SANTIAGO – The indigenous peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean are the best guardians and managers of the region’s forests, seen in the significantly lower deforestation rates in their territories, the United Nations said in a report published on Thursday.
Based on a review of around 300 studies and two decades of scientific evidence, it reveals for the first time that indigenous and tribal communities play a “fundamental” role in combating deforestation, conserving forests and biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“We should thank the indigenous communities for their much better forest conservation (relative to) other territories,” said Julio Berdegue, assistant director general and regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
He said in that regard that an important element has been the recognition of the territorial rights of these peoples, who have been able to prohibit the pursuit of ecosystem-destroying economic activities.
Between 2000-2012, “the rate of deforestation inside tenured indigenous forestlands (across the Amazon) was 2.8 times lower than outside these areas in Bolivia, 2.5 times lower in Brazil and 2 times lower in Colombia,” the report said.
Forty-five percent of the intact forest in the Amazon basin is found in territories managed by indigenous communities, who have avoided “between 42.8 and 59.7 million metric tons of CO2 emissions” annually, equivalent to removing between 9 million and 12.6 million vehicles from the roads per year.
The area of intact forest decreased by only 4.9 percent between 2000-2016 in indigenous areas of the region, compared to a 11.2 percent reduction in non-indigenous areas, according to the UN.
“This shows that their voice must be taken into account in all initiatives related to climate change, biodiversity and forestry,” said the president of the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), Myrna Cunningham.
Indigenous and tribal peoples number more than 60 million in the region and participate in the communal governance of between 320 million and 380 million hectares of forests, which store around 34 billion metric tons of carbon, more than all of Indonesia’s forested areas, according to the report.
A relevant factor in perpetuating native communities’ conservation capacity, according to the study, is “the revitalization of traditional cultures and knowledge and (the provision of) support to their organizations.”
“Indigenous culture and spirituality itself is nurtured by the protection of forests and nature,” said Cunningham, who also is a Nicaraguan indigenous activist. “We play a key role at this moment when nature is so much under threat.”
The ability to avoid deforestation is being “eroded by many activities such as illegal mining, criminal groups linked to drug trafficking and the overexploitation of agricultural (resources) with the cultivation and transportation of illicit crops,” Berdegue said.
The report produced by the FAO and FILAC said deforestation also is triggered by global demand for minerals, fuels, forest products and tourism and the continuous expansion of roads and transport infrastructure.
Those institutions therefore called on the region’s governments to “invest in projects that strengthen the role played by indigenous and tribal peoples in forest governance” and to “strengthen communal land rights.”