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Indigenous Land in the Brazilian Amazon is a brake on deforestation and may start generating carbon credits

  • A study says that Brazil’s Puyanawa Indigenous people will prevent around 6,400 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year by 2025, equivalent to about $38,000 annually.
  • Practices such as putting agricultural activities in previously degraded areas, forest restoration and agroforestry have prevented deforestation in their western Amazon reserve, which has dropped by half in recent years.
  • The latest survey from Brazilian mapping project Mapbiomas shows that the country’s forests and native vegetation are best preserved in Indigenous territories.

“I believe that those who used to buy soursop juice will stop buying it,” says José Marcondes Puyanawa. “They will stop buying it because they have it in their own garden now.” Puyanawa lives in the Poyanawa Indigenous Land, located on the right bank of the Moa River, which runs through the Brazilian state of Acre in the western Amazon taking fish to tributary rivers and streams, contributing to food security in the two villages inside the reserve, Barão do Rio Branco and Ipiranga.

Restoration of degraded areas, such as riparian forest that protects waters; farming and other agricultural activities, preferably in areas that have already been altered; and strengthening agroforestry gardens are on the rise among the Puyanawa. Organized action of community leaders, government institutions and NGOs has contributed to improving their land-use and sustainable exploitation of forest resources.

Fish from the Moa River and its tributaries are also benefiting from the fruits of these efforts. “[We] will reforest the areas around the dams, recovering the riparian forest to protect the waters,” proposes the Territorial and Environmental Management Plan for the Poyanawa Indigenous Land. “We will use fruit species that fish can feed on, such as açaí and buriti palms, rubber and others.”

A recent study by Embrapa found that these good practices have prevented deforestation and concluded that the Poyanawa Indigenous Land could generate profitable carbon credits. According to the study’s estimations, by 2025, an average of 6,400 tons of carbon dioxide emissions will have been prevented. In today’s terms, with carbon credits for each avoided ton of carbon dioxide around $6, these environmental services could amount to approximately $38,000 per year.

“There is a worldwide demand for carbon credits, but supply is low, and Indigenous carbon is different because it’s social carbon,” says researcher Eufran Amaral, coordinator of the study and head of Embrapa Acre, who predicts that with their societal impacts, these carbon credits could still climb in price. “In addition to the forest, this carbon protects Indigenous men, women and children.”

Indigenous land a brake on deforestation

Before it was officially approved as an Indigenous territory in 2001, the Poyanawa Indigenous Land – which stretches across 62,000 acres close to the border with Peru – had been occupied by large farms and rubber plantations. “About 6% of the area had been deforested,” says Amaral. “When the land was regularized and [the Puyanawa] took over, they already found this deforestation.”

The map shows deforestation in the Poyanawa IL and its surroundings. The areas with the highest deforestation rates are on public land with no defined use. Image: Eufran Amaral/Embrapa Acre.

“This map means a lot to us,” says Amaral of the map in the figure above, made by Embrapa Acre. “You see that the Indigenous Land works as a brake. Ninety percent of deforestation in the area already existed. And the surrounding environment is being deforested five times faster than inside the reserve. This shows that protected lands are effective.”

A survey from Brazilian mapping project Mapbiomas published in late August based on satellite images shows that, between 1985 and 2020, original characteristics of Brazilian landscapes were best preserved in indigenous territories officially demarcated or awaiting demarcation. These indigenous lands accounted for only 1.6% of forest and native vegetation loss in Brazil during that period.

The area deforested in the Poyanawa Indigenous Land – nearly 6%, or 3,514 acres – has been reused for sustainable purposes such as small pastures, crops, scrub and agroforestry gardens, in addition to houses and schools. Embrapa’s study shows that from 1988 to 2017, the average deforestation rate in the region was 52.6 acres per year, compared to 12.8 hectares per year in the Poyanawa reserve.

The reserve shelters and feeds an Indigenous population of some 800 people whose main source of income is cassava and its byproducts, supplemented with other crops such as corn, rice and beans. They also earn their livelihoods through management of native fruits, agroforestry plantations and small-scale livestock farming, and they hunt and fish for food security.

“The conservation strategy on Indigenous lands is the best because Indigenous people have the forest as their home,” says Amaral. “They don’t want to lose their home.”

According to the Pro-Indian Commission of Acre (CPI-Acre), the Puyanawa consciously use areas that have already been deforested to grow several crops. José Frank de Melo Silva, a technician in the geoprocessing department at CPI-Acre, explains that “the important thing now is that the Puyanawa are reusing these old pasture areas to plant cassava and implement AFSs [agroforestry systems].”

Prodes/Inpe’s time series indicates lower deforestation within the Poyawana Indigenous Land in the last 10 years. There was a small increase in 2020, which is seen as an indication that those areas are being converted to traditional use and management by the Puyanawa. Image by Prodes/Inpe.

How to make carbon credits feasible

Bill 528/21, which is now being debated in Brazil’s Congress, establishes the Brazilian Market for Emission Reduction (MBRE) and will regulate carbon credit trade in the country. Without national regulation, the state of Acre created the State System of Incentives for Environmental Services (SISA) in 2010, under Law 2308/2010.

In terms of connecting carbon credits and Indigenous lands, a well-known project in Brazil thrived from 2013 to 2017 between the states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso. This was known as the Suruí Project, in the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Land, which was terminated in 2017 due to increasing deforestation in the area, caused by the invasion of illegal miners.

Last year, Embrapa had already carried out a study in another Indigenous Land – Kaxinawá Nova Olinda, also in Acre state – that showed that Indigenous communities there could possibly develop projects for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), a UN-led program that gives countries payments for emissions reductions achieved through forestry.

Aerial view of the Ipiranga village in the Poyanawa Indigenous Land, surrounded by forest. Image by Embrapa.

Embrapa’s findings in the case of the Puyanawa prove that there is potential in their communities as well. Several steps would have to be taken for them to effectively begin selling carbon credits, starting with the Indigenous deciding what would be the right project to attain the credits. This might entail a company preparing a project to be registered on and certified by an international platform.

While the recently published study is echoing throughout the reserve, Marcondes Puyanawa keeps planting and taking care of his new soursop and other fruits thriving in his agroforested gardens. “Because [soursop] is a very good product, there are many bugs, there are many pests, there are many predators, so it needs management.”

This story was produced in collaboration with Landscape News to raise awareness of topics relevant to the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum’s Amazonia Digital Conference: The Tipping Point (September 21-23, 2021). Join here.

Banner image: Atsá Festival in the Poyanawa Indigenous Land. Image by Alessandra Melo.