As the world swelters in record heat again this year, we would be wise to remember that an important part of the solution to mitigating climate change is to preserve the tropical forests we have left and replant the ones that have been lost.
With their wealth of knowledge of ecosystems, sustainable practices and resistance to deforestation, indigenous people are guardians of some of the world’s most important forests.
And yet for too long the voices of indigenous people fighting to preserve the natural environment have been ignored. That must change.
Forests are essential in the fight against climate change. They regulate the Earth's rainfall and keep air currents cool. But rampant deforestation in the three tropical forest basins of the Amazon, Congo and Southeast Asia is creating havoc on the climate.
And it is getting worse.
According to the World Resources Institute, global tropical forest loss in 2022 totalled 4.1 million hectares, the equivalent of losing 11 soccer fields of forest per minute. And global freshwater sources on Earth have shrunk by 50%. The world's rivers are drying up, threatening water supplies and energy.
But not everyone is ignoring these warnings. Indigenous communities are silently at work around the globe keeping forests standing, especially in the tropics where rainforests have such a huge impact on global rainfall.
In fact, indigenous people play a crucial role in the management of the Cardamom Rainforest, where I have worked in partnership with local communities and the Royal Government of Cambodia for more than two decades to preserve three million acres of dense jungle, maintain freshwater reserves of 22 major waterways and – as a direct result – keep local temperatures stable at an average of 32 degrees Celsius all year round.
Key to the long-term conservation of the Cardamoms – one of Southeast Asia's largest remaining tropical rainforests – has been recognising and respecting the rights of indigenous people to their ancestral lands, and involving them in decision-making processes related to forest management.
One of the best tools we have right now to protect forests that are supported by indigenous people around the world – including in Cambodia – is the Carbon Forest Offset programme.
This enables an organisation to compensate for its carbon footprint by funding projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The scheme has enabled billions of dollars to be channelled into preserving forests around the globe, to the benefit of many indigenous communities.
We would be wise to listen to indigenous communities and preserve the Carbon Forest Offset programme.
In the Cardamom Rainforest, carbon offset payments have invested into forest protection efforts and the indigenous communities, while building skills in modern agriculture, community-based ecotourism and small business development.
The scheme has also financed roads, bridges, schools, medical centres and university scholarships.
Without a system of carbon credits to support forest protection, the Cardamoms – like many of the world’s forests – could be lost to development, logging and other commercial activities.
With a vested interest in the long-term health and wellbeing of their lands and ecosystems, indigenous communities must be consulted on how best to protect tropical rainforests.
We need to learn from them how to care for the world’s most important forests.
Dr Suwanna Gauntlett is the founder and CEO of Wildlife Alliance. She has dedicated her life to helping governments protect their ecosystems to tackle Climate Change.
Dr Gauntlett has set the trend for a new generation of direct-action conservationists. Her professional Facebook page can be found at https://www.facebook.com/Dr.SuwannaGauntlett/.