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Indigenous, protected lands in Amazon emit far less carbon than areas outside

Waura man in Brazil. Photo by Sue Wren.

Waura man in Brazil. Photo by Sue Wren.

  • A new study calculates the gains and losses in carbon across the Amazon rainforest from deforestation as well as human-caused and naturally occurring degradation of the forest.
  • The team found that around 70% of the total carbon emitted from the Amazon between 2003 and 2016 came from areas outside indigenous-held lands and protected areas, despite the fact that these outside areas made up less than half of the total land area.
  • The researchers argue that their findings make the case for supporting indigenous communities with “political protection and financial support” to protect carbon stocks in the Amazon necessary to address climate change.

Scientists know from a bevy of studies that the inclusion of indigenous peoples and local communities is critical to holding deforestation at bay across the tropics, even as a tide of forest clearance for agriculture, mining and timber has swept through the regions in which they live.

A new study takes that research a step further, calculating the gains and losses in carbon across the Amazon rainforest from not just wholesale clearance but the human-caused and naturally occurring degradation of the forest as well.

When the authors tallied up all the emissions and absorption of carbon by the forest in the nine countries that the Amazon straddles, they found that 90% of the net loss of carbon between 2003 and 2016 came from outside indigenous territories and protected natural spaces.

Illegal forest clearing in an indigenous reserve in Colombia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The findings, reported Jan. 27 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlight the need to bolster the land rights of forest communities to protect the carbon stored in the world’s largest rainforest and thereby stave off climate change. It’s a need that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognized in August in a report, and one the authors say is critical for the countries involved to meet their pledges under the 2015 Paris climate accords.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, also noted in 2019 in its own report that more robust indigenous land rights should be part of a strategy to combat biodiversity loss.

Until now, though, it’s been difficult to get “a comprehensive picture” of the balance of carbon in these forests, lead author Wayne Walker said in an interview. The satellite images on which most other studies rely don’t uncover subtler changes to forest as readily as they do outright forest conversion. In those analyses, the effects of selective logging, for example, or droughts have remained unaccounted for.

“Understanding the full breadth of the problem is important,” said Walker, an associate scientist and director of the carbon program at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. “Regardless of whether we’re talking about climate change [or] we’re talking about indigenous peoples’ rights, you can’t manage the problem if you haven’t measured the problem.”

The distribution of aboveground carbon stock (ca. 2016) across the Amazon Basin, with cartography by Seth Gorelik. Image courtesy of Woods Hole Research Center/Seth R. Gorelik.

To fill in the details, Walker and his colleagues combined lidar (light detection and ranging) data from NASA that measures forest biomass with satellite data to estimate the gains and losses of carbon across the Amazon during the study period. The approach built on a previous study in which the team examined forest carbon dynamics across the tropics.

They also mapped out the locations of indigenous territories and protected areas using a database maintained by the Amazon Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information Network, known by its acronym in Portuguese, RAISG.

The team found that around 70% of the total carbon emitted from the Amazon between 2003 and 2016 came from areas outside indigenous-held lands and protected areas, even though these outside areas made up less than half of the total land area.

Still, the authors point out that all of the areas lost carbon throughout the study period, even though the changes were substantially lower for the indigenous and protected areas.

“While they’re small relative to what’s happening outside, they are there,” Walker said, “and recognition of that is important.”

An indigenous park guard in Suriname. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The analysis also demonstrated that forest degradation and disturbances led to 75% of the carbon emissions from these places. By contrast, full-scale deforestation was responsible for two-thirds of the carbon emissions outside indigenous territories and protected areas.

Tuntiak Katan, a co-author of the paper and the vice coordinator of the Congress of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, said that political and policy changes during the study period have made it more difficult for local communities to hold the line against the loss of forest.

“Our research reveals what indigenous peoples across the Amazon are reporting to their leaders,” Katan said in a statement. “Governments are weakening environmental protections, violating existing indigenous land rights, and encouraging impunity in the rule of law. The situation is putting at risk the existence of our peoples and our territories.”

An indigenous village in Suriname. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Walker said he and his colleagues aim to examine the forest changes on indigenous and protected lands to learn more about why these areas are losing carbon, albeit at a lower rate.

But he and his colleagues point out that their research does make a case for supporting indigenous communities with “political protection and financial support.”

“Our study shows that protected indigenous territories have reduced deforestation and forest degradation in the Amazon rainforest over the last two decades, and continue to be an effective buffer against the recent spike in deforestation,” Steve Schwartzman, a co-author of the study and senior director of tropical forest policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in the statement. “To save the Amazon, indigenous territories must remain protected.”

Banner image of a Waura man in Brazil by Sue Wren. 

John Cannon is a staff features writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Correction: The original version of this post used a header image showing a photo of an Arhuaco leader in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains of Colombia, which is not part of the Amazon.

Citations:

Baccini, A., Walker, W., Carvalho, L., Farina, M., Sulla-Menashe, D., & Houghton, R. A. (2017). Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss. Science, 358(6360), 230 LP – 234. doi:10.1126/science.aam5962

Walker, W. S., Gorelik, S. R., Baccini, A., Aragon-Osejo, J. L., Josse, C., Meyer, C., … Schwartzman, S. (2020). The role of forest conversion, degradation, and disturbance in the carbon dynamics of Amazon indigenous territories and protected areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201913321. doi:10.1073/pnas.1913321117

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