We need rapid response support for Indigenous peoples in the face of growing extreme weather events

March 28, 2024

Drought in Bangladesh. Image by Muhammad Amdad Hossain via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Drought in Bangladesh. Image by Muhammad Amdad Hossain via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

This post is a commentary by RFUK Executive Director Joe Eisen that originally appeared in Mongabay on 27 March 2024.

In recent weeks, Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) has seen Indigenous peoples and local communities we work with in the Peruvian Amazon and the Congo Basin devastated by unprecedented rains.

In Peru, the Ene River recently burst its banks, leaving hundreds of Asháninka families in desperate need of food, drinking water and shelter. In a cruel irony, their ancestral lands that were saved a decade ago following a powerful campaign against large-scale dam construction were submerged, destroying the very crops these families rely on. Hundreds of hectares of cocoa, painstakingly nurtured as part of the Kemito Ene cooperative, an award-winning model of Indigenous-led enterprise in the Amazon, are now ruined.

Thousands of miles away in Central Africa, the Congo overflowed at the beginning of the year following the worst rains there in more than 60 years. In Irebu, a community forest in the Equateur province of DRC, villagers spoke of hundreds of homes destroyed, people displaced, crops ruined and food scarcity.

These cases are only a snapshot of what is happening in remote forest areas: there were reports of scores dead and thousands displaced due to the flooding along other parts of the Congo River. Only weeks before flood warnings rang out across Peru, swathes of the Brazilian Amazon suffered the worst droughts in living memory. As the recent piece in Mongabay shows, such extreme weather events — which are made much more likely by global warming and now compounded by the increasing frequency and severity of El Niño weather effects — disproportionately impact those who are least responsible for the climate crisis such as Indigenous Peoples and riverine communities.

Some support got through to the communities in the Ene that were most in need, thanks to the commitment of the Indigenous Asháninka Federation CARE (Central Asháninka del Río Ene) and a funding appeal from our kind supporters. While lifesaving, this is only a fraction of what they need in the immediate aftermath of the floods and to rebuild their lives in an increasingly precarious climate.

So far, for every bit of support that gets through, countless other remote tropical forest communities suffer in silence, particularly those in remote and sparsely populated areas where the state is effectively absent and that are beyond the reach of the traditional relief agencies. Such organisations have to make tough choices about where they allocate their resources, which can mean privileging those areas with higher population densities over hard-to-reach areas.

Flooding along the Congo River, February 2024.
Flooding along the Congo River, February 2024.

A lack of support for effected communities

Not being a relief agency ourselves, we were struck by how difficult it was to find suitable rapid response support for the Asháninka and other forest communities in situations like this . Humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement normally need to have a presence in the country or zone where the disaster occurred in order to effectively respond. Where no such presence exists, the process of identifying and contracting local partners to channel the funds through can be very bureaucratic, slow and ill-suited to the kind of rapid, urgent support that is needed.

The accessibility of existing disaster response funds is another huge challenge for grassroots and Indigenous organisations. They are often the first responders in emergencies and are best placed to know the needs of their communities, yet they rarely have a voice and resources to deal with the situation that most impact them. Many struggle to find a suitable international donor or an NGO to partner with, let alone pass their due diligence requirements.

The U.N. Sendai Framework is a major international plan for disaster risk reduction (DRR), and while comprehensive on paper, is reported to be rather technocratic and to have so far yielded limited successes in vulnerable countries with weak governments. One promising initiative is the Start Network of more than 90 NGOs across 5 continents that takes a ‘decolonised’ and transparent approach to disaster response through its regional ‘hubs’, but it is currently limited in terms of its geographical scope and that funding is only available to its members. Other rapid response mechanisms such as Global Green Grants or funds for the protection of environmental and human rights defenders provide a vital service but may not be the right vehicle for disaster response.

It is frustrating to see that so much energy and resources have been spent by the international ODA (overseas development assistance) community on promoting unproven forest carbon offset schemes that ultimately fuel global warming, while seemingly so little has gone into DDR and climate adaption in these same areas.

Even the Loss and Damage Fund that was finally established at COP28 to aid developing countries to respond to economic and non-economic loss and damage arising from climate change, seems poorly equipped to meet the need: being housed at the World Bank, it is likely to result in very high transaction costs and is a state-based mechanism in any case.

A heat spot in an area next to the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, Amazonas state, Brazilian Amazon. Image © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.
A heat spot in an area next to the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, Amazonas state, Brazilian Amazon. Image © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

What might be the way forward?

It seems that finding a way to better deliver the support for isolated Indigenous and local communities requires two main things.

The first is funding. There have been major advances in terms of billions committed by institutional and philanthropic donors for Indigenous-led forest protection and climate mitigation in recent years. If even a fraction of this amount was devoted to climate-induced, small-scale disaster response, countless lives could be saved.

The second is finding the right mechanisms to channel this support to where it is most needed. Part of this could be creating new alliances between frontline Indigenous organizations and the humanitarian sector, including through the auxiliary role to public authorities of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies or through the START Network, for example. Practically, this could mean streamlining the accreditation process for Indigenous and other grassroots organizations to be able to receive and utilise available funds from these agencies as well as from other sources such as the EU Disaster Response Emergency Fund (DREF).

Given the realities and challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples and other hard-to-reach communities, another option would be to create a dedicated, rapid response funding mechanism specifically for this purpose. This could be housed at an international Indigenous peoples’ organization or in the several newly formed regional Indigenous-led funds who serve the needs of their members, although care would be needed to ensure that other local communities are not excluded. This could provide several functions including providing easy access to direct and timely support to frontline communities in times of crisis, building the capacity of Indigenous and grassroots organizations to access other funds, and keeping this issue high on the political agenda.

Both the potential funding and the Indigenous networks exist to realise effective disaster response in hard-to-reach areas. We just need to connect the dots.

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