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Inside the Climate Conference’s Indigenous Hut

There's a wide gulf between the public pavilion and negotiations next door.

Dominique Faget / Getty

LE BOURGET, France—One of the criticisms of the climate summit is that it is held in a rarified theme park totally disconnected from the realities of the world it is supposed to save. And well—yeah, pretty much. Once you get off your official COP21 hybrid shuttle bus at the “forest of flags” (a maze of white cylinders with country flags printed on them), you can go straight to the main entrance pavilion, where a banner announces the 63 mostly corporate sponsors who helped foot the event’s $185 million bill.

Or you can go left toward the plastic Wind Trees (whose turbine “leaves” power the LED lights on the “forest of flags”) and head toward the only part of the campus open to the general public: the Climate Generations exhibition hall. Inside, there are crepe stands and bike-powered phone-charging stations and a movie theater that shows climate-themed documentaries and a juice bar with a DJ that also has stationary bikes for some reason.

Yet even amid all this fantastic plastic ecology, there are people who came from much farther away to tell very real stories from the battlegrounds of climate change. One of them is Phon Sopheak. She lives in a village near Cambodia’s Prey Lang forest, a 1,390 square-mile evergreen woodland that stretches across the central plains between the Stung Sen and Mekong river basins, and is home to more than 200,000 people.

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world; it’s lost some 6 million acres, or 88 percent of the forest cover it had in 1970, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The Cambodian government has granted 40 percent of Prey Lang’s land to private companies, who cut down its trees for lumber and resin and to clear space for rubber and acacia plantations, says the Prey Lang Community Network. That has encouraged even more blatantly illegal logging—much of it done by villagers themselves, who cut down centuries-old resin trees to sell to middlemen for $10 each.

The effects of this could be devastating for the region. Prey Lang’s watershed regulates the flow of water and sediment into Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, whose fisheries support 1.2 million people, contributing an estimated one-sixth of the Cambodian economy.

Phon, 25, joined the community network and a team of local monitors trying to stop the destruction. In February they set out into the forest armed with smartphones and started cataloging. In three months the monitors recorded and detailed 116 instances of extraction, while creating a record of resources still available including sites sacred to the minority groups who live there. In one case, monitors stumbled onto workers carting four ox carts of logged wood for a Cambodian army general’s office. In the sort of interaction you’re not likely to get with foreigners, the monitors drew up a written agreement with the ox-cart driver on the spot to agree not to cut down any more trees. He signed it.

Phon said it was important for younger people to handle the monitoring operation. “When we go into the forest with a smartphone and an app, we can move much faster than the elderly—and the government,” she said via a translator.

In May, the Prey Lang Community Network issued a joint statement asking Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni to crack down on logging that’s already illegal and to create a new forestry protection law for Prey Lang. Instead of merely pleading, they were able to give hard facts: Logging and forest-clearing were increasing. And they had the digital photos to prove it. Phon says the government has “begun to depend on this evidence for their investigations of forest crimes.”

Now, I didn’t stumble onto Phon randomly. She came to Paris with colleagues from the PLCN, accompanied by a representative from the Danish NGO that helped finance the smartphone app, to get an award: the Equator Prizes for “outstanding local and indigenous community initiatives.” The awards were sponsored last year mostly by UN and government agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development. Twenty-one prizes will be handed out, along with a check for $10,000, on Monday, in an “Academy Awards-style” ceremony at Paris’ Théâtre Mogador featuring a bunch of officials and Alec Baldwin.  

Several other of this year’s winners joined Phon at a small event Friday in the Climate Generations’ Indigenous People’s Pavilion, a faux hut decorated with photos of people in colorful indigenous costumes from around the world. When I tried to sit down, a woman in an embroidered dress reached for my arm and ordered, “You come to Russia event!” Which I did not, though even from a distance the throat singing in the next faux hut over was impressive.

Even within the confines of a short, packaged conference event in a fake tribal dwelling, it was fascinating to see the exchanges and commonalities between presenters who otherwise probably would have never met. Two were a couple, Nicholas and Faye Fredericks, of the Wapichan people of Guyana, who are using drones in a project co-developed by the California-based NGO Digital Democracy to detect illegal logging and mining and secure formal land rights to their territory. A new digital map created by 17 Wapichan communities combines 40,000 digital points with interviews from elders about how every feature of the land is and should be used.

Then Irendra Radjawali, an Indonesian doctoral candidate at the University of Bonn stood up to talk, animatedly, about his work with drones in Borneo and New Guinea. He showed images of a lake that his drones discovered had dried out completely after a company dumped byproducts of a bauxite operation. He showed a forest that officials had claimed was uninhabited and thus vacant for development—until his drones revealed what a satellite couldn’t: houses. “They can’t run [from] the resolution,” he said.

Afterward, Phon’s translator, Som Chanmony, who is with a Phnom Penh-based NGO, said the Cambodians were inspired by the others’ presentations to start incorporating drones in their monitoring project as well. (The first step will be finding a way to get around restrictions the Cambodian government has put on drone usage, Som said.)

This is all hopeful stuff. As the event’s organizers pointed out, a study released Monday said that cutting tropical deforestation in half could keep 1.14 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere—a fifth of which, another new study notes, is stored in indigenous territories of the Amazon, Mexico and Central America, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia. If the people who live in and around those forests can work with the global climate change-fighting effort to help keep the trees from coming down, that’s good for everybody.

But the distance between the public pavilion and the negotiations next door seems longer than the walk from Climate Generations to the room where delegates are bickering, line by line, over the text of a currently 46-page platform that everyone hopes will be finalized next week.

After the event, I asked participants if they had thoughts about the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program, or REDD+, a market-driven effort written into the climate agreement drafts. Some here are hopeful it will protect forests and keep carbon out of the atmosphere; others fear it will incentivize governments to lie about forests and harm indigenous rights. As frontline forest defenders, I thought the speakers’ opinions would be enlightening. But none of them knew anything about REDD+. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, had any negotiators asked them about it.

The event broke up, and I went back to the credentials-only area to hear Bloomberg News’ editor-in-chief interview his boss, billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the governor of the Bank of England about how capital markets might stop—and make money off—climate change. On the way, I thought about one last indigenous speaker, Petrus Asuy, whose village in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province is trying to stop the palm oil and logging industries that are causing one of the world’s most acute ecological disasters from encroaching on its land.

Pak Asuy, speaking so softly even his translator strained to hear, had said that before his village could set up surveillance points, he had to survey the area. Except he put it like this: “I started to map the territory of our community so I would know the limits of our territory and our power.”

Which, if you think about it, is pretty much what everyone at this conference is trying to do.