New study asserts lax, nonexistent land rights put indigenous-held forests at risk of development
Carbon emissions from human activities are the big player in global warming, and scientists have long known that tropical forests are vital for sequestering excess carbon. A new study released today in Carbon Management finds the total carbon load locked up in parts of the Amazon rainforest held by indigenous groups to be much higher than previously estimated – an amount that, if released, would be capable of destabilizing the earth’s atmosphere. But because of flimsy land rights, these areas stand at risk of deforestation.
Tropical forests are vital for sopping up and storing excess atmospheric carbon that is warming the globe at an unprecedented rate, as well as acidifying seawater. A 2009 study published in Nature found that rainforests absorb nearly 20 percent of carbon emissions every year.
Large-scale soy fields in the southern Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
But this important ecosystem service is not possible without the presence of trees – lots of trees. And as forests around the world are cleared and changed by human activities, not only is more carbon released into the atmosphere, but less can be taken out. According to data from Global Forest Watch, the Amazon Basin lost approximately 12 million hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2012 – and area of land about half the size of the UK. In addition, droughts are heavily affecting parts of the Amazon, killing trees, changing forest composition, and reducing carbon storage capacity. Making the problem worse, some important rainforest tree species may be detrimentally affected by heightened atmospheric CO2 levels.
The carbon load of the Amazon rainforest spans nine countries, and about 52 percent of it is contained in indigenous territories – an amount that exceeds the carbon loads of the tropical forests of Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo combined, according to the authors.
Most of the Amazon rainforest occurs in Brazil, which has experienced a drop in deforestation in the pas decade. Still large tracts of forest have been lost since 2001. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.
Logging, both legal and illegal, as well as the building of dams and the clearing of land for agriculture, mining, and fossil fuel extraction threaten 20 percent of the Amazon’s carbon-rich forests, according to the authors of the study. Inadequate land rights are allowing developers to exploit indigenous territories; in some places, indigenous communities have no officially recognized rights to their land at all. The study recommends establishing and strengthening indigenous rights should be at the forefront of forest protection policy.
“The solution is to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples to territories that have not yet been officially recognized, and resolve territorial conflicts that pit protected areas against private interests,” said Alessandro Baccini, also a researcher with the Woods Hole Research Center.
A large portion of the Amazon is being considered for development, with potentially disastrous consequences if realized. Even protected areas would not be immune, with an estimated 30 percent standing to be affected.
A shield bug (superfamily Pentatomoidea) in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
“If all the current plans for economic development in the Amazon were actually implemented, the region would become a giant savanna, with islands of forest,” said Beto Ricardo, of the Instituto Socioambiental of Brazil.
The authors write that maintaining the stability of the atmosphere hinges on whether or not the nine Amazonian countries adopt policies that ensure the ecological health of indigenous territories and protected areas.
“We have never been under so much pressure, and this study demonstrates that” said Edwin Vásquez, president of COICA, the Indigenous Coordinating Body of the Amazon Basin, which represents the indigenous groups in the region. “Yet we now have evidence that where there are strong rights, there are standing forests. It is clear that to strengthen the role and the rights of indigenous forest peoples, is to prevent climate change.”
The study was released during the Lima Climate Change Conference, which began yesterday in Lima, Peru. The U.N. event addresses climate change and aims to establish a framework for action to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and curb global warming.
Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA Tree Cover Loss and Gain Area.” University of Maryland, Google, USGS, and NASA. Accessed through Global Forest Watch on Dec. 02, 2014. www.globalforestwatch.org.
Hansen M, Potapov P, Moore R, et al. High-Resolution global maps of 21st-century forest
cover change. Science 342, 850–853 (2013).
Wayne Walker, Alessandro Baccini, Stephan Schwartzman, Sandra Ríos, María Oliveira-Miranda, Cicero Augusto, Milton Romero Ruiz, Carla Soria Arrasco, Beto Ricardo, Richard Smith, Chris Meyer, Juan Carlos Jintiach & Edwin Vasquez Campos. Forest Carbon in Amazonia: The Unrecognized Contributions of Indigenous Territories and Protected Natural Areas. Carbon Management. Posted online: 02 Dec 2014. DOI:10.1080/17583004.2014.990680.
(11/26/2014) Figures published Wednesday by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) show that 4,848 square kilometers (1,871 square miles) of forest — an area about the size of the state of Rhode Island or the country of Brunei — were cleared between August 2013 and July 2014.
(11/26/2014) If you have ever wondered about the connection between hallucinogenic frogs, uncontacted peoples, conservation, and climate change — and who hasn’t? — check out this TED talk from ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin. An ethnobotanist by training, Plotkin serves as President of the Amazon Conservation Team. Plotkin took a few minutes from his busy schedule to answer a few questions from Mongabay.
(11/25/2014) The Brazilian soy industry has extended its deforestation moratorium for another 18 months. The moratorium, which was established in 2006 after a high-profile Greenpeace campaign, bars conversion of forests in Brazilian Amazon for soy production. Independent analysis has shown it to be highly effective — just prior to the moratorium, soy accounted for roughly a fifth of recent deforestation, while today its share is less than one percent.
(11/24/2014) Brazil’s carbon emissions jumped 7.8 percent in 2013 due to rising deforestation and fossil fuels use, according to data released by Observatório do Clima (Climate Observatory), an alliance of mostly Brazilian non-profits.
(11/17/2014) Field plots in the Amazon are often not representative of the habitats surrounding them, potentially biasing extrapolations made across the region, argues a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The research is based on advanced three-dimensional mapping of forest structure within field plots and in surrounding areas using sensors aboard the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, an airplane-based system.
(11/17/2014) Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon continues to outpace last year’s rate by a significant margin, reveals data released today by Imazon, a Brazilian non-profit. Imazon’s analysis of satellite data shows that for the 3-month period ended October 31, 2014, deforestation is running 226 percent of last year’s rate. Forest degradation, which often precedes outright clearing, is pacing 691 percent ahead of last year.
(11/16/2014) Authorities in Belgium seized two containers of Brazilian timber in Antwerp following a demonstration by Greenpeace, which alleged that the Ipe timber had been cut illegally and therefore violated the EU’s trade laws.
(11/13/2014) Nearly a year ago, scientists announced an incredible discovery: a new tapir species from the western Amazon in Brazil and Colombia. The announcement was remarkable for a number of reasons: this was the biggest new land mammal discovered in more than 20 years and was only the fifth tapir known to the world. But within months other researchers expressed doubt over the veracity of the new species.