“Where there are forests, there are indigenous people. Where there are no forests, there are no indigenous people.”

Onel Masardule, a Kuna leader from Panama, smiled at the simplicity of his statement. You could read this as part fact, or depending on the results of the current negotiations, part prophecy.

According to The World Bank, 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihood. If the forests perish, so do they. This fundamental principle has been built into their culture, which is why the most preserved forests on earth are on indigenous lands.

Masardule described the forest as his hospital, his house and his supermarket. Joseph Onesimel, a Masai from Kenya, described taking care of the forest as a duty similar to taking care of children. To him, paying someone not to chop down trees makes no sense. “When you go to the bathroom to take a shower, that is your duty. Why should I pay you for that?”

As the world’s leaders argue about incentives for stopping deforestation, the indigenous leaders I’ve been talking to keep telling me that protecting the forests should be handed to them. Traditional knowledge has maintained biodiversity for centuries.

“Preserving forests is not complicated,” Onesimel told me. But, REDD, the global agreement behind forest preservation, is.

Many of the forests where indigenous people live have not been demarcated; property lines have not been drawn; and there are no titles. Before any offsets are sold, land rights are going to have to be settled, which makes Masardule and others wary.

Dozens died in violent clashes between the Peruvian government and indigenous groups in the Amazon last summer. The dispute was over oil and gas development, not carbon, but for Masardule it’s the most recent example of foreign money trumping indigenous sovereignty. “How can REDD help me if my rights aren’t recognized?”

Free, prior and informed consent is the basic right all indigenous people are asking for in Copenhagen. In other words, they demand that before any carbon projects are developed on their lands, they be given the right to examine the issue and decide for themselves whether they want to participate.

The latest draft of the REDD agreement only mentions indigenous people in the preamble — not in the legally binding body of the text. The New York Times reported today that a final text of the agreement will be given to ministers on Wednesday, and that all major points, including indigenous rights, have been worked out.

Masardule says the agreement will allow industries to keep polluting, while credits are changing hands. “They want to get rich off the disgrace of the whole world,” he said.

Over the next year, FRONTLINE/World and CIR will report on key issues of climate change in a joint project—Carbon Watch—focusing on the multi-billion-dollar carbon trading market. We’ll look at which proposals to reduce emissions by 2020 really add up; at the hidden interests behind these solutions; and the new industry players. This week, our reporters blog from the Copenhagen climate change summit.

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