Why forests in indigenous and TRIBAL territories have been better conserved

©️FAO/ Ana Reyes
Woman from the Yurumanguí community, leader in forest governance, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

Six factors help to explain why the forests in communally managed indigenous and tribal territories have been better conserved than other forests:16

  1. Cultural factors and traditional knowledge;
  2. Recognition of collective territorial rights;
  3. Forest incentive policies;
  4. Land use restrictions;
  5. Limited accessibility and low profitability of agriculture; and
  6. Limited access to capital and labor (Kaimowitz, 2015).

In the following pages we will discuss each of these factors’ role in preserving the forests but not their relative weight. It is worth noting that no one has done a study examining the relative importance of all six factors, some of which are intimately related to each other. To assess their relative importance, any study would have to disentangle those complex interrelations.

Also, this section doesn’t debate what to do with these factors in the future. That point is made in another section of this document.

©ITINKUY.COM/ Miguel Arreátegui
Indigenous resident of the Amazon Awajun community. Loreto, Peru.

a. Cultural factors and traditional knowledge

Indigenous and tribal cultures and traditional knowledge have contributed to reduce forest destruction in various ways.

Many indigenous and tribal peoples have productive systems that are less harmful to forest ecosystems. This is an empirical finding, based on data, not a naïve ideological or romantic notion. It is well demonstrated that the continent’s rural production systems are characterized by marked ethnic differences, both between indigenous peoples and mestizos and between distinct indigenous groups (Eden and Andrade, 1988; Godoy, Franks and Alvarado, 1998; Atran et al., 1999; Sierra, 1999; Rudel, Bates and Machinguiashi, 2002; Frizzelle et al., 2005; Hvolkof, 2006; Gray et al., 2008; Killeen et al., 2008; Stocks, McMahan and Taber, 2008; Lu et al., 2010; Barsimantov and Kendall, 2012; Müller et al., 2012; Bonilla-Moheno et al., 2013; Paneque-Gálvez et al., 2013; Torres et al., 2018; Vasco, Bilsborrow and Griess, 2018; Gray, and Bilsborrow, 2020; Ojeda-Luna et al., 2020).

These differences are partially due to ethnic disparities in access to resources (natural, human, and capital) and to markets and services (Simmons, 1997; Sierra, 1999; Caviglia-Harris and Sills, 2005; Gray et al., 2007). For example, one reason indigenous and tribal peoples tend to use less machinery and agrochemicals is that they have less access to capital.17

Nevertheless, even when one accounts for the differences in access to resources and services, ethnicity is still a significant factor (Godoy, Franks and Alvarado, 1998; Chowdhury and Turner, 2006; Barsimantov and Kendall, 2012; Bonilla-Moheno et al., 2013; Vasco, Bilsborrow and Torres, 2015; Ellis et al., 2017a; Torres et al., 2018; Vasco, Bilsborrow and Griess, 2018).

The simple fact that two ethnic groups can produce things the same way does not necessarily imply that they want to do so. Several historical and ethnographic studies highlight the importance of traditions, norms, preferences, and ancestral knowledge (Atran et al., 1999; Rudel, Bates and Machinguiashi, 2002; Hvolkof, 2006; Stocks, McMahan and Taber, 2008; Pérez and Smith, 2019). Every culture has its own vision of what a “good life” is and how to achieve it.

The close relation between indigenous and tribal peoples and the natural ecosystems in places they have inhabited for many generations has greatly influenced their cultures. This is reflected not only in their languages, food and medicinal systems, spiritual beliefs, and ecological knowledge, but also in the way they manage their forests and landscapes.18

©FAO/ Rosana Martín
Indigenous producer from the Guna People, Indigenous Territory of Púcuro, in Darién Province, Panama.

The land use characteristic that better distinguishes the indigenous peoples from the mestizos is that extensive cattle ranching is much less important in the indigenous territories than in mestizo farms (Rudel, Bates and Machinguiashi, 2002; Carr, 2004; Killeen et al., 2008; Stocks, McMahan and Taber, 2008; Lu et al., 2010; Müller et al., 2012; Torres et al., 2018; Vasco, Bilsborrow and Griess, 2018).19 Historically, bovine cattle ranching was associated with the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese colonizers and cows have always played a larger role in mestizo production and consumption systems. Establishing pastures to demonstrate possession of – and acquire rights to – land has also been a common practice among mestizos, but not indigenous peoples. These differences have major implications for deforestation patterns in Latin America, since livestock expansion has been the region’s largest driver of forest loss (de Sy 2015; Graesser et al., 2015).20

Harvesting non-timber forest products (NTFPs) like bushmeat, medicinal plants, wild fruits, and fuelwood is an integral part of the indigenous and tribal cultures in forest regions and contributes notably to their livelihoods (Toledo et al., 2003; Silva Crepaldi and Luna Peixoto, 2010). This also applies to some long-standing mestizo communities in forest areas (Dufour, 1990; Caviglia-Harris and Sills, 2005). But, on average, NTFPs probably contribute more to indigenous and tribal peoples’ livelihood strategies, which makes them appreciate forests more.

Indigenous and tribal peoples’ traditional knowledge about fauna and flora and their uses, pests and diseases, fire, climate, and soils, and how these elements respond to human practices, contribute greatly to forest management, use, restauration, and monitoring, and to adaptation to new situations (Reyes-García, 2009; Douterlunge, 2012; Mistry and Berardi, 2016; Mistry, Bilbao, and Berardi, 2016; Wilder et al., 2016; Rodríguez, 2017; Reyes-García et al., 2018; Schroeder and González, 2019; Sierra-Huelz et al., 2020). This traditional knowledge allows indigenous and tribal peoples to understand forests better and benefit more from them, which is an incentive to maintain the forests in good condition.

The Tsimane indigenous people in the Plurinational State of Bolivia’s Amazon offer an interesting example in this regard. Research shows that the Tsimane communities that have greater traditional ecological knowledge conserve their forests more and better than those that lack that knowledge (Paneque-Gálvez et al., 2018). That suggests that people who spend more time in the forest and know how to get greater benefits from them, take care of them better, even when both groups share the same ethnicity.

Culture and knowledge are not static; they evolve (Rudel, Bates and Machinguiashi, 2002). Though it is better not to overgeneralize given that each indigenous people is unique (Stocks, McMahan and Taber, 2008; Lu et al., 2010). Nevertheless, until now, one can say many indigenous and tribal peoples have conserved their forests better than other non-indigenous or tribal social groups.

  • 16 Including Afro-descendant territories in Colombia. In fact, Colombia is the only country where studies could identify deforestation rates in tribal territories.
  • 17 This has important implications for deforestation, since one major direct cause of deforestation is the expansion of mechanized soybean and cereal cultivation, especially in Argentina, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Paraguay, and the Brazilian Cerrado (de Sy, 2015; Graesser et al., 2015).
  • 18 They conserve many sacred sites in forest areas for spiritual reasons (Tan, Tran and Bhattacharyya, 2019).
  • 19 Following the same logic, one of the few studies that did not find significant differences in land use between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous colonos was in a Panamanian region with almost no livestock (Simmons, 1997).
  • 20 According to De Sy (2015), 71 percent of the area deforested in South America between 1990 and 2005 is currently used for pasture.