The territories where indigenous and tribal peoples engage in communal forest governance are critical due to:
A holistic effort to reduce deforestation and forest degradation in indigenous and tribal territories would significantly reduce extreme poverty and improve food security and human health. It would also help to improve the rule of law, democratic participation, and conflict resolution.
Indigenous peoples physically occupy 404 million hectares in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is about one fifth of the region’s total area (Garnett et al., 2018) (Table 2). This includes all the places whose inhabitants self-identify as indigenous, not just those where they manage forests or territories collectively. Of these 404 million hectares, 237 million (almost 60 percent) are in the Amazon Basin (RAISG, 2019). That is an area larger than France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Spain combined (Map 1).
Forests cover more than 80 percent of the area indigenous peoples occupy (330 million hectares). Of that, 173 million hectares are “intact forests” (Garnett et al., 2018; Fa et al., 2020).6 Almost half (45 percent) of the intact forests in the Amazon Basin are in indigenous territories (Fernández-Llamazares et al., 2020). The remaining 153 million hectares of forests are more fragmented and/or disturbed.
Together, about 35 percent of the region’s forests are in areas occupied by indigenous groups (Saatchi et al., 2011; Fa et al., 2020; Walker et al., 2020). Most of that is in Argentina, Brazil, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Table 3). Indigenous peoples also occupy almost half (48 percent) of the forests of Central America (UICN, 2016) and a significant portion of those in Ecuador (30 percent), Guyana (15 percent), and Suriname (39 percent) (Fa et al., 2020) (Map 2).
Of the 404 million hectares occupied by the indigenous peoples, governments have formally recognized their collective property or usufruct rights over about 269 million hectares.7 (See table 4). That recognition takes various forms, but it almost allows includes recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to remain in the territory and to use its resources to subsist. Once these rights are recognized, in most cases they cannot be lost. They are imprescriptible, inalienable, indivisible, and un-mortgageable.8
Governments have not recognized collective resource rights in the remaining 135 million hectares indigenous peoples manage. Some of that is owned by individual indigenous families that do not manage land collectively. The rest is largely land where governments could recognize indigenous peoples’ collective resources rights but have yet to do so. Without such recognition, these lands are vulnerable to being occupied by external groups and having their forests destroyed.
Most countries don’t have reliable estimates of the proportion of indigenous territories recognized by governments that have forest cover. Nonetheless, RRI (2018) estimates that of the 269 million hectares in indigenous territories where the collective rights have been recognized, over 200 million have forests —the majority of which is in Brazil, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.9
An additional 11.5 million hectares have been recognized by the governments of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as reserves for indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and in initial contact, and another four million hectares have been formally proposed to as new reserves (IACHR, 2013; RAISG, 2019) (Table 5). These reserves seek to guarantee the cultural and physical integrity of these groups and to protect the forests that they depend on, by limiting the entrance of external groups.