saving what we've wasted

Indigenous lands are even more critical to preserving the Earth than we thought

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Nearly one quarter of the carbon stored above ground in tropical forests is currently in the care of indigenous and traditional communities. A new report suggests that keeping those populations on the land and guaranteeing their right to it could be the key to keeping some 54.5 billion metric tons of carbon—equivalent to four times the total global carbon emissions in 2014—in storage and, more importantly, out of the atmosphere.

The latest in a series of carbon mapping reports from the Rights and Resources Initiative, Woods Hole Research Center, and World Resources Institute has quantified the amount of carbon stored in tropical forests and, a week ahead of the COP 22 meeting in Marrakech, has drawn attention to the role that forest communities could play in helping national governments meet emission reduction goals.

“Tropical forests represent some of the most carbon-rich landscapes on the planet,” said Wayne Walker, a scientist with the Woods Hole Research Center and co-author of the report. “As the traditional stewards of these forests, why shouldn’t [these communities] be allowed to continue to play that role of maintaining them, as they have for hundreds and thousands of years?”

The report, “Toward a Global Baseline of Carbon Storage in Collective Lands,” estimates that more than 225 billion metric tons of carbon are stored in tropical forests in 37 countries across four sub-regions: South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and MesoAmerica–the southern half of Mexico and Central America.

But of specific concern to the report’s authors is the 54.5 billion metric tons of carbon currently held in forests inhabited by indigenous or other traditional forest communities. The South American sub-region counts for more than half of this total—with inhabited forests accounting for some 30 billion metric tons of carbon—and Brazil contains nearly half of the continental total, at 14.7 billion metric tons of carbon.

toward-a-global-baseline-of-carbon-storage-in-collective-lands-rriWoods Hole Research Center

In fact, Brazil contains more above ground carbon in its tropical forests than the entirety of MesoAmerica, South and Southeast Asia, and the Pacific combined. In Brazil, as is true in other tropical regions, indigenous and traditional forest-dwelling communities often reside in these carbon-loaded regions without protection or recognition of their rights to the land.

According to scientists, at least a tenth of the total carbon that is stored in tropical forests is not under any formal protection or recognition. Without recognition, they say, this land is more vulnerable to economic pressures and deforestation, which would release carbon stocks. In this sense, land rights and regularization have become a critical piece of national emission reduction strategies.

The World Resource Institute, which co-authored the report, estimates that deforestation contributes 24% of greenhouse gas emissions globally and up to 58% of emissions in Latin America alone. By contrast, in tropical forests in Brazil, Bolivia, and Colombia where indigenous and traditional communities had formalized their right to the land, researchers estimate that deforestation rates are two to three times lower than elsewhere.

While land tenure across Latin America has historically been precarious for traditional communities, the authors hope that carbon maps could act as a bargaining tool, placing them at the negotiating table and making explicit their role in reaching national emission reduction goals. Community organizers also hope that such maps could be used to push for formal recognition of their territories—processes that, at least in some cases in Brazil, have been pending for upwards of three decades.

“[Communities] understood very clearly that being able to attach a number to this question would be important for their own negotiating and advocacy efforts, such as those at COP,” Walker said. “It is true both internationally and in their own countries.”

“Securing the rights of Indigenous Peoples to own and manage their forests is an inexpensive way to limit emissions while improving communities’ economic stability.”

The issue of land tenure as an emissions mitigation strategy has drawn the attention of the United Nations, whose Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, said in a statement that “securing the rights of Indigenous Peoples to own and manage their forests is an inexpensive way to limit emissions while improving communities’ economic stability.”

Many indigenous and other traditional forest communities are accustomed to using their environment and its natural resources in a sustainable way, as their own nourishment and livelihood depends on it. Their role as “traditional stewards” of the land stems from their dependency on the natural environment and their traditional knowledge of forest management.

But the importance of land tenure and stewardship is a concept seldom addressed in international climate policy. Only 21 of the 188 countries that submitted National Contribution Plans ahead of COP 21, for example, made explicit commitments to support community-based tenure as a natural resource management strategy. This week UNESCO will hold a meeting on indigenous knowledge and climate change in Paris while at COP 22, the Indigenous Peoples’ and Communities Pavilion will work to highlight traditional management of ecosystems and its potential for climate change mitigation.

Instead of guaranteeing the rights of forest communities, Tauli-Corpuz said, governments and private sector leaders “keep their heads in the sand while the forests are destroyed.”

But some conservation experts are concerned that combining social and environmental goals on a global scale, while laudable, will only be effective if they set concrete, country-specific goals that can be of use to local policy makers.

Donald Sawyer, a sociologist who acts as a senior advisor to the Institute for Society, Population and Nature (ISPN) in Brazil, said generalized recommendations applied across the tropics suffer from being a bit too “pie in the sky.” The approach, he added, “will only work if national specificities are taken into account, with regard to their environmental and social conditions, legal structures, and policy priorities.”

He also pointed to a “strong forest bias” towards the Amazon basin—common in international conservation research—that often has the effect of pushing environmental degradation into less known but equally important ecosystems, such as the Cerrado savannah in central Brazil, where deforestation rates are twice those reported in the Amazon.

In addition, much of the carbon in Latin America is not found in above ground forests, but rather under ground, stored in the soil. Walker admits that this is another important source of carbon storage. But in contrast to the methods used for mapping tropical forests–including satellite imagery data–quantifying underground carbon is much more time intensive and costly.

For now, Walker and his team have their eyes set on filling the gaps in their current data and building a global carbon map that they hope to publish in the coming year. “As we gain access to more data each year, we will update the numbers,” he said. “Next year, we hope to take this globally.”