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Sugpon: Strengthening our collective efforts to protect forests and promote Indigenous rights

Only by embracing a global spirit of community can we ensure the health of our planet

By Minnie Degawan on April 29, 2023   duration

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There is nothing more powerful than when a community naturally comes together to support all of the individuals that are a part of it. This kind of community solidarity is among the many values that Indigenous societies practice, where everyone is responsible for ensuring that every individual prospers, including safeguarding the resources that sustain the community. In the language of my community, Sagada—which is part of the Kankanaey-Igorot Indigenous peoples in the Cordillera, Philippines—this idea is captured in a practice called sugpon.

Sugpon is the practice of creating a common fund for a specific action, such as, for instance, to improve walkways, waterways or even to build a common meeting house. It is a call for voluntary contributions to respond to an urgent common need of the community.

Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, Nicaragua. Protected Area Management Planning. Photos by: Carrie Stengel/Re:wild

Sugpon is also practiced in several aspects of community life. For example, to ensure that the rice paddies are watered, the community organizes a group of men to trace the water from its source and ensure that there are no blockages along the way and that every paddy receives ample supply. Or when a cow goes missing in the forest, the men work together to search for it to bring the cow home. Women, in their seed exchange practices, are also practicing sugpon—no one keeps the highest-quality seeds for herself. To share the best seeds is to ensure that the community as a whole will have food security in the future.

In short, the practice of sugpon is what ensures that the community survives as a unit. It emphasizes the principle of common but different obligations of each member of the community.

At the international level, sugpon is a value that could help the global community ensure a healthy planet for all life on Earth, and is an ideal that I hope will drive the new Kawari Fund, which was launched today.

Members of the Batak tribe fishing in Palawan, the Philippines (Photo by Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation)

As demand for carbon credits from nature-based solutions grows, Indigenous peoples and local communities are being left out of carbon initiatives. Tragically, this often results in the violation of Indigenous rights, the displacement of communities, and new rules over land and resources that local communities didn’t agree to. Leaving out these critical voices also means ignoring the knowledge and opinions of the most critical stakeholders.

For Indigenous peoples, the forests need to be sustained with or without funding, for in sustaining forests, communities are also sustained. For generations, Indigenous peoples have lived with and nurtured forests and developed value systems that surround the management of forests. There is never a separation of forests and communities; for Indigenous peoples, they are one and the same, and what happens to one happens to the other. It is therefore not surprising that where Indigenous peoples are thriving, so are their forests.

Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the tallest coastal mountain on Earth. (Photo by Fundación Atelopus)

It is wonderful to see that there is now more focused interest in protecting forests, with many NGOs, governments, and even corporations joining the call. In recent years there has also been an increase in government pledges to reduce climate change and restore our ecosystems, with actual financial resources going to the protection of forests. But it will take more than money alone to ensure the protection of forests—it will take the knowledge of Indigenous peoples combined with the financial and technical support of NGOs, philanthropies, governments and private companies.

The new Kawari Fund elevates the principles of sugpon in a common effort to ensure the survival of forests while honoring the knowledge and promoting the rights of the peoples that depend on them. The fund underscores the value of quality processes in efforts to curb deforestation and reduce emissions. The fund’s focus is on ensuring that processes related to reducing emissions from deforestation are truly inclusive and result in equitable benefit-sharing mechanisms.

Hiking in rainforest of Vietnam (Bidoup Nui Ba NP)

As this fund launches, my vision is that, in true sugpon style, we will together affirm and strengthen our commitment to support initiatives that promote the protection of forests, while upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples. In the end, life on our planet depends on the spirit of sugpon, the collaboration of our global community.

About the author

Minnie Degawan

Minnie is an indigenous Kankanaey-Igorot from the Cordillera, Philippines. She is director of the Kawari Fund at Re:wild, working with Indigenous Peoples and local partners, NGOs, donors and governments to support jurisdictional initiatives to achieve high integrity emissions reductions.

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