Deforestation and forest degradation in indigenous and tribal territories

©FAO/ Mauricio Mireles
Afro-descendant family farmer, Darién Province, Panama.

On average, the forests in the indigenous and tribal territories have been much better conserved than other forests in Latin America and the Caribbean, and their low carbon emissions reflect that.

In just about every country in the region indigenous and tribal territories have lower deforestation rates than other forest areas. Among the studies that confirm this are:

A regional study based on data from eleven countries reached a similar conclusion (Ceddia, Gunter and Corriveau-Bourque, 2015). No similar studies apparently exist for Costa Rica, Guyana, or Suriname, but the indigenous and/or tribal territories in those countries are known to have low deforestation rates.

In fact, lower deforestation and less forest fragmentation in indigenous areas also mean that large compact forests, the so-called “intact forests”, have disappeared more slowly in those areas. While the area in intact forest blocks declined only by 4.9 percent between 2000 and 2016 in the region’s indigenous areas, in the non-indigenous areas it fell 11.2 percent (Fa et al., 2020).11

©FAO/ Jorge Mahecha
Water lilies (Victoria amazonica), Leticia, Amazon, Colombia.

Many indigenous territories prevent deforestation as effectively as non-indigenous protected areas, and some even more effectively (Porter-Bolland et al., 2012). For example, between 2006 and 2011, the indigenous territories in the Peruvian Amazon reduced deforestation twice as much as protected areas with similar ecological conditions and accessibility (Schleicher et al., 2017). The situation in the Brazilian Amazon was similar between 2001 and 2009 (Nolte et al., 2013; Jusys 2018).12 The indigenous territories inside the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua suffered much less deforestation than other parts of the Biosphere (Stocks, McMahan, and Taber, 2007) and indigenous community forest management areas in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula have had lower deforestation rates than the protected areas (Bray et al. 2008).

In other cases, protected areas without indigenous population avoided deforestation more effectively than the indigenous territories, including Brazil between 2009 and 2014 (Jusys, 2018), Colombia (Armenteras, Rodríguez and Retana, 2009; Bonilla-Mejía and Higuera-Mendieta, 2019), Ecuador (Holland et al., 2014), and Panama13 (Vergara-Asenjo and Potvin, 2014).14 Even in these cases, however, both the indigenous territories and non-indigenous protected areas had lower deforestation than other forests.

Less information is available about forest degradation and it is less consistent.15 On average, the indigenous territories of the Amazon Basin have higher carbon density per hectare, and that is partly because their vegetation is in better condition (Walker et al., 2020). The previously mentioned Schleicher et al. (2017) study of the Peruvian Amazon also found that indigenous territories avoided forest degradation more effectively than protected areas. Studies of Brazil and Latin America as a region found fewer forest fires in indigenous areas (Nepstad et al., 2006; Nelson and Chomitz, 2011). On the other hand, a recent study of the whole Amazon Basin found that indigenous territories avoid deforestation more effectively than forest degradation, and in some countries forest degradation in indigenous territories has reached worrisome levels (Walker et al., 2020).

Looking at the aggregate effects of all the processes that affect forest carbon gives a better sense of the whole picture. That includes deforestation, forest degradation, reforestation, forest regeneration, and tree growth in existing forests. If one does that for the entire Amazon Basin, where the majority of forests in indigenous territories are located, it is clear that forest destruction in the indigenous territories was much lower than in other areas, including non-indigenous protected areas, between 2003 and 2016. Even though indigenous territories cover 28 percent of the Amazon Basin, they only accounted for 2.6 percent of the carbon emissions (Walker et al., 2020). While the indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin lost less than 0.3percent of the carbon in their forests between 2003 and 2016, non-indigenous protected areas lost 0.6 percent, and areas that were neither indigenous territories nor protected areas lost 3.6 percent (Table 6).

Table 6. Change in carbon stock in indigenous territories, protected areas, and other areas in the Amazon Basin between 2003 and 2016 (million metric tonnes and %).

SOURCE: Walker et al., 2020.
  • 11 The decline in intact forests is partly due to deforestation and partly to forest fragmentation.
  • 12 The Nolte et al.(2013) and Jusys (2018) studies compare deforestation rates in indigenous territories and strictly protected areas outside indigenous territories in Brazil. Both categories had much lower deforestation rates than the sustainable use protected areas during the time periods studied.
  • 13 Although another study (Halvorson, 2018) found that titled indigenous territories in eastern Panama had lower deforestation rates than non-indigenous protected areas between 2000 and 2014.
  • 14 No comparative study was identified that analyzes why indigenous territories limit deforestation more effectively than non-indigenous protected areas in some places, but not others.
  • 15 This report uses the term “forest degradation” in a broad sense, to describe any loss of quality of a forest ecosystem, short of the forest’s total disappearance. However, when referencing the Walker et al. (2020) study the term refers specifically to a decline in average carbon density in the forest vegetation.