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.
This story here, my third of ultimately five stories from COP25 in Madrid, Spain, was truly a team effort. It also illustrates the challenge and thrill of journalism — learning a new topic from scratch, finding just the right sources you’ve never met before, working with an editor in Indonesia and one in Vermont to put together a complex and nuanced environmental story about an ecologically sensitive part of the world (North Sumatra) with an rare and endangered great ape (Tapanuli orangutan).
Thanks to Isabel Esterman, Mongabay’s Indonesian editor, and Glenn Scherer, my editor at Mongabay, for putting me on to the story, then assisting prodigiously in putting all the pieces together about an Indonesian hydroelectric company, a dam-in-the-jungle project, the Tapanulis’ habitat and a serious question over carbon emissions.
At the close of the UN Climate Summit in December 2018 in Poland, United General Secretary Antonio Guterres was so discouraged by the lackluster outcome that he told world leaders that he would admonish them to increase their urgency and ambition for climate mitigation during Climate Week in New York City (Sept. 23-27, 2019).
Guterres is not alone. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, in her inimitable way, has inspired millions of school-age children around the world to organize and rally to demand that world leaders treat global warming at the existential crisis that more and more scientists are finding it is.
Add to that an emerging group of faith leaders — the Interfaith Rainforest Iniative (IRI) — that aims to use its moral clout and power in numbers to pressure national leaders to enact policies to slow, reverse and stop deforestation in five tropical countries, as my latest Mongabay story describes.
This kind of religious political lobbying comes with challenges and obstacles, as I explain. But here’s the goal:
“This isn’t about churches planting trees,” said Joe Corcoran, IRI program manager with UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. “We want to say clearly and definitively to world leaders: religious leaders take this issue of forests and climate very seriously, and they are going to be holding public officials accountable to make sure these issues are addressed.”