What are collective rights? Why are they integral to protecting biodiversity and forest and how can we make them a reality?
Collective rights are human rights that protect communities and the environment
Collective rights emerged because individual human rights do not adequately protect peoples living collectively, especially Indigenous peoples, local communities and other minorities.
Collective rights are part of human rights – the definitions and classifications of which are constantly evolving. After civil and political rights (first generation rights), social, economic and cultural rights (second generation rights), collective rights are included in third generation or ‘solidarity rights’. They are therefore universal, indivisible and interdependent.
Collective rights are, furthermore, based on the collective culture, traditions and practices of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and thus are historical and do not constitute a property right. This means, for example, that traditional knowledge does not belong to any given individual because it is collectively owned. Such rights are intrinsic to Indigenous peoples and local communities and so exist beyond any state recognition. Collective rights are a foundation for justice and equity, which would benefit not only communities but society as a whole. They are a necessary step in the pathway to system change that we so desperately need.
Defenders, women and forests
The fact that rights are enshrined at all is thanks to communities historically resisting violations and demanding their rights. These groups face daily threats. Yet the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity is incorporated in the traditional lifestyles of these groups including Indigenous and black communities, farmers and local people. Deforestation not only destroys forests and biodiversity, it is often linked to attacks on the physical and psychological integrity of those who defend the territories.
Protecting collective rights will guarantee the preservation of these communities’ cultural identities, forms of organisation, and territorial heritage. They can then continue practising community forest management, agroecology and other traditional practices, all of which contribute to global sustainability.
In Malaysia, Indigenous Peoples in Sarawak fight deforestation and landgrabbing daily. In Marudi, more than 20 villages were threatened by oil palm plantations in 2018. Working with SAM/Friends of the Earth Malaysia, the communities raised awareness of their rights, mapped their territories, and formed a Residents’ Association. They were then able to obtain a copy of the project licence revealing the name of the company responsible. Using territorial maps, they successfully forced the company to agree not to encroach upon their land or conduct any land survey activities. This implementation of rights allowed the community to continue using their ancestral knowledge and practices to protect their land and the biodiversity contained within it.
The successful implementation of collective rights globally will also benefit biodiversity and forest conservation.
“According to a study published by the FAO in 2021: “Between 2003 and 2016 the carbon captured by the indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin was equal to 90 percent of all the carbon emitted from these territories due to deforestation or forest degradation (Walker et al., 2020).”
Such studies show that implementing collective rights – for example autonomous decision-making and rights to land and territory – enables community forest management to flourish, all while decreasing carbon emissions. Community forest management protects forests.
Women’s rights are also integral to collective rights and key to achieving community forest management. Women play a central role in the care, conservation and defence of forests and biodiversity. Women’s rights are defenders’ rights. Both are collective rights. Both are vital in the fight against deforestation and biodiversity loss.
Which legal instruments currently protect collective rights?
Attacks on peoples’ rights – especially collective rights – abound, from corporate impunity to the rise of fascism. In response, movements of resistance are gaining momentum. Protecting these rights is more vital than ever.
To better understand exactly how collective rights are currently protected, Friends of the Earth International broke them down into the collective rights to: internal organisation, cultural rights, local livelihood, self-determination or autonomy, territory, well-being, decision-making, protection of traditional knowledge.
We then identified 17 international legal instruments that cover these rights. For example the 2007 UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the landmark 2018 UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) – the result of decades of peasant struggle and advocacy led by La Via Campesina. More recently, the global biodiversity framework agreed at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP15 in December 2022, is a significant step forwards in the implementation of collective rights. It asks countries to “ensure the full, equitable, inclusive, effective and gender-responsive representation and participation in decision-making”, and to “ensure the full protection of environmental human rights defenders”.
The mere existence of these instruments is, sadly, not enough. Biodiversity is in crisis, deforestation continues unabated, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are putting their lives on the line daily. We must continue to fight with allies and movements for international, national and local recognition of collective rights.
Friends of the Earth International is fighting for collective rights and you can help
We are working with allies, Indigenous Peoples and local communities globally to make the implementation of collective rights a daily reality. Without collective rights, historical practices such as community forest management and agroecology cannot provide the enormous benefits they bring to the sustainable use and conservation of forests and biodiversity, and the women, men and children who call them home.
We fight for collective rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities with our member groups and allies. At the local level this means exercising these rights in the territories and raising awareness amongst right holders. We also participate in international spaces such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the UN Committee on World Food Security and the UN negotiations for a Binding Treaty on transnational corporations and human rights.
In an inspiring local example, Porto Alegre’s CaSanAT community centre in Brazil fought hunger, the Covid19 pandemic and repression by the Bolsonaro government all at the same time:
“Our presence here made us claim public policies and show that it’s possible to multiply sustainability and culture for thousands of people.” Lúcia Ortiz, vice-president of the CaSanAT board and Chair of Friends of the Earth Brazil.
These are our pathways to system change in support of collective rights.
You can learn more about collective rights:
Take a look at our Internationalist solidarity system and support the struggles around the world for peoples’ collective rights and human rights.