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Failure to recognise land rights linked to spread of diseases

Governments’ failure to recognise the land rights of indigenous communities and their role in protecting biodiversity could lead to more coronavirus-like pandemics, researchers have said.

A study of more than 40 countries found many local people’s land claims were being ignored, amid increasing deforestation and wildlife exploitation, which may be contributing to a rise in diseases, like Covid-19, that pass from animals to humans.

“Despite compelling evidence that indigenous peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendants protect most of the world’s remaining biodiversity, they are under siege from all sides,” said Andy White of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).

“Our work suggests the answer is to invest in the countries and communities that are ready to scale up land rights. Failure to do so puts at risk the health of the planet and all of its people,” White, the study’s co-author, said in a statement.

The study by the RRI - an alliance of more than 150 organisations advocating community land rights - comes ahead of a United Nations pledge expected to be agreed in 2021 to set aside 30 per cent of the planet’s land and sea for conservation by 2030.

Despite local people managing and protecting 50 per cent of the area studied - which included Brazil, India, China, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia - governments recognised only half of community land claims, RRI said.

This needs to be addressed urgently, said researchers, as a growing number of zoonotic diseases – including Ebola, MERS, West Nile fever, Zika, SARS and Rift Valley fever – have recently jumped from animal hosts into the human population.

The most dramatic example is the new coronavirus, which is believed to have emerged in a market in China last year, after jumping the species barrier from the animal kingdom to infect humans. It has killed more than 930,000 people so far.

Anthony Waldron, a conservation finance researcher based at Cambridge University, said securing indigenous peoples’ land rights was key to stemming the spread of such diseases.

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