Indigenous Groups Could Be the Key to Combating Global Deforestation

A first-of-its-kind study shows that once indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon were granted titles to the land on which they lived, the amount of forest loss declined.

Human rights advocates have long pushed for giving indigenous forest communities legal rights over the lands they inhabit.

From the Brazilian Amazon to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, indigenous communities have faced violent expropriation of their lands as vast areas of the world’s forests have been wiped out in order to make room for cattle ranches, palm oil plantations, or to accommodate an explosion in urban populations.

Giving indigenous groups a seat at the table has proven to be a successful way to reduce conflicts over land use. And now, in a first-of-its-kind study, researchers found that indigenous ownership of land might significantly reduce rates of deforestation, which could have wide-ranging ecological benefits, in addition to promoting human rights and boosting indigenous economies.

“This study is among the first spatially explicit analyses of its kind, and the findings strongly support the notion that awarding land title to indigenous and/or local communities can, at least in the short term, help protect forests,” the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The cascading effects include biodiversity protection, carbon sequestration, water resource provisioning, and a host of other ecosystem services considered vital at local to global ecological scales.”

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Researchers from Resources for the Future, the InterAmerican Development Bank, and the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University analyzed an area within the Peruvian Amazon where more than 1,200 indigenous communities have been granted land titles since the 1970s for an area spanning roughly 11 million hectares of forest.

The scale of Peru’s effort to grant land titles to indigenous groups combined with high levels of deforestation in the Amazon made it an ideal place to discern whether or not greater local control had an impact on forest destruction, said lead author Allen Blackman of the InterAmerican Development Bank. High-quality satellite data of Peru allowed the researchers to measure areas of clear cutting, as well as small-scale, selective logging of trees, which is often lost in the lower resolution satellite data from other nations.

The researchers found that rates of clear cutting fell by more than three-quarters and selective logging decreased by roughly two-thirds once communities obtained titles to their lands.

“We really had no expectations about which direction the rates of deforestation would go, or whether there would be a significant result following legal titling,” Blackman said. “It was a happy finding. It’s much more fun to talk about results that have a benefit rather than a cost.”

The benefit, particularly in combatting climate change, could be enormous.

Deforestation accounts for 10 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Woods Hole Research Center. Roughly a billion tons of carbon dioxide, the center estimates, is emitted into the atmosphere each year. That’s equivalent to the annual carbon emissions from 264 coal-fired power plants.

Cutting down trees and degrading the carbon-rich soils underneath many tropical rainforests doesn’t just release planet-warming emissions. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, meaning the world’s losing a critical tool in minimizing the damage brought about by fossil fuel burning.

Given the crucial role that forests play in sequestering carbon and contributing to climate change, forest conservation has been at the center of international climate change negotiations from many years.

Forest conservation emerged as a central component of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which emphasizes providing financial assistance to developing nations so they can promote conservation and support sustainably managed forests.  

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A large body of literature points to the benefits of indigenous and local control of forest resources, according to a report by the World Resources Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank.

The group found that deforestation rates were two to three times lower inside indigenous-controlled areas of Brazil, Bolivia, and Columbia compared to areas outside of indigenous control.

Andrew Steer, the group’s president and CEO, said in a statement accompanying publication of the report that there is a clear economic case for securing indigenous land rights.

“Not only is securing land tenure the right thing to do, it’s one of the world’s most cost-effective climate mitigation strategies," he said.

When considering avoided climate change impacts and ecological benefits like clean water and soil, improved flood control, and fees from tourism, WRI estimated that the economic benefits over the next 20 years are $54-$119 billion in Bolivia, $523 billion to $1.2 trillion in Brazil, and $123-$277 billion in Columbia.

Blackman said the advocacy community has long touted the benefits of local control, but his team’s findings are the first peer-reviewed results demonstrating an ecological benefit.

He said they hope to replicate their study in any of the several countries where they’ve been conducting ongoing research: Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Columbia. They also hope to follow up on their Peru findings, conducting field work aimed at identifying exactly why forest destruction declined once communities obtained land titles.

“One can begin to make that argument that this is likely a win-win policy with economic and social benefits," Blackman said, "as well as environmental ones to the extent that we can begin to generalize these results in other areas."

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