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Climate Change Summit Takes Up Deforestation

An aerial view of a tract of Amazon jungle recently cleared by loggers and farmers near the city of Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, Sept. 22, 2013.
An aerial view of a tract of Amazon jungle recently cleared by loggers and farmers near the city of Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, Sept. 22, 2013.

Because the world’s oxygen supply is linked to thriving forests, the world has a stake in ending the massive industrial deforestation that environmental scientists claim is destroying thousands of hectares every minute - often on land where indigenous people live and make their livings. At a panel discussion keyed to the first U.N. Climate Summit in New York, representatives of global corporations, national governments and indigenous peoples resolved to work together to save the forests and help protect the rest of us.

In a sumptuous conference area at the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York, foundation president Darren Walker told an animated crowd - policymakers and corporate executives as well as NGO representatives and colorfully dressed indigenous leaders from around the world - about his commitment to bring these disparate groups together to save the planet.

“Climate change and global inequality in all its forms are the two defining threats of our times of our times. And left unchecked these interrelated crises will affect every person on our planet on this planet and every facet of society - our governments, our livelihoods, our communities - every aspect of our existence,” said Walker.

Justine Greening, Britain's secretary of state for international development, told the gathering that her government has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to help save the environment by ending illegal deforestation of indigenous lands, and also to help mitigate poverty. These efforts include a shoring-up of government transparency in countries which receive British economic aid, legal and financial support for indigenous peoples trying to wrest legal title to their forested lands from outside corporations, and lucrative government partnerships with green businesses.

“I don’t think there will be any second chances to get this right. Ultimately, we cannot defeat poverty without being climate smart. If we take the right actions, we can not only reduce carbon emissions, we can also bring jobs, justice, opportunity and prosperity to the very poorest. Put simply, for me, tackling climate is indivisible from tackling poverty,” said Greening.

Allowing indigenous peoples to take care of the forests that have sustained them for generations can also be profitable, said Paul Polman, chief executive officer of Unilever, a multinational corporation that depends on palm oil for many of its food products, Unilever and other large companies like Kraft, Walmart and Nestle have pledged to ensure that their supply chains are “clean, green and just.”

“We have shown very clearly, and increasingly this is evident, that sustainable growth in terms of fighting climate change does not have to go against economic growth. In fact, one enhances the other. We are at a point, more or less, now that the cost of doing nothing is starting to be higher than the cost of doing something," said Polman.

Many of the indigenous leaders at the event seemed guardedly optimistic about this three-way alliance. Abdon Nababon, secretary-general of the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago, said nearly half his people's forest lands have already been destroyed by companies that were licensed by the Indonesian government to fell trees.

“Now these meetings ask us to talk to them. It’s beautiful, actually. Because on the ground, they never talk to us. So in that sense, it’s an improvement. We have to have a place to say: ‘Your bulldozer, just bring it out of our land!’” said Nababon.

Only time will tell if this partnership between corporations, indigenous peoples and governments will end the massive deforestation affecting the planet. But for now, the political will seems to be there. At the Climate Summit on Tuesday, 156 government, corporate and indigenous leaders signed the so-called New York Declaration on Forests and agreed on a date to end deforestation and to offer economic incentives to nations to reduce practices that endanger the biodiversity we all depend on.