Why forests in indigenous and TRIBAL territories have been better conserved

b. Recognized collective property or usufruct rights

In most indigenous and tribal territories, the principal threats to the forest come from outsiders. Among the most important, are land occupations by ranchers, colonos, miners, oil palm producers, mechanized soybean and cereal farmers, petroleum companies, drug traffickers, and land speculators, logging by loggers, and forest fires these groups cause (Hayes, 2008; Stocks, McMahan, and Taber, 2008; RAISG, 2012; Pacheco and Benatti, 2015; Bebbington et al., 2018; Gebrara, 2018; McSweeney et al., 2018; Bayi, 2019; Walker et al., 2020). Many of these groups receive government support and have enough capital to clear large areas of forest and buy machinery or livestock. Some are armed and/or involved in criminal activities.

©ITINKUY.COM/ Miguel Arreátegui
Awajun warrior in his community in the Peruvian jungle. Loreto, Peru.

Formal recognition by governments of the collective rights of indigenous and tribal peoples over their territories often helps to impede encroachment by external groups that destroy their forests. That may be because the government itself blocks their entrance or because the legal recognition legitimizes indigenous and tribal peoples’ efforts to demarcate and monitor their territories and confront intruders. Many farmers and speculators clear forest mostly to gain control over the land, rather than to use that land for production, but that is harder to do where governments have recognized indigenous and tribal peoples’ land rights.

Formal recognition not only protects forests in the indigenous and tribal peoples’ territories themselves. It also provides an incentive for farmers outside the territories to use their existing land more intensively. Since they cannot occupy indigenous or tribal lands, they cannot deforest new areas to expanding their crops and pastures. So, improvements in agricultural productivity lead only to higher yields, not more deforestation. One recent study of ten Latin American countries shows that where indigenous territories had clear property rights, improvements in agricultural production led to less expansion in crop and pasture area between 1995 and 2015 (Ceddia, Gunter and Pazienza, 2019).

Deforestation rates are lower in indigenous and tribal territories where governments have formally recognized collective land rights; and improving the tenure security of these is a cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions (Nelson, Harris and, Stone, 2001; Hayes, 2007; Botazzi and Dao, 2013; Nolte et al., 2013; Ding et al., 2016; Blackman et al., 2017; Bayi, 2019; Pérez and Smith, 2019; Velez et al., 2019; Baragwanath and Bayi, 2020; de los Ríos Rueda, 2020). Börner et al. (2020) compared the effectiveness of various conservations policies and programs and found that the formal designation of indigenous areas was the most effective. Between 2000 and 2012 deforestation rates in titled indigenous territories in the Bolivian, Brazilian, and Colombian Amazon were only one third to one half of those in other forests with similar ecological characteristics and accessibility to markets (Ding et al., 2016). The benefits from that lower deforestation were also much higher than the costs of land demarcation and titling and other associated measures (Box 1).

Box 1 A cost-benefit assessment of titling Indigenous territories to reduce deforestation in the Amazon Regions of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia

Ding et al., (2016) analyzes the costs and benefits associated with titling indigenous territories in the Amazon regions of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia. Using a statistical method, called “correspondence analysis”, the study compares deforestation rates in titled indigenous territories between 2000 and 2012 with the deforestation rates of other Amazon forests with similar characteristics. The authors conclude that the deforestation rates in titled indigenous territories are only between one-third and one-half of the rates in the other forests studied in the three countries.

By knowing how much lower the deforestation in the titled indigenous territories was and how much carbon was in the forests where deforestation was avoided, the authors were able to calculate how much the recognized indigenous territories had reduced carbon emissions.

Figure 1. Deforestation rates, inside and outside indigenous woodlands where land property has been ensured.

According to the study, the titled collective territories avoided between 42.8 and 59.7 million metric tons (MtC) of CO2 emissions each year. Based on a financial projection for twenty years, the authors estimated the Net Present Value (NPV) of the total emissions reductions in the three countries was between USD 25 and 34 billion dollars. The combined emissions reductions in the three countries were the equivalent of taking between 9 and 12.6 million vehicles out of circulation for one year.

The costs of guaranteeing tenure security in the indigenous territories was low. The authors estimate that it cost USD 45 dollars to title a hectare of land in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, USD 68 dollars per hectare in Brazil, and USD 6 dollars per hectare in Colombia. (That is the net present value of the investment calculated for a period of twenty years.) Comparing the cost of other carbon capture and store options with that of titling indigenous territories, the study shows that “that the costs of securing indigenous lands are 5 to 42 times lower than the average costs of avoided CO2 through fossil carbon capture and storage for both coal – and gas – fired power plants.” SOURCE: Ding et al., 2016.

©Sergio Garrido
Leticia, Amazon, Colombia.
©️FAO/ Francisco Nieto
Kakuamo indigenous person walks through the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, Colombia.

Ding et al., (2016) do not compare deforestation rates in indigenous territories with land titles with those in indigenous territories without title. It compares the former with forests outside indigenous territories that have similar ecological conditions and accessibility. So, strictly speaking, Ding et al. (2016) do not separate the effects of titling from other cultural or governance characteristics related to indigenous territories. Nevertheless, other studies have analyzed the specific effects of formal tenure recognition and reaffirm the conclusion of Ding et al. (2016) that titling has a large impact (Hayes, 2007, Blackman et al., 2017; Halvorson, 2018; Bayi, 2019; Pérez and Smith, 2019; Romero and Saavedra, 2019; Baragwanath and Bayi, 2020). Bayi (2019) even demonstrates that each step in the process of registering indigenous land in Brazil is associated with a lower deforestation rate than the previous step. Given this, formal recognition of indigenous and tribal peoples’ collective tenure rights over their territories is a good practice for mitigating climate change, conserving biodiversity, and managing forests sustainably (IPCC, 2019).

Nonetheless, there are five situations where formal government recognition of collective territorial rights may not reduce forest destruction:

  1. When governments give mining, oil and gas, or logging concessions to companies that overlap with the indigenous and tribal territories, the indigenous or tribal authorities cannot exclude the mining, energy, or forestry companies responsible for clearing or degrading the forests (Walker et al., 2020).21
  2. When governments fail to back efforts by the formal land rights holders to ensure their rights are respected, the practical value of having a title is greatly reduced.
  3. If there is no pressure on the forests, recognizing land rights will not decrease deforestation since there is little deforestation to reduce (Pfaff et al., 2014; Buntaine, Hamilton, and Millones, 2015; BenYishay et al., 2017). In these cases, the positive effects of titling will not materialize until there is greater pressure on the forests.
  4. In some places where organized crime and other armed groups have strong presence and the government has limited capacity, formal tenure rights are less relevant (McSweeney et al., 2018; Clerici et al., 2020)
  5. If the territory’s inhabitants themselves are the ones interested in clearing forests and their authorities support them, a formal title probably won’t reduce deforestation much.
©FAO/ Mauricio Mireles
Indigenous Academical School of Sepecue, in Talamanca, Limón Province, Costa Rica.
  • 21 Almost one quarter of the land in indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin has overlapping mining and petroleum concessions, which greatly increase the pressure on the forests there (Walker et al., 2020).