For preventing deforestation, new UN report shows Indigenous approach is best

An Indigenous woman trims a tree at a forest in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by: Juan Carlos Huayllapuma / CIFOR / CC BY-NC-ND

When it comes to preventing deforestation, biodiversity loss, and helping reduce carbon emissions, forests in Latin America and the Caribbean are best managed by Indigenous and tribal peoples, according to a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.

But in locations where Indigenous communities do not have land rights, they face an increasing battle to maintain control. Experts fear this is a battle they may lose.

Forest Governance by Indigenous and Tribal Peoples,” the new report released last week, reviewed more than 300 studies published since 2000 to identify the impact of Indigenous forest management on the environment. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Indigenous peoples occupy 404 million hectares of land — approximately one-fifth of the total area. Of this, 60% lies in the Amazon Basin, and 80% are forests.

According to the report, almost half of Indigenous-managed forests remain fully intact, with Indigenous and tribal territories having lower deforestation rates than other forest areas. This leads to stronger environmental outcomes. More carbon is stored, and local, regional, and global climates are stabilized. And these regions produce less carbon. In the Amazon Basin, Indigenous territories accounted for only 2.6% — despite covering 28% of the land.

Flora and fauna are also protected — the report shows there are more species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians in the Indigenous territories of Brazil than non-Indigenous protected areas.

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“This report is extremely beneficial because it provides a podium for science to speak to the world,” Julio Berdegue, FAO regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, said in launching the report. “Science is telling us what the real situation is.” And that situation is: Indigenous communities are “instrumental” in preventing deforestation.

What leads to better forest management?

According to the report, scientific research shows a number of factors that help forests in Indigenous managed territories have better conservation outcomes — including how the land is used.

“Expansion of livestock and farming are among the pressures eroding capabilities of Indigenous peoples ... Benefits will be lost if we don’t help them do what they do best."

— Julio Berdegue, regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, FAO

Indigenous managed territories are distinguished by the lack of cattle, which were introduced by Spanish and Portuguese colonization. Bushmeat, medicinal plants, wild fruits, and fuelwood is more likely to be harvested in Indigenous forests. This approach to land management has been improved across generations as part of practices that contribute to Indigenous culture, knowledge, and livelihoods.

“The book confirms Indigenous peoples are key stakeholders in the protection of biodiversity and land preservation because we have always done that,” Myrna Cunningham, president at FILAC, explained at the launch.

Political and legal support is also critical. The formal recognition by governments of the rights to territories improves forest management, according to the report. Indigenous and tribal peoples can prevent encroachment into their forests which can lead to conflict and destruction of land.

Government support to help communities care for forests also provides additional incentives to protect and improve forest environments, and land use restrictions through protected areas also make it easier to police illegal land use.

Remoteness also plays a role in conservation. Locations further away from markets, services, and main roads are less likely to be at risk of privatization and deforestation. And less access to workers also makes it hard to clear land on a massive scale.

Despite the benefits, Indigenous land is at risk

Despite science showing the benefits of Indigenous forest management, all forests are facing increasing pressure from climate change and deforestation — including Indigenous lands. Between 2012 and 2016, annual carbon emissions for the entire Amazon Basin increased 200%, according to the report. And deforestation has been rising fast since 2015.

“Expansion of livestock and farming are among the pressures eroding capabilities of Indigenous peoples,” Berdegue said. “Benefits will be lost if we don’t help them do what they do best.”

The report makes recommendations for policies and investments that will support Indigenous communities in fighting the “accelerated deterioration” forests face, Berdegue said. Reinforcing and recognizing land rights and reinforcing the rule of law are at the top of the list. Recognition of land rights is critical, he said.

The evidence collated showed that lack of recognition leaves these lands vulnerable to occupations by external groups, leading to the destruction of forests. Payment for services to protect the environment is also an important strategy, enabling Indigenous communities to be compensated for their work that benefits the globe.

“We all receive services through air, water, rain, that rely on the preservation of these forests,” he said. And in the economic recovery from COVID-19, Berdegue believed this strategy could produce up to 300,000 new jobs in sustainable forest management in an approach that can encourage investment from the private sector seeking to improve their global footprint.

The recommendations, he said, are “not reinventing the wheel,” but rather identifying expansions of what policies work well.

What are the next steps?

According to Cunningham, the new report fills a gap in knowledge overlooked by multilateral institutions. FAO, FILAC, and the Caribbean are now focusing their attention on getting the research and its recommendation out to governments, private sector, and other key stakeholders who can support urgent change both within South America and throughout the world.

“We’ll be reaching out to them and saying this is what the evidence shows, this is what works, so let’s jointly with government and international funds increase our commitment to these activities,” David Kaimowitz, manager of the forest and farm facility at FAO and author of the report, explained to Devex.

The emphasis will be on 2021 being a “decisive year” for the international community to determine how it wants to respond to the climate and biodiversity crisis in the context of COVID-19 recovery, he said.

Kaimowitz said they are aware there will be governments that may be challenging to engage on this issue, including Brazil. But the messaging from the research provided an important story that he believed could encourage even President Jair Bolsonaro into action.

“In Brazil, these actions recommended in the report can help improve their business environment. This can help improve investment to create lots of goodwill from the international community towards Brazil — and it will be good for everybody.” The climate message can also be positively communicated, Kaimowitz said. The Amazon rainforest produces an amount of water through evapotranspiration that impacts the local climate, including soybean and corn farmers that need this water.

 “We can show the national benefits to Brazilian farmers, businesses, and cities. We’re very hopeful the Brazilian government will be responsive on these issues.”

This focus area, supported by the U.N. Development Programme, explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality and vice versa. Visit the Focus on: People and the Planet page for more.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.