Stories articles Indigenous Guardianship

Peter Seligmann with Indigenous leader Beto Marubo, in Vale do Javari, in 2018. Photo credit to Daniela Lerda/Nia Tero.

Peter Seligmann with Indigenous leader Beto Marubo, in Vale do Javari, in 2018. Photo credit to Daniela Lerda/Nia Tero.

June 18, 2024

Indigenous Peoples Should Be Rewarded For Fighting Climate Change, Says Peter Seligmann, Founder of Nia Tero

Lia Hama, for Um Só Planeta*

In an interview for the Brazilian news outlet Um Só Planeta, Nia Tero’s CEO, Peter Seligmann, talks about the role played by Indigenous Peoples in fighting global warming and protecting biodiversity.

In 2017, American environmentalist Peter Seligmann received a call from his friend Sebastião Salgado, who had just returned from Vale do Javari in western Amazonas. The Brazilian photographer visited the region that has the largest concentration of isolated Indigenous Peoples on the planet and recorded images that would later be part of the “Amazonia” exhibition in 2022. “Salgado told me about the challenges faced by the Indigenous People of Vale do Javari and asked if there was any organization that could help them”, says Seligmann.

At the time, Seligmann had left his position as CEO of Conservation International, an environmental NGO he created in 1987, and had founded Nia Tero (“Our Land”, in Esperanto), an institution based in Seattle, USA, whose aim is to support Indigenous Peoples in protecting their ways of life and territories.

“I met with Beto Marubo, leader of Univaja (Union of Indigenous Peoples of Vale do Javari), and went to see the region where he lives. There I was able to see first-hand the threats posed by mining, illegal fishing, drug trafficking and the emptying of government agencies that protect Indigenous people," Seligmann recalls.

The people of Vale do Javari are part of the 271 Indigenous groups that are financially supported by Nia Tero, the organization that Seligmann presides as CEO. Since its founding in 2017, Nia Tero claims to have donated US$85 million to organizations of Indigenous Peoples and their allies, with priority given to those who inhabit the Amazon, North America and the Pacific Islands. The amount is expected to reach US$ 100 million by the end of the year. The funds will help protect a total area of 128 million hectares, larger than the state of Pará.

In an interview with Um Só Planeta, the 73-year-old environmentalist spoke about the role played by Indigenous Peoples in fighting global warming and protecting biodiversity, the importance of engaging companies and consumers for the health of the planet - Seligmann sits on the board of Brazilian airline Azul - and discusses preparations for COP 30, which will take place next year in Belém.

UM SÓ PLANETA – You've become known as one of the world's leading figures in the field of environmental conservation. Why did you decide to found Nia Tero seven years ago to support Indigenous Peoples?

PETER SELIGMANN – Between 2012 and 2017, when I was preparing to transition out of my role as CEO of Conservation International, my team and I were working on the idea of using nature-based solutions to fight global warming. This involved research into the role that forests, mangroves and seaweed play in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

A team of scientists showed me a map of the most important places on the planet that perform this function. I asked them: "To whom do these territories belong?" That's when I realized the role of Indigenous Peoples as guardians of territories that are key to combating climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Half of the planet's forests are under the care of Indigenous Peoples and 40% of global biodiversity is found on their lands. Nia Tero is an organization dedicated to supporting Indigenous Peoples who are committed to protecting these territories.

UM SÓ PLANETA – How does Nia Tero work with Indigenous Peoples?

PETER SELIGMANN – We look for Indigenous partners who trust us and whom we trust. We develop a partnership relationship, establish common objectives and provide support for what they request. One of the best examples is our partnership with Univaja (Union of Indigenous Peoples of Vale do Javari), in Amazonas. We went to see the region where they live, listened carefully to their needs and talked about what would be necessary to increase monitoring and security of the territory in order to protect it against invaders and diseases. Beto Marubo, the leader of Univaja, and other leaders also came to visit us in Seattle. To this day, we are important supporters of them and we encourage other institutions to do the same.

UM SÓ PLANETA – You give them the funds and they decide what to do with it?

PETER SELIGMANN – Our funds go to Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations that the Indigenous Peoples themselves ask us to support. We give them funds and offer support from technical teams so that they can strengthen their financial management and their ability to raise funds. This is important because, despite the enormous role they play in maintaining the health of the planet, Indigenous Peoples receive less than 1% of existing philanthropic resources. This is partly due to a huge disconnect between Indigenous culture and practices and philanthropic funds, governments and development agencies.

