Powerful and vulnerable, Indigenous communities are key to protecting the Amazon

New research adds to evidence that Indigenous peoples are effective at defending forests, and should control the future of their lands.

photo by Paulo Brando

In Brazil, forest conservation is a matter of land management. Indigenous communities have kept their forests healthy and standing for centuries using traditional practices. But their lands are under constant threat of encroachment from agriculture and development. When Indigenous communities have full control over their lands, forests–and our global climate–benefit. But when that tenure is tenuous, forests become all the more vulnerable.

Indigenous territories experience minimal carbon loss

A recently published paper in Frontiers in Forest and Global Change led by Sanne Kruid, then a Woodwell/Tufts Policy Intern, and Woodwell Water Program Director Dr. Marcia Macedo confirms that Indigenous territories in Brazil experience far less carbon loss from deforestation and degradation than other lands.

The study analyzed remote sensing data for the Brazilian Amazon to calculate carbon emissions across land tenure types between 2003 and 2019. Indigenous territories had by far the lowest emissions during that time period, followed by protected natural areas. The single land category with the highest emissions per square kilometer was undesignated public forests—natural areas intended for protection, but not yet given a specific legal designation.

Research area
Map of forestc conversion and degradation

map by Greg Fiske

“And what this picture doesn’t show is that Indigenous territories are a much larger territory. So, in a larger territory there are much smaller amounts of carbon losses,” says Kruid. Altogether, Indigenous territories cover a third of the Amazon and account for only 8% of lost carbon.

The researchers further broke emissions down into those resulting from deforestation or degradation and disturbance. While deforestation indicates the complete conversion of forest to some other land use like agriculture, degradation involves smaller-scale changes, like selective  logging or natural disturbances, that leave much of the forest intact while diminishing carbon storage and ecological integrity. The results showed the majority of carbon lost in Indigenous territories was due to these degrading forces, rather than wholesale clearing.

It’s really an attitude shift towards fundamentally honoring the fact that Indigenous people are doing what nobody else has managed to do. They’re keeping the forests standing, they’re keeping the carbon in the forests, and that’s what the world needs. Dr. Marcia Macedo

photo by Paulo Brando

Indigenous management contributes to higher carbon stores

Research has also shown that Indigenous management practices are contributing directly to reduced carbon losses. Camilo Alejo, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University, led an analysis using similar datasets as Kruid and Macedo to isolate the impacts Indigenous management has on carbon stocks.

According to Alejo, many Indigenous and protected areas are designated on land that is considered less suitable for agriculture or other uses, and so might simply have less deforestation pressure. In order to control for those factors, Alejo conducted what’s known as a matching analysis, which broke the continuous landscape of the Amazon into individual pixels. Each pixel contained information on the amount of carbon stored within it, the land tenure status (i.e. Indigenous territory, private land, etc.) and other factors of the landscape, like distance to roads, elevation, and steepness of slope—the factors that could create more or less pressure to deforest an area.

The researchers found that when all other variables were identical, Indigenous territories were as effective as government-managed protected areas at keeping carbon in the forests, and had been maintaining these large carbon stores consistently over the years. Outside of Indigenous and protected areas, loss was much higher.

“Actually declaring land as an Indigenous territory or protected area increases carbon within its boundaries,” Alejo says.

Dr. Wayne Walker, Woodwell’s Carbon Program Director, helped to develop the dataset that underpins both Alejo’s and Kruid’s studies. To him, the findings from both studies throw into sharp relief the need to strengthen existing Indigenous land rights.

“It speaks to the need for Indigenous peoples to be afforded permanent land title. [Without it] they can be forced off these lands at any point, and in some cases they are. So we can only imagine the role they might play if their circumstances were to improve,” Dr. Walker said.

With official designations and title to their lands, Indigenous communities might also be in a stronger position to argue for a seat at the negotiating table when it comes to climate change. Although Indigenous people have been participating in international climate conferences since the 1990s, they haven’t been afforded decision-making power. Yet the decisions made on climate deeply impact the future of Indigenous communities and their forests.

According to Dr. Macedo, it essentially all boils down to the need to cultivate a culture of true respect for Indigenous peoples.

“It’s really an attitude shift towards fundamentally honoring the fact that Indigenous people are doing what nobody else has managed to do,” Macedo says. “They’re keeping the forests standing, they’re keeping the carbon in the forests, and that’s what the world needs.”

Author Sarah Ruiz