©FAO/ Francisco Nieto
A girl from the Arhuaco People learns from her mother the ancestral technique of weaving the Arhuaca backpack. Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, Colombia.

Latin America and the Caribbean’s indigenous and tribal territories play a prominent role in the stability of the regional and global climate and house a large part of global biological and cultural diversity, but their inhabitants lack decent incomes and access to services. Historically, these areas did not have much deforestation or forest degradation. Cultural factors, formal recognition of indigenous and tribal territorial rights, economic benefits indigenous and tribal peoples received from maintaining forest, government restrictions on land use change, remoteness, environmental conditions unsuitable for commercial agriculture, lack of capital, and low demographic pressure contributed to that.

Now, the threats to the people and forests of the indigenous and tribal territories are increasing. Demand for food, minerals, energy, timber, tourism, and other products and services is growing. That makes the territories’ natural resources more valuable and encourages efforts to capture them.

Many factors that kept these forests from being destroyed have weakened:

  • Road construction has made the territories more accessible.
  • Technological advances have enabled mineral and hydrocarbon extraction and crop and livestock production in new regions.
  • Some governments have curtailed their efforts in support of collective land rights.
  • Various countries have reduced funding for payments for environmental services and to support community forestry.
  • New companies and households have brought capital and/or labor to forest frontier regions.
  • Greater contact with urban areas, formal education, mass communications, and markets has weakened traditional languages, customs, and knowledge.

These changes have not all been negative. Nevertheless, their combined effect has been to increase the threats to the territories’ forests, inhabitants, and cultures. The territories’ forests are still in better condition than other forests, but the trend is negative.

These new challenges demand a strong integrated response. The region and the world do not have the luxury of losing the territories’ large stores of carbon and biological and cultural riches or permitting the violence to escalate. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation even more urgent. The pandemic has taken a great toll on the indigenous and tribal people but has not deterred the invasions of their territories. This grave situation requires much more investment in these territories, in addition to policy, procedural, and governance reforms.

This is a long-term problem that requires a long-term response, based on consolidating the territories’ governance structures, policy instruments, social capital, abilities, and knowledge. That is the only way to maintain the integrity of the territories’ ecosystems and their cultures and to improve their quality of life and avoid social conflicts indefinitely.

The new investment and policy initiatives must include five central components:

  • communal territorial rights;
  • compensation of environmental services;
  • community forest management;
  • cultural revitalization and traditional knowledge; and
  • territorial governance and stronger indigenous and afro descendant organizations.
©ITINKUY.COM/ Miguel Arreátegui
Awajun warrior in his community in the Peruvian jungle. Loreto, Peru.

Given the synergies between these components, they should be considered a package, not stand-alone initiatives. Territorial rights are a precondition for community forestry and payment for environmental service programs. Good territorial governance and well-functioning organizations provide a solid foundation for everything else. Cultural revitalization strengthens the social capital, self-esteem, and traditional knowledge all these efforts need to work. Box 7 offers an indicative estimation of the economic viability of this package from a climate mitigation perspective, which suggest that the proposal could be viable.

Box 7 The profitability of investing in climate action in the indigenous and tribal territories

Whenever one considers a public investment, it is important to assess its economic viability. Typically, climate mitigation projects compare the carbon emissions expected if the project is implemented with a reference scenario based on past emissions. In the case of the indigenous and tribal territories, past emissions were low, but without forceful action they are likely to rise to levels more like those of other forests with comparable environmental conditions and access to markets.

For the Amazon Basin, which includes almost three quarters of the carbon in the indigenous and tribal territories’ forests, there is enough data to make an initial estimate of whether the activities this report recommends might be economically viable.

On average, indigenous and tribal territories in the Amazon Basin lost 0.17 percent of the carbon stored in their forests each year between 2003 and 2016 due to deforestation and forest degradation. In contrast, forests outside indigenous territories and protected areas lost 0.53 percent each year; 0.36 percent more than the indigenous territories (Walker et al., 2020).*

One reason the annual deforestation rates were 0.36 percent lower in the indigenous and tribal territories was because they were in places that were less likely to be deforested, independent of whether they were indigenous or tribal. For example, they might be farther from roads, have less fertile soils or wetter climates. Blackman and Veit (2018) estimate that such factors explain roughly 30 percent of this 0.36 percent difference in deforestation rates between indigenous and tribal territories and other forests. Most of the remaining 70 percent of the difference in deforestation rates is presumably related to indigenous and tribal peoples’ territorial rights, use of the forest, payments for environmental services, cultures and knowledge, land use restrictions, governance, and organization.

