Scientists support indigenous land rights

'Governments are weakening environmental protections, violating existing indigenous land rights.'


Indigenous territories (ITs) and protected natural areas (PNAs) in the Amazon are emitting formerly undetected amounts of carbon, yet their net emissions remain low, allowing them to outperform other land categories across the nine-nation region.

Researchers analyzed the impact of forest conversion as well as degradation and disturbance on four land categories in the Amazon (ITs, PNAs, Other Land, and the overlap between ITs and PNAs). Their paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study found that forest growth helped indigenous territories show the lowest net loss of carbon, with 90 percent of net emissions coming from outside protected lands.


Combined, indigenous lands and protected areas cover 52 percent of the Amazon and store 58 percent of the carbon. The new PNAS study suggests they are increasingly at risk from illegal activities and growing weaknesses in the rule of law, endangering their role in protecting vulnerable landscapes.

Their findings led the authors to call for strengthening the rights of indigenous peoples whose lands cover 30 percent of the Amazon and hold 34 percent of its carbon.

Wayne Walker, lead author and scientist at Woods Hole Research Center, said: “Our work shows that forests under the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities continue to have better carbon outcomes than lands lacking protection, meaning that their role is critical and must be strengthened if Amazon basin countries are to succeed in maintaining this globally important resource, while also achieving their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.” 

Scientists, policy experts, and indigenous leaders gathered under a consortium formed by the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA), Rede Amazônica de Informação Socioambiental (RAISG), and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), participated in the study. 

Almost 90 percent of Amazon indigenous territories have some form of legal recognition, but the authors of the study note that government concessions for mining and petroleum extraction overlap nearly one quarter of all recognized territorial lands, substantially increasing their vulnerability to adverse impacts.


Tuntiak Katan, an author and vice- coordinator of the Congress of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), said: "Our research reveals what indigenous peoples across the Amazon are reporting to their leaders.  

"Governments are weakening environmental protections, violating existing indigenous land rights, and encouraging impunity in the rule of law. The situation is putting at risk the existence of our peoples and our territories, which contain the world’s most carbon-dense forests.”

The authors looked at losses and gains in carbon over the period 2003-2016, using an update to data originally published by Baccini et al. (2017; Science). 

Additionally, they disaggregated losses into those attributable to forest conversion (e.g., deforestation) and those due to anthropogenic degradation and natural disturbance.  

The new study suggests that, during the 2003–2016 time frame, the Amazon region was a net source of carbon to the atmosphere, releasing about 1,290 million tons of carbon (MtC), when both losses and gains are considered. The trajectories of carbon loss from 2003 to 2016 show increases between 2012 and 2016 for all countries and land categories, especially outside ITs and PNAs.

Storing carbon 

The authors suggest that the continued growth of forests on indigenous territories have allowed these lands to compensate for emissions from degradation and disturbance. 

Still, 47 percent of the total loss of carbon for the region as a whole was attributed to degradation and disturbance. Carmen Josse, co-author of the PNAS report and scientific director of Fundación EcoCiencia, in Ecuador, said: “This is a concerning finding, given the importance that tropical forests have in providing globally important ecosystem services, beyond their role of capturing and storing carbon."

Steve Schwartzman, senior director of tropical forest policy at Environmental Defense Fund, and one of the study’s authors, said: “Our study shows that protected indigenous territories have reduced deforestation and forest degradation in the Amazon rainforest over the last two decades, and continue to be an effective buffer against the recent spike in deforestation. To save the Amazon, indigenous territories must remain protected.”

Lands outside ITs and PNAs (i.e., “Other Land”) accounted for about 70 percent of total carbon losses and nearly 90 percent of the net change—on less than half the total land area.

In contrast, ITs and PNAs—on more than half the land area—accounted for just 10 percent of the net change, with 86 percent of losses on those lands offset by gains through forest growth. Thus, there was a nine-fold difference in net carbon loss outside ITs and PNAs (−1,160 MtC) compared with inside (−130 MtC). 

Strengthening rights 

The results of this study add weight to previous research, including the conclusions of a high-profile report on land and climate change, released last August by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

The IPCC report cited findings showing that strong land rights play a role in the lower rates of deforestation and forest degradation found on Indigenous territories, while the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) proposed strengthening land rights for Indigenous and other local communities as part of an effective approach for addressing biodiversity loss.

Josse said: “Our findings suggest that ITs and PNAs were (independently and collectively) more effective than Other Land in maintaining their overall stock of carbon intact.

"In most countries, ITs and PNAs were either at or near net zero emissions, ranging from a small net source in Brazil to a small net sink in Peru. But with deforestation outside ITs and PNAs growing rapidly, our findings on the impact of degradation and disturbance suggest that significant, sustained support for indigenous people is now an urgent priority.”

The PNAS study reports that ITs and PNAs continue to resist the expansion of deforestation taking place beyond their borders. But in assessing the impact of degradation and disturbance on Indigenous territories and protected areas, the authors draw new attention to the plight of indigenous peoples, whose leaders report growing impunity on the part of illegal gold miners, ranchers and loggers, seemingly encouraged by the statements of political leaders and legislative efforts to open territorial lands to new mining concessions.

Paulo Moutinho, coauthor of the paper and senior researcher at IPAM, said the findings suggest a potential threat to the region’s economic health, "It’s fundamental that the governments of the Amazon countries pay attention to the potential risk to their economies by not preserving their protected areas from illegal deforestation.”

This Author

Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist's content editor. This article is based on a press release from the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Image: Eduardo Fonseca Arraes, Flickr. 

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