The Javari Valley is one of the largest Indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon.
IMAGE CREDIT: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real

Scientific Evidence Points to Indigenous Peoples’ Forest Management as Key to Climate Change Mitigation

  • Indigenous peoples’ lands in the Amazon are effective carbon sinks, absorbing more carbon than they release.
  • Lands legally held or titled to Indigenous peoples have lower deforestation rates than untitled Indigenous lands.
  • Rainforest Foundation US’s work integrates scientific evidence, technology, and Indigenous knowledge to effectively protect rainforests and tackle the climate crisis.

Indigenous peoples have shaped and managed vast rainforest territories for millennia. These rainforests regulate rainfall, store carbon, and shelter immense biodiversity and sociocultural diversity. In recent years, several studies have provided statistical evidence confirming that lands legally titled to Indigenous peoples are the most efficient models for forest protection.

Forests Managed by Indigenous Peoples Capture More Carbon

A portrait of a Kanamari family from the Massapê village, in the Indigenous Territory of Vale do Javari, Amazonas. The image features Eduardo Kanamari, also known as Dyanim in the Kanamari language, wearing a traditional woven hat and body paint, alongside his wife Zefinha, who is adorned with a distinctive necklace and is holding a young child.
Eduardo Kanamari [Dyanim in the Kanamari language] and his wife Zefinha in the Vale do Javari in Amazonas. IMAGE CREDIT: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real

A report published in 2023 [1] demonstrates how Indigenous peoples’ lands in the Amazon act as robust carbon sinks, capturing significantly more carbon than they emit. This contrasts sharply with areas under public and private management, which often struggle to maintain their ecological balance and can even become a source of carbon emissions. Areas of the Amazon managed by Indigenous peoples with documented or formal land claims have been some of the most secure and reliable net carbon sinks over the past two decades, according to the report. Between 2001 and 2021, these forests emitted around 120 million metric tons of CO2 annually while removing 460 million metric tons, resulting in a net total of 340 million metric tons removed from the atmosphere—equivalent to the U.K.’s annual fossil fuel emissions.

A separate report [2] from 2023 indicates a positive advancement in formal recognition of Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and local communities’ lands, with an increase of 102.9 million hectares (254 million acres) between 2015 and 2020. This news was well received by Rainforest Foundation US (RFUS). As one of a handful of global organizations that directly support Indigenous communities to gain title for their customary lands, we understand the effort involved in landback initiatives. This data underscores that community advocacy efforts are working; these communities now hold more than 11% of the Earth’s terrestrial land of the 73 countries analyzed in the report—covering 85% of global land.

However, these gains are not without their challenges, and there is a long way to go. The same report notes that at least 1.3 billion hectares (approximately 3.2 billion acres) of ancestral lands remain unrecognized under national laws, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and degradation. Moreover, as many countries in the Global South push for speedy economic and industrial development, the demand for land—including Indigenous peoples’ territories—intensifies.

Land Rights Are Crucial to Halt Deforestation

The critical role of Indigenous communities holding land titles was underscored in another peer-reviewed study [3] from 2020 focused specifically on the Brazilian Amazon. By examining data from 245 Indigenous territories ratified between 1982 and 2016, researchers found that deforestation significantly decreases within these territories once they are legally recognized. Communities with established collective property rights have legal backing to protect their lands against the unauthorized exploitation of resources, leading to an approximate 66% decrease in border deforestation, the study showed.

Another report [4], published in 2023, also indicated a heightened capacity for the restoration of deforested lands in titled Indigenous territories. Over a 33-year span, these areas experienced a 5% increase in secondary forest coverage, marking a 23% greater growth compared to adjacent, privately owned, or unincorporated lands.

Technology Can Bolster Indigenous-Led Rainforest Protection

RFUS forest monitors in Loreto, the Peruvian Amazon, examine satellite images on laptops to track deforestation threats. The scene depicts a blend of traditional settings and advanced technology, with satellite maps and electronic devices on a wooden table.
RFUS forest monitors utilize satellite technology to identify deforestation threats in Loreto, Peruvian Amazon

A Rainforest Foundation US analysis, published in 2021 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that communities equipped with satellite data via smartphones saw dramatically less forest loss than similar communities that did not adopt the technology. Between 2018 and 2019, researchers implemented technology-based forest-monitoring programs in 36 communities in Loreto, the northernmost region of the Peruvian Amazon. They trained and paid three representatives from each community to patrol their forests monthly and verify reports of suspected deforestation using a smartphone application and satellite data. Compared with 37 other communities in Loreto where the program wasn’t implemented, those under the program saw 52% and 21% less deforestation in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The gains were concentrated in communities at highest risk of deforestation due to threats like illegal mining, logging, and the planting of illicit crops such as coca to manufacture cocaine, the researchers found. In fact, this RFUS supported monitoring program in Peru and elsewhere resulted in 13.7 million acres protected in 2023 alone.

The important takeaway in these findings lies in the contribution of Indigenous and community-managed lands to mitigating climate change and biodiversity conservation. Expanding land rights is pivotal for environmental protection efforts, stressing the need for policies and support to secure Indigenous and community land management and ownership as a critical step toward achieving global climate and biodiversity targets. Integrating Indigenous peoples’ territories into conservation strategies, increasing government support for Indigenous land management, and ensuring a greater portion of climate finance reaches Indigenous communities directly are all essential and urgent acts, and are core to Rainforest Foundation US’s work.

Notes

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Resources for Rights-holders on Carbon Markets

The voluntary carbon market is quickly evolving in tropical forests around the world, creating a complex landscape of new actors, standards, and requirements for Indigenous peoples and local communities to navigate in order to protect their rights. To support communities, their organizations, and their leaders Rainforest Foundation US commissioned Climate, Law and Policy to develop a set of analyses that break down the safeguard-related requirements

RFUS in the Press

Direct funding of Indigenous peoples can protect global rainforests & the climate

In an op-ed featured on Mongabay, the Executive Directors of the Rainforest Foundations of the United States, Norway, and the United Kingdom emphasize the essential role of Indigenous peoples in addressing the climate crisis. They urge the global elite to not only acknowledge this vital role but also to provide financial support.

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Didier Devers
Chief of Party – USAID Guatemala
gro.y1709376946nffr@1709376946sreve1709376946dd1709376946

Didier has been coordinating the USAID-funded B’atz project since joining Rainforest Foundation US in April 2022. He holds a Master’s in Applied Anthropology and a Bachelor’s in Geography. Before joining the organization, Didier worked for 12 years in Central and South America on issues of transparency, legality, governance, and managing stakeholders’ processes in the environmental sector. Prior to that he worked on similar issues in Central Africa. He speaks French, Spanish, and English, and is based in Guatemala.