The most likely “Business as Usual” reference scenario is that, if nothing is done to strengthen these latter aspects, deforestation rates in indigenous and tribal territories will become more similar to those in other forests with similar soils, climates, and distance to roads. One subjective, but plausible, estimate, is that over the next decade on average these territories would provide only half as much protection as they do now, compared to similar non-indigenous forests outside protected areas.

If that were the case, these territories’ annual carbon emissions would increase by 0.36 percent x 70 percent x 50 percent = 0.126 percent of the territories’ forest carbon stock. That stock is currently 24 640 million metric tonnes of carbon (MtC). So, the additional emissions would be 24 640 MTC x 0.126 percent, or 31 MtC per year. At the price of USD 5 per ton of CO2e paid by the Green Climate Fund, if one could avoid that increase of 31 MtC of emissions that would be worth about USD 570 million per year.

Meanwhile, based on the costs of existing programs, on average the proposed investments in territorial rights, environmental service payments, community forestry, governance, and cultural revitalization might cost USD 40 per hectare (Ding et al., 2016; Von Hedemann, 2016; Alix-García et al., 2019; MINAM, 2019). If the activities covered half the forest in the Amazon Basin indigenous territories, it would cost USD 400 million per year. Well invested, that could be enough to avoid the previously mentioned 31 MtC of emissions, valued at USD 570 million per year.

So, from an economic perspective, one could probably justify an investment of this magnitude based solely on a reduction of expected carbon emissions, even without the other social, environmental, cultural, and governance benefits.** In addition, many other studies have shown the economic benefits of avoiding the emission of a ton of CO2e is more than USD 5 (Ding et al., 2016). If one used those higher prices to calculate the economic benefits, they would obviously be larger.

  • * These figures do not include the additional carbon the trees capture each year. If they did, the expected benefits of the proposed investments would be significantly larger.
  • ** Including the timing of the costs and benefits and interest rates would make this analysis more rigorous. However, it would not change the general results since the proposed actions are expected to provide their benefits almost immediately after the investments are made.
©️FAO/ Francisco Nieto
Indigenous man from the Kankuamo People, leader of forest governance in the Sierra of Nevada Santa Marta, Colombia.

The demarcation and titling of indigenous and tribal territories is a cost-effective option for reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon capture. There are still tens of millions of hectares left to be demarcated and titled or registered, and that requires investment. Those efforts must be complemented with measures to ensure the titles are respected and tenure conflicts are resolved and to guarantee the indigenous and tribal peoples’ right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) related to proposed investments and policies that affect their territories.

Payment for environmental services for indigenous and tribal peoples deliver good environmental and social outcomes and deserve to be expanded. In addition to paying communities not to deforest in the short term, they should focus on creating the institutional, economic, and social conditions that provide motives and means for the communities to guarantee the long-term integrity of their ecosystems.

Investments decisions should be based principally on the past pressure on these forests – which was often low – but on the need to prepare for the new emerging threats.

Community forest management, both for timber and non-timber products, can offer relevant economic opportunities for the territories’ inhabitants. It lends itself to a landscape approach, favors communal and territorial enterprises and organizational structures, offers incentives to keep forests standing, stabilizes and/or improves forest conditions, and provides income and jobs.

Like other productive rural activities, community forest management requires public and private investment to accompany and advise communities, train human resources, identify markets and innovations, monitor outcomes, construct and maintain secondary roads, and provide capital for operational costs and long-term investment. These investments can generate good rates of return and catalyze dynamic productive sectors. However, that requires secure rights over forests and stable regulatory environments with low transactions costs, which allow communities to use their resources profitably. Without that, some communities may still be able to manage their forests profitably, legally, and without degrading the forest while some program or project funds them, but that will difficult to sustain without a favorable policy environment.

Most forestry programs and projects in indigenous and tribal territories focus only on ecological and /or economic aspects and give scant attention to cultural and educational issues. However, the latter are key, especially for the medium and long term. This component requires investment in pertinent cultural and educational activities and policy reforms to promote traditional knowledge, production and consumption systems, ethnic pride and identify, social capital, and self-esteem. Well designed and financed bilingual and intercultural education can be powerful tools, together with other initiatives undertaken by the communities and their organizations.

Finally, it is important to invest in improving the governance of indigenous and Afro descendent territories and indigenous and tribal organizations. That requires striking a balance between strengthening the indigenous and tribal peoples’ technical and administrative capacity and dynamizing more participatory processes. Extending their reach, while deepening their local roots. Over time, new more “hybrid” structures must emerge to accompany and finance the communities and their organizations. All these efforts must prioritize meaningful participation in decision-making by women and youth.

The accelerating threats to the territories’ integrity demands rapid responses proportionate to the magnitude of the challenges. Much remains to be learned about how to strengthen indigenous and tribal territories, to improve their long-term social and environmental conditions, but the moment to act is now. Soon it could be too late.