Indigenous peoples as the most effective protectors of rainforests

posted by Margaret Ran

RAN believes that indigenous peoples are the best stewards of rainforests.

Supporting this belief, a new study by researchers at U of Illinois and U of Michigan has added to the growing body of evidence that indigenous peoples are better protectors of their forests than governments or industry. In a review of 80 forests in 10 tropical countries, the study showed that when indigenous and local communities own their forests, they effectively conserve their forest resources over the long term.

The Huaorani of the Ecuadorian Amazon control and protect a huge swath of Amazonia

Reflecting the growing momentum behind viewing rainforests as carbon sinks that can either exacerbate or reduce climate change, the researchers measured the carbon emissions from forests under community and government control. The New Scientist recently ran an interview with the authors of this research, who said “our findings show that we can increase carbon sequestration simply by transferring ownership of forests from governments to communities.” This is a bold assertion, but one that is supported by their research.

However, the idea that indigenous peoples are the best protectors of rainforests is considered controversial by some, who usually argue that forests should be protected by governments, following the National Parks model of conservation pioneered by the USA.

In this model, forests are enclosed in conservation areas and put off-limits, supposedly to be protected from loggers and commercial agribusiness by government agencies. This rational has been used to move control of forests away from indigenous peoples and into the hands of the government in many tropical nations. In an article cited by hundreds, researchers highlighted the  problems with this approach in Indonesian Borneo, where conservation areas lost over half of their forest cover in the period from 1985 to 2001.  These supposedly protected areas have become increasingly fragmented, degraded, and isolated, greatly decreasing ecosystem functions.

Another compelling piece of evidence supporting indigenous peoples’ ability to protect forests comes from Brazilian Amazonia. In a study published in Conservation Biology, researchers showed that many indigenous lands prevent deforestation completely even though there are high  rates of forest destruction directly outside their borders. In a compelling statement for the value of the protections indigenous peoples give to forests, the researchers claim that indigenous lands are the most important barrier to deforestation in the Amazon.

As usual, the research is racing to catch up with what indigenous peoples around the world have known for hundreds of years: indigenous people’s are the most effective protectors of tropical forests.

David Gilbert is a Research Fellow at RAN. He has worked in the tropical forests of the Amazon and Indonesia, with a special focus on forest conservation and indigenous rights.

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