By Jean Willoughby

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker recently published a profound statement about the importance of addressing inequality in order to fight climate change. Offering insight into these intertwined issues, which have arguably become the defining challenges of our time, he focuses on the fundamental role of land. Discussing the uniquely difficult circumstances facing indigenous people, millions of whom are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Walker writes,

“It is the land underneath these forests that is sought after – and these lands are inhabited. In the linkage between inequality and climate change, this is the one issue that underlies everything else.”

Land and livelihood often go hand in hand for those in rural communities. However, as Walker notes, “the 2.5 billion people in traditional rural communities have formal legal ownership of only 10 percent of the world’s land.” This staggering discrepancy should trouble not only those who want to fight poverty but all those who want to live in a world with a stable climate. As Walker points out, up to 25% of carbon storage takes place on land lived on and stewarded by indigenous people. Protecting the rights of indigenous people thus becomes a necessary goal for all of us.

For Walker, it’s clear that climate change is as much a symptom of inequality as it is a force that exacerbates it. Trying to address climate change, he writes, “without addressing the inequalities that cause it… is a grave mistake.” It would also be a lost opportunity to support the self-determination and empowerment of local communities and indigenous problem-solvers, who can contribute their own knowledge, skills, creativity, time, and funds, among the many resources required to address such complex issues.

Because land has been treated largely as a commodity for hundreds of years and used for private gain, indigenous people have often borne the worst of the legal insecurity and economic precariousness that attend the dominant systems of private land ownership in their countries. As Walker observes, social and political conflict is the most likely result.

But when communities, companies, and governments recognize the collective, urgent need to address the effects of climate change, new possibilities for collaboration may also emerge. Walker points to the recent examples of IKEA and Mars, two multinational companies that have pledged a billion a piece to initiatives to fight climate change and support vulnerable communities struggling to adapt to its effects.

A philanthropic behemoth in its own right, the Ford Foundation has a new partnership with the government of Sweden to create the International Forest and Land Tenure Facility, which describes itself as “the first and only international, multi-stakeholder institution exclusively focused on securing land and forest rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.” The Facility provides targeted support to specific developing countries (currently Cameroon, Indonesia, Liberia, Mali, Panama, and Peru) and shares practical approaches to establishing secure land and forest tenure for indigenous people and local communities.

No doubt, these are all significant steps in the right direction, but as Walker notes, we must continue to scrutinize our institutions and their strategies for addressing both inequality and climate change. Rural farming communities and forested regions provide much of the raw material for companies like IKEA and Mars, and without them, their original source of wealth would slowly but steadily vanish. Because many of the biggest multinational companies are based in the Global North, Western nations have equally good reason to protect their suppliers in the Global South. But the self-serving rationale of a large multinational corporation may or may not ultimately result in the equitable, sustainable policies and practices needed to overcome either challenge.

Alongside highlights of billion-dollar investments and major partnerships, Walker also insightfully suggests that, when it comes to conservation, the economics are in favor of local, community-based control of land:

“When traditional communities have control over their lands and legal protection from outside threats, they become the best stewards of the land and the trees that their forests contain. Previous research has shown that securing indigenous rights works better than any other method of forest conservation – even creating vast protected areas. These communities provide a critical and cost-effective buttress against the most detrimental effects of climate change.”

Read Walker’s full article on place, a project of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


About Darren Walker:
Darren Walker is President of the Ford Foundation, the nation’s second largest philanthropy. Prior to joining Ford, he was Vice President at the Rockefeller Foundation where he managed the rebuild New Orleans initiative after Hurricane Katrina.

About the Author:
Jean Willoughby is a writer and producer. She co-wrote and produced Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print (2017). Her latest book is Nature’s Remedies: An Illustrated Guide to Healing Herbs (Chronicle Books, 2016). Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in MAKE Magazine, The New Farmers’ Almanac, and Food Tank.  

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