Deforestation of the Amazon, among the greatest environmental tragedies on Earth, is accelerating while the world's focus is on the pandemic. However, one study provides an effective solution: give legal recognition over the forests to indigenous populations. The findings have implications for other threatened areas.
Environmentalists and indigenous communities have forged frequent alliances to protect threatened areas by returning ownership of the land to the native communities. However, questions have remained about the extent this benefits conservation. Some indigenous communities prefer the money and jobs that loggers or miners can offer to intact homelands and are often unable to keep extractive industries out even when they want to.
University of California, San Diego, PhD student Kathryn Baragwanath looked at how the granting of property rights in the Amazon affected deforestation in practice, rather than just in theory.
In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Baragwanath reports that areas of the Amazon fully and collectively owned by indigenous tribes had a 66 percent reduction in deforestation compared to areas under either partial or non-Indigenous ownership. A simple comparison of the damage done in areas under tribal control with the wider Amazon may not be a reliable guide. If, for example, governments predominantly granted property rights to native peoples of more remote or commercially low-value areas, we'd expect logging to be lower there.
To allow for this, Baragwanath looked at deforestation over 34 years, starting in 1982 before recognition of indigenous property rights was widespread in Brazil. This allowed her to compare deforestation before and after rights were awarded.
Prior to 1995, most of the Indigenous-owned territories were under a form of partial ownership. Baragwanath found that this provided little protection. She argues some past studies that found little benefit from indigenous control have treated full and partial ownership together, distorting their results.
"Not only do indigenous territories serve a human rights role, but they are a cost-effective way for governments to preserve their forested areas and attain climate goals,” Baragwanath said in a statement. “This is important since many indigenous territories have yet to receive their full property rights and it points to where policymakers and NGOs concerned about the situation in Brazil should now focus their efforts."
Last year, an upsurge in Amazonian fires grabbed the world’s attention, as part of a series of devastating blazes around the world. Although some of these fires were accidents, most were deliberately lit to clear the rainforest for commercial exploitation, such as cattle farming. Both Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and his immediate predecessor Michel Temer have suspended the declaration of new Indigenous territories that occurred under previous presidents for 30 years. Bolsonaro has expressed an intention to remove some previously granted rights.