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.”
RELATED: Drought, Deforestation Set to Propel Vicious Amazon Die Off
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.”