Increased pressure on the forests of the indigenous and tribal territories

©FAO/ Mauricio Mireles
Indigenous woman from the Guna People, Púcuro Indigenous Territory, Province of Darien, Panama.

Unless decisive action is taken soon, indigenous and tribal peoples will probably not be able to continue safeguarding their forests, as they have done until now. This is partly due to general trends affecting all the region’s forests and partly to trends that specifically affect these territories.

Pressure on Latin America’s forests is increasing. Annual carbon emissions related to changes in forest condition rose in all nine Amazon Basin countries between 2012 and 2016. For the entire Amazon Basin, they increased 200 percent during that period (Walker et al., 2020). In the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and Mesoamerica deforestation has been on the upswing since 2015 (Butler, 2019).

This general trend has also affected the indigenous and tribal territories. Between 2016 and 2018, deforestation rose 150 percent in the indigenous territories in Brazil (Walker et al., 2020). Forest clearing also rose sharply in the indigenous regions of Campeche, Oaxaca, and Yucatan in Mexico and the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, among others (Ellis et al., 2017a; Bryan, 2019; López Portillo and Mondragón, 2019).

The indigenous territories in almost all the Amazon Basin countries have suffered from increased forest degradation due to fires, mining, and unsustainable logging since 2012 (Walker et al., 2020). Forests in the indigenous territories of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay have become more fragmented. Consequently, between 2000 and 2016 the area of intact forests in these territories fell by 20 percent in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, 30 percent in Honduras, 42 percent in Nicaragua, and 59 percent in Paraguay (Fa et al., 2020).

a. General causes of increased pressure on forests

The structural trends increasing pressure on the region’s forests include the following:


  • Increased international demand for minerals, fuels, foodstuffs, forest products, illicit crops, and tourism (Bebbington et al., 2018; Butler, 2019; Pendrill et al.,2019; Seymour and Harris, 2019).
  • Expansion of roads and other transportation, storage, energy, and communications infrastructure (Bebbington et al., 2018; Vilela et al., 2020).


  • Greater political influence of elite groups linked to agriculture and extractive sectors (Carneiro da Cunha et al., 2017; Fernández Milmanda, 2019).
  • Politicians’ desire to reactivate national economies by expanding extractive and agricultural activities to new regions (Arsel, Hogenboom, and Pellegrini, 2017).


  • Reductions in government budgets for environmental regulation and environmentally friendly activities (Sarmiento-Villamizar, Ordóñez-Cortés and Humberto-Alonso, 2017; Provencio and Carabiasas, 2019; Pereira et al., 2020).
  • Greater presence of organized crime in forest regions, seeking to grow and transport illicit crops, engage in illegal mining, and launder money from criminal activities (McSweeney et al., 2018; Clerici et al., 2020).


  • Technological innovations in mining, oil and gas production, and agriculture, which allow producers to expand into new areas and make use of their natural resources (Kaimowitz and Smith, 2001; Deonandan and Dougherty, 2016).


  • Constant migration to forest areas by colonos and indigenous villagers (Ellis et al., 2017a; He et al., 2019; Thiede and Gray, 2020).


  • Climate change and forest fragmentation that make forests more susceptible to fire (Aragão et al., 2018).28

High international gold prices (Álvarez-Berríos and Aide, 2017) and a power vacuum in Colombia’s post-conflict zones following the peace accords there (Clerici et al., 2020) are relevant shorter-term trends.

  • 28 These processes threaten to reach a tipping point, beyond which the humid forest ecosystem will be permanently converted into a savanna (Lovejoy and Nobre, 2019).