstream coverage of Francis’ letter focused almost solely on his decision to not allow priests to marry who agree to serve in the dramatically underserved Amazon regions spread across eight countries.
This left an opening for me to write a kind of exclusive about the pope’s environmental and social justice message, which makes up the vast majority of Dear Amazon. The story idea was pitched to me by my inimitable editor Glenn Scherer. I was glad for the opportunity.
Because of widespread media attention over the past five years or more — who can resist a story that combines gold, organized crime, prostitution and environmental devastation of a pristine rain forest? — Madre de Dios in the southern Peruvian Amazon has become known worldwide as a kind of hell on earth.
But as my story for Mongbay explains, a lot can happen in a year. La Pampa, the worst but by no means only large-scale illegal mining operation, was raided and largely shut down by the national government in February 2019. And the previous month, Madre de Dios — a region about the size of South Carolina known as the most biodiverse place on earth — elected a governor who wasn’t a miner. Instead, Luis Hidalgo Okimura is intent on reducing mining, formalizing and taxing miners who remain, and rescuing his home region from further environmental destruction.
I got to interview Hidalgo with three of my students in his government conference room not far from our hotel in Puerto Maldonado. After an hour and a half, I knew I had the makings of a good story. Specials thanks to my colleague Cesar Ascorra, national director of CINCIA, for arranging the interview. CINCIA is a Wake Forest-led science project that has developed proven strategies to repair deforested tropical areas and mitigate the public health threat of 185 tons of mercury dumped a year in Madre de Dios.
It was also a pleasure to work again with Mongabay editor Morgan Erikson-Davis. She not only accepted my story pitch, she enhanced the story by both downloading and analyzing satellite images that showed expanding deforestation outside La Pampa.
Guardians of the Forest at Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, September 2018. Photo by Joel Redman, courtesy of If Not Us Then Who.
Several weeks before I flew to San Francisco ahead of Hurricane Florence to cover the Global Climate Action Summit hosted by Gov. Jerry Brown (September 12-14, 2018), I had a conference call with Mongabay special projects editor Willie Shubert and videographer/activist Paul Redman of the nonprofit group If Not Us Then Who. His group seeks to raise the visibility of indigenous peoples and their role in forest protection.
Willie had an idea for the story —ultimately, this story — and Paul had details about how I could get at it. His group was hosting a side event to the summit in which tribal leaders from around the world would meet for presentations, panel discussions and documentaries. What’s the story? I asked. They both offered ideas and themes, both general and specific. But I realized that this was one I just had to trust, trust that if I spent enough time at the side event, and spoke to enough people — along with the reading and research I would do in advance — that the story would come to me.
I spent several hours both September 13-14 at Covo, the co-working space where the side event was being held about a half mile from the Moscone Center and the main summit. Paul was there Thursday; he was tremendously helpful, lining up a trio of exceptional sources for me to interview one-on-one while I took notes during panel discussions and took in the scene. On Friday I interviewed NGOs with the Nature Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund for greater context. And little by little, I got the sense that I had witnessed something special, something important, and that I had the pieces I needed to tell the story.
This one quote by a remarkable tribal leader from Panama crystallized the theme of my story and led me to the equation around which I built my story: indigenous peoples + land title and tenue = climate mitigation:
“There is one basic principle,” Candido Mezua told Mongabay through a translator. “We cannot see the forest or nature as a tool for getting richer. That is something the indigenous people cannot do… We are contributing to climate stability, something we have been doing for centuries without being compensated one penny.”
Candido Mezua of Panama talking with me through translator Ana Isabel Alvardo of Costa Rica. My photo.
Wayne Walker, a Woods Hole Research Center scientist, in the forest with indigenous peoples. Photo courtesy of Woods Hole Research Center
In advance of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco from Sept. 12-14, 2018, Mongabay special projects editor Willie Shubert encouraged me to attend and cover the event. In several phone discussions, we decided I should focus my coverage mainly in an area of climate mitigation I have not written about previously: the impact of indigenous peoples on the forests in which they live, and the injustice that so many live on ancestral land to which they no longer hold title.
The story is here. It’s a story that resonated with readers and was retweeted widely, including by the Ford Foundation, which has 157,000 followers. An excerpt:
“Economic analyses make it fairly clear that indigenous peoples’ lands that are titled and secured, especially in Latin America where the data is most abundant, have deforestation rates that are three to four times lower than similar lands not held by indigenous peoples,” Peter Veit, director of the Land and Resource Rights initiative at the World Resources Institute, told Mongabay. “Having title to the land is critical.”