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Indigenous People Are Best Guardians of Amazon Rainforests, Study Finds

Securing Latin America’s rainforests from further degradation will be critical to fighting the climate crisis and protecting biodiversity. And according to a recent United Nations report, Indigenous peoples in the region are already the best at forest guardianship, and should be paid for their stewardship.

Produced by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), and based on a review of more than 300 relevant studies, the report found that deforestation rates within Indigenous territories are “up to 50% lower” than in areas without, writes The Guardian. 

“While the area of intact forest declined by only 5% between 2000 and 2016 in the region’s Indigenous areas, in the non-Indigenous areas it fell by 11%,” said FILAC President Myrna Cunningham. 

Cunningham, herself an Indigenous woman from Nicaragua, added that Indigenous peoples have a “different concept” of forests. “They are not seen as a place where you take out resources to increase your money—they are seen as a space where we live and that is given to us to protect for the next generations,” she told The Guardian.

Such a trust grows ever more urgent as beef, palm oil, soy, timber, and mineral interests advance their own extractive agenda, increasingly at a murderous cost for forest dwellers. “Hundreds of community leaders have been killed because of disputes over land in recent years,” The Guardian writes, disputes that have become more common as Indigenous peoples grow more and more determined to assert their territorial rights. 

“Supporting these peoples to protect the forests is particularly crucial now, with scientists warning that the Amazon is nearing a tipping point where it switches from rainforest to savannah, risking the release of billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere,” adds the UK news outlet.

The UN report found that peoples “with collective legal titles to their lands” have proved the ablest guardians of intact forests. But much remains to be done, with a third of Indigenous territory across the Amazon basin—a total combined territory that amounts to about 400 million hectares of land—still not legally recognized as belonging to Indigenous peoples. 

Pushing ahead with such legal recognition will pay huge dividends both for Indigenous peoples and for the climate, says the UN report. The cost of those benefits, in terms of mapping the territory and negotiation the settlement, could come in at less than US$45 per hectare.