Given the large quantity of carbon that they store, the water that they pump from their roots into the atmosphere, and their growing vulnerability, the forests in the indigenous and tribal peoples’ territories have a significant role in stabilizing the local, regional, and global climate. The forests of the indigenous peoples’ territories that have been well-mapped in the continent store about 34 000 million metric tons of carbon (MtC); that is almost 30 percent of all the forest stored in the forests in Latin America and 14 percent of all the carbon in the tropics worldwide (Saatchi et al., 2011; Walker et al., 2014; Frechette et al., 2018). Of that, 72 percent (24 651 MtC) is in the Amazon Basin (Frechette et al., 2018).
The trees in these forests do not only store carbon; they constantly capture additional carbon from the atmosphere. Between 2003 and 2016 the carbon captured by the indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin was equal to 90 percent of all the carbon emitted from these territories due to deforestation or forest degradation (Walker et al., 2020). In other words, these indigenous territories practically do not produce any net carbon emissions.
In the Amazon Basin, loss of a major part of the indigenous and tribal territories’ forests could lead to a tipping point. The loss of the forests would reduce rainfall and increase local temperatures. The resulting droughts and forest fires would, in turn, destroy even more forests, creating a negative feedback loop. In a few decades, this process could convert the humid forest ecosystems in the south and east of the Amazon Basin into savannas — just like the Cerrado ecoregion. That would greatly affect Latin America’s rainfall patterns, as well as local and global temperatures (Lovejoy and Nobre, 2019).
The indigenous and tribal peoples’ territories also house an enormous diversity of flora and fauna. For example, there are more species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians in the indigenous territories in Brazil than in all the country’s non-indigenous protected areas (Schuster et al., 2019). Two thirds of the Plurinational State of Bolivia’s vertebrates and 60 percent of its plants can be found in the Tacana and Leco de Apolo indigenous territories (Salinas et al., 2017). Thus, avoiding deforestation and forest degradation in those territories would reduce habitat loss, one of the main threats to wildlife.
Maintaining the integrity of the territories’ forests also helps to avoid, both known and unknown, zoonotic disease epidemics. Globally, most new diseases that caused epidemics in recent decades are of zoonotic origin, and many are linked to deforestation and forest degradation (Guégan et al., 2020). Strong evidence links forest disturbance in the Amazon with the prevalence of arboviruses, candida auris, Chagas disease, yellow fever, hantavirus, leishmaniasis, malaria, paracoccidioidomycosis, and rabies (Ellwanger et al., 2020).
Although the forested territories that indigenous and tribal peoples manage communally probably have fewer than ten million inhabitants (Thiede and Gray 2020), those inhabitants possess an enormous wealth of culture and traditional knowledge, which is of incalculable value for them and humanity. The majority of the more than 800 distinct indigenous and tribal peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean can be found in these territories (ECLAC and FILAC, 2020).10 That represents an enormous diversity of cultures, worldviews, customs, and knowledge, which can contribute to almost all facets of human life.
Despite that great cultural and natural wealth, the people that live in these territories have some of the lowest monetary incomes and most limited access to services and high rates of food and nutritional insecurity and diseases. Many areas where they live are plagued by high levels of illicit activity, violent conflict, and impunity (Global Witness 2018, 2019, 2020; McSweeney et al., 2018; Clerici et al., 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly aggravated these problems (Cowie 2020; FILAC and FIAY, 2020; Hernández, 2020). So, these territories also have great importance from a local and national governance and political stability perspective.