Study Shows Fulfilling Indigenous Land Rights Leads to Greater Protection of Forests

A great study just came out that confirms what indigenous activists and environmentalists have been saying with increasing force in recent years: indigenous communities are the front-line protectors and stewards of the world’s natural ecosystems, and supporting indigenous land ownership rights will be absolutely essential to protecting the world’s ecosystems and sustaining the Earth’s biodiversity in the 21st century and beyond. The paper looked at high resolution satellite imagery of the Peruvian Amazon from 2002 to 2005 and found that granting indigenous communities official titles to their land reduced deforestation by 80% per year and reduced forest disturbance by 67% in the two years after the titling was performed (i.e. reduced these from a combined background rate of 0.37% per year down to 0.11%). Although the researchers weren’t able to pinpoint the exact mechanisms of the reduced pressure on forests, the authors did conclude that “[t]he implication is that awarding formal land titles to local communities can protect forests.”

This is yet another piece in the puzzle showing that achieving indigenous land ownership claims is one of the cheapest, most effective and all-around most beneficial ways of protecting the world’s forests, and therefore any serious effort to protect the entire Earth and all its life in the 21st century is going to have to put the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights, and especially their land rights, first and foremost in its strategy. This is why scientifically-grounded global conservation visions like Half-Earth and “Nature Needs Half” have included the support of indigenous ownership of habitat as one of the top four areas of their plans (along with protecting half the Earth’s habitat area, supporting technologies that decouple economic development from the destruction of nature, etc.). This is for two major reasons: 1) conservationists have a moral imperative to support indigenous land rights, especially since the creation of many “protected areas” in the past (and today) was used as an excuse to push local and indigenous communities off their lands, and 2) recent research is consistently showing that indigenous communities are highly effective stewards of natural habitats, e.g. indigenous community-owned lands in Brazil show deforestation rates that are 22 times lower than government- or privately-managed lands! Unfortunately though, while indigenous peoples currently manage and protect 65% of the Earth’s land area (and twice the total forest area in developing countries as in all their “protected areas”), they lack government recognition of over 75% of their lands.

Despite this, there has been a huge surge in indigenous  land rights activism and successes in recent decades. Indigenous communities all over the world are seeking and experiencing gains in their land rights after decades of petitioning courts, mapping their customary lands using GIS and other technologies and engaging in activism to affirm their presence and their commitment to defending their land. Today, even in countries with the most deeply scarred histories of human rights abuses and oppression of indigenous peoples, indigenous communities are beginning to make gains in their land ownership claims — e.g. indigenous Miskito communities were granted 970,000 hectares (3,745 mi²) of land in Honduras in 2013, and Indonesia’s government for the first time ever granted 13,100 ha (50 mi²) to 9 indigenous communities in 2017 (following a 2013 Indonesian court decision that took indigenous customary forests out of state forests). This year, two of the Goldman Prize’s six winners — Rodrigo Tot of Guatemala and Prafulla Samantala of India — successfully led indigenous groups’ efforts to get courts to recognize their lands (both activists also cancelled or opposed major mining projects).

It is clear that the fate of indigenous communities is intertwined very closely with the fate of our planet. If we support these communities who have been stewarding the Earth for hundreds or thousands of years and who currently manage vast areas of natural habitat using traditional knowledge, we may make it possible to protect at least half the Earth’s habitat area and thus sustain its biological diversity in the long term — as well as awaken an important part of our humanity (i.e. our link to nature and to traditional and innate human wisdom). If we do not support these communities, we will likely see a collapse of many of the most important ecosystems and the continual grinding down of human lives for the sake of a destructive, lopsided economic system. As environmentalists, or simply people who care about the fate of the planet and all who live on it, we need to support the efforts of indigenous peoples to achieve recognition of their lands, their rights and their worldviews — not only for their sake but for all of ours.

Cover image: “Amazon rainforest near Puerto Maldonado[, Peru]” by Ivan Mlinaric. Photo copyrighted under Creative Commons (license CC BY 2.0).

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