UM SÓ PLANETA – Is there a lack of knowledge on the part of Indigenous Peoples about how to raise these funds?

PETER SELIGMANN – There are two aspects: one is the lack of knowledge on the part of philanthropic institutions, multilateral agencies and governments about the fundamental role that Indigenous Peoples play in the health of the planet. People don't understand the fact that Indigenous Peoples see forests and rivers as if they were their relative, not as commodities. Furthermore, the regulatory framework that guides these organizations requires certain bureaucratic prerequisites for the obtainment of funding, and these mechanisms are difficult for Indigenous cultures to navigate. Therefore, we have to think about how to create bridges between these two worlds so that these funds can reach Indigenous Peoples.

UM SÓ PLANETA – Who funds Nia Tero?

PETER SELIGMANN – We have support from several organizations, including the Mulago Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Emerson Collective, and philanthropists like MacKenzie Scott and Jeff Bezos.

UM SÓ PLANETA – What is the Indigenous participation in Nia Tero's Board of Directors and staff? More than 50%?

PETER SELIGMANN – There are 12 Board members, seven of which are Indigenous. The chairman of the Board is from the Māori people of New Zealand. The vice-chairman is from the Miskita people of Nicaragua. The same goes for our staff, which is made up of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous members. We are an organization that aims to be a bridge between these two worlds.

UM SÓ PLANETA – In Brazil, there are Indigenous persons who are in favor of mining and oil exploration in their territories. What happens when an Indigenous group makes a decision that goes against what you stand for?

PETER SELIGMANN – When you look at a vast territory, there are a number of decisions that need to be made. If it is a decision that guarantees the security of that Indigenous territory, its ecosystem and its culture, we will support it. If not, we won't support it. It is a relationship between two parties, which requires decisions on both sides. So far, we haven't had any experience of Indigenous Peoples saying, "We are not interested in protecting our lands". In some places, there is economic development and everything is fine. We understand that they need to take care of their families and we support them.

UM SÓ PLANETA – Is there any project related to carbon markets?

PETER SELIGMANN – Carbon markets are controversial among Indigenous Peoples and this is related to their history of relationships with the government and the private sector. Over time, there have been promises that have not been fulfilled, so there is a lot of disbelief on the part of Indigenous Peoples, which is legitimate. Some groups are interested in participating in carbon markets. Others are not. In Kenya, for example, the Maasai people made interesting agreements to sell carbon credits. They are receiving millions of dollars to finance the protection of their territories and to support their families.

UM SÓ PLANETA – What are your organization's plans for COP 30 in Belém next year?

PETER SELIGMANN – We will be there together with our Indigenous partners. Part of our strategy is to ensure that government policies around the world recognize that it is in their interests to support Indigenous Peoples in their rights and the security of their territories for a number of reasons, including to tackle the climate crisis. We will be in Belém to get more funds for Indigenous organizations, and we are even working to connect them with major funds, such as the Green Climate Fund (a UN fund aimed at mitigating and adapting to climate change in developing countries).

UM SÓ PLANETA – You are a member of the board of Brazilian airline Azul. Do you see companies in the private sector that are actually committed to reducing their carbon emissions?

PETER SELIGMANN – I see many companies thinking about this topic. In our discussion on the Azul board, we recognized that our main emissions come from burning fuel and that until we get a fuel that is carbon free, we won't be able to solve the problem. Sustainable fuel is currently four times more expensive than regular fuel. We are talking to other airlines about increasing demand so that prices are reduced. So I see a sincere attempt, but it's difficult to make the transition. This is the reality for many companies in different industries that fear that they will lose competitiveness if they increase their costs.

UM SÓ PLANETA – What is the solution?

PETER SELIGMANN – What won’t change is consumer power. If consumers demand it, companies will have to follow. Consumers currently say: “Stop using fossil fuels”, but they themselves continue to use gasoline. We need action from consumers and voters, that will accelerate the change we need. In modern society, we are used to thinking in the short term, about companies' quarterly results, and we lose sight of the horizon. We need to look for a value system that will help us make better long-term decisions. We have to learn from Indigenous Peoples who have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years because they understand that all beings are related and depend on each other to survive.

*This interview was originally published in Portuguese by the Brazilian news outlet Um Só Planeta. You can find the original version here.