Indigenous Peoples Are the Best Protectors of Forests, New UN Report Shows

Preserving forests is essential in mitigating the climate crisis.

Three Indigenous women standing outside

José Hernández / FAOAmericas

Protecting Indigenous land rights is key to fighting the climate and biodiversity crises, a comprehensive United Nations report confirms. 

The report, titled Forest Governance by Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, was published March 25 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC). It drew on more than 300 studies from the last two decades to show that land controlled by Latin America’s Indigenous communities has generally been the best protected in the region.

“It gathers evidence that confirms that Indigenous peoples are really good protectors of the forest,” report coauthor Myrna Cunningham, an Indigenous rights activist and FILAC president, told Treehugger.

Latin America's Indigenous Community Are Forest Guardians

The report focused on Latin America because the land rights of Indigenous peoples in the region have historically been the best protected. Two-thirds of the land belonging to Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities there has been recognized with official titles, report lead author and Manager of the Forest and Farm Facility at FAO David Kaimowitz told Treehugger. This is not the case in Africa or Asia. 

“Latin America was really a pioneer and in many ways very surprisingly progressive in terms of public policies towards these territories,” Kaimowitz said.

Because of this, Indigenous people now control 404 million hectares in Latin America, about a fifth of the total continent. Of this area, more than 80% of it is covered with forest and nearly 60% of it is in the Amazon Basin, where Indigenous people control a territory larger than France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Spain combined. This means there is an abundance of data in the region to compare Indigenous and non-Indigenous forest management, and the data shows that Indigenous forest management is more successful nearly all of the time. 

As a rule, Indigenous-controlled territories have lower deforestation rates than other forested areas. In the Peruvian Amazon, for example, Indigenous-controlled regions were twice as effective at reducing deforestation between 2006 and 2011 than other protected areas similar in ecology and access. This means Indigenous territories can play an important role in fighting climate change and biodiversity loss. 

These territories account for 30% of Latin America’s forest-stored carbon and 14% of the carbon stored in tropical rainforests worldwide. And Indigenous communities are good at keeping that carbon stored. Between 2003 and 2016, the Indigenous-controlled portion of the Amazon Basin drew down 90% of the carbon it emitted. 

“In other words, these indigenous territories practically do not produce any net carbon emissions,” the report authors wrote.

Indigenous forest is also rich in biodiversity. In Brazil, it contains more species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians than in all of the country’s other conservation zones. In Bolivia, Indigenous territories host two-thirds of its vertebrate species and 60% of its plant species. 

The research suggests that other parts of the world could learn from Latin America’s experience. 

“That shows us that if Africa did similar things, if Asia did similar things, and in some cases they are, that they would probably get somewhat similar results,” Kaimowitz said.

Birds flying against rainforest in Puerto Maldonado, Tambopata, Peru
Puerto Maldonado, Tambopata, Peru. Christian Declercq / Getty Images

Latin America Is Rolling Back Vital Policies

Unfortunately, the report comes as Latin America is turning its back on some of the policies that have proven so beneficial to its forests and their Indigenous inhabitants. 

“In Latin American, Indigenous peoples are facing a very difficult situation,” Cunningham said. 

Because of an economic downturn, many governments look at the forests and see easy money in the form of timber, mining, fossil fuel extraction, or farmland. Some, like the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil, are actively rolling back Indigenous rights. Since the far-right leader took power, there have been no territories granted to Indigenous groups, and the legislature is moving to open forests to mining companies. In other countries, like Paraguay, the danger is posed by companies that illegally invade the forest and expel Indigenous people. 

This is obviously bad news for these communities. Hundreds of land defenders have been murdered since 2017.

It is also bad news for the stability of life on Earth. Several scientists have warned that, if deforestation continues, the Amazon rainforest could reach a dangerous tipping point after which it would be unable to make its own rain and much of it would transition to dry grassland, releasing billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide in the process.

The coronavirus pandemic has further worsened the situation on the ground for Latin America’s Indigenous peoples while highlighting the urgency of protecting the forests they call home. Many Indigenous communities are hard-hit by the virus itself, and governments are so distracted with their pandemic response that they are less able to defend them from illegal incursions.

At the same time, the spread of the new illness has “also made clear that there is a strong relation between zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 and biodiversity disturbance and biodiversity loss and so it makes it all the more important to maintain these forests,” Kaimowitz explained. 

The UN Report Proposes a Timely Five-Part Plan

Luckily, the report also offers solutions to emerging problems it documents. 

“We know what to do about it,” Kaimowitz said.

The report offers a five-point action plan: 

  1. Strengthen Land Rights: Indigenous groups should have a legal right to their land and this right should be enforced.
  2. Pay for Environmental Services: This is less about paying people not to cut down trees and more about providing communities with the resources they need to continue doing what they are already doing to defend these territories. 
  3. Support Indigenous Forestry: Indigenous communities have highly successful ways of managing forests. Governments can support their methods with financial or technological resources without imposing their own agendas. 
  4. Revitalize Traditional Knowledge: Evidence suggests that communities who have kept more of their cultural traditions alive are more successful conservationists. Helping communities sustain this knowledge is therefore key.
  5. Grow Indigenous Leadership: Efforts to support Indigenous leaders, especially women and young people, will ensure these communities can continue to manage their forests successfully while negotiating with the outside world. 

And the world is poised to listen. Cunningham said the report was “timely” because it comes ahead of three major UN summits scheduled for this year: the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China; the UN Food Systems Summit; and the major UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Respecting Indigenous forest management offers a solution to biodiversity loss, food insecurity, and climate change, while wildlife conservation, in particular, has a troubled history of walling off preserves without considering their human inhabitants. 

However, awareness of the relationship between Indigenous rights and environmental stewardship has expanded dramatically in the last decade, Kaimowitz said. He noted that both the UN climate conference presidency and the UN biodiversity secretariat had tweeted out articles about the report. 

Support for Indigenous rights is growing among the general public as well, something that gives Kaimowitz hope. He said that national governments and the international community did pay attention when citizens and consumers spoke up about these issues. 

“We’re seeing that happening more often, which is one of the reasons I’m optimistic,” he said.

View Article Sources
  1. "Forest governance by indigenous and tribal peoples." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2021.

  2. Amigo, Ignacio. "When will the Amazon hit a tipping point?" Nature, 2020.