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To Fight Climate Change We Need to Protect the People Who Live in the Rainforest

Give the woods to the people who live there and they take care of them.
July 25, 2014, 5:36pm
Image: Agencia Brazil

Sierra Club founder John Muir was an old sort of environmentalist, one that never looked at worldwide carbon emissions, but instead was enthralled with nature itself and its restorative powers. If people actually engaged with the forests, we would come to revere them, and wouldn't be so cavalier about logging them.

In a speech to the Sierra Club on November 23, 1895, he said, “Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.”


A new study by the World Resources Institute and Rights and Resources Initiative has concluded much the same thing: If you put the woods in the care of people who know them the most intimately—the local communities and indigenous peoples who inhabit them—the woods will be safe. Not only does this preserve the old growth forest and their ecosystems, but also their considerable carbon sink.

“Community forests,” whose land and resources are controlled by indigenous peoples, are cut down at a considerably slower rate.

Thirteen million hectares of forest are cleared every year, at a rate of 50 soccer fields a minute. At this pace, deforestation and other land uses, such as mining and extracting minerals, account for about 11 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

But among the world's forests, “community forests,” whose land and resources are controlled by indigenous peoples, are cut down at a considerably slower rate than those that are simply the purview of the government alone.

Take Bolivia for instance, where 22 million hectares, an area slightly larger than Greece, is held by indigenous peoples. From 2000 to 2010, only about 0.5 percent of land on legally recognized indigenous community forest was deforested, compared with 3.2 percent deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon.

Or look at Brazil, the study's model success story. From 1980 to 2007, about 300 Indigenous Lands were legally recognized in Brazil, the study states. These indigenous community forests vest the communities with “the perpetual right to exclude others” and to manage and use the forest, including its subsurface minerals, sustainably. So even though forest resources can technically be used commercially, cutting trees requires approval from Brazil's National Legislature.


As a result, studies have shown that from 2000 to 2012, forest loss was only 0.6 percent inside Indigenous Lands compared with 7.0 percent outside. Community forests of the Brazilian Amazon are also more carbon-rich, with 36 percent more carbon per hectare than areas of the Brazilian Amazon outside Indigenous Lands.

Contrast that with the 22.5 million hectares of forest lost outside Indigenous Lands, which resulted in 8.7 billion metric tons of CO2 emitted during the same time period, and what emerges is a fairly vivid picture of local action yielding global results.

 "It is tragic that this has not yet been fully adopted as a climate change mitigation strategy."

"No one has a stronger interest in the health of forests than the communities that depend on them for their livelihoods and culture," Andy White of the Rights and Resources Initiative told New Scientist. "It is tragic that this has not yet been fully adopted as a climate change mitigation strategy."

And let's not oversimplify. It takes more than just signing over land rights; it also takes a government willing to enforce them. The study also contains cautionary tales:

According to the Amazon NGO RAISG, three legally recognized indigenous lands in the northwest of Peru—HuascayacuAlto Mayo, and Shimpiyacu—lost, respectively, 51 percent, 33 percent, and 24 percent of their forest between 2000 and 2010—some of the worst deforestation in the entire Amazon.

Government allocations of indigenous lands to mining, oil, and natural gas concessions are a major cause of these devastating deforestation levels. Oil and gas concessions cover nearly 75 percent of the Peruvian Amazon. Fully 87 percent of Peruvian indigenous lands in part of Madre de Dios overlap with mining, oil, and gas concessions and other conflicting land uses.

Of course the cynic in me wonders if the only issues brushed aside as easily as the environment are those pertaining to indigenous peoples. The most recent “isolated tribe” in the Amazon to be driven out of seclusion and into contact with the Brazilian government was likely pushed out by deforestation and mining in Peru, and they may have already been given the flu.

But indigenous communities and national governments have shared goals before. Diego Arguedas Ortiz wrote about how indigenous tribes have fought drug cartels in South and Central America. At least one of the clashes between the cartel and the local Purépecha indigenous community in Michoacán was over organized crime's illegal logging.

Today communities have legal or official rights to at least 513 million hectares of forests, which is about one eighth of the world’s total, and comprises 37.7 billion metric tons of carbon, but, this study argues, it could stand to be much higher. In this way, the results seem to confirm what Muir said; there's no problem with forest preservation among people who go into the woods.