Giving indigenous communities legal title to their lands has been shown to be more effective in protecting forests than declaring them national parks.
The world’s rainforests are shrinking at a truly terrifying rate. Thats nothing new. But Its destruction now threatens to overwhelm all of our efforts to curb climate change.. Scientists warn that if we want to have any hope of limiting global temperature rise to the 1.5 degree threshold seen as the “safe” maximum level, then we must stop the destruction of forests, and soon.
Easier said than done. But when it comes to rainforests, the most promising solution seems surprisingly simple: trust the people who live there.
That may seem like an illusion. However, there is growing evidence that giving indigenous peoples control over the forest they have called home for generations may be the best and most cost-effective way to safeguard their future. Simply giving them a formal title to your land can make a big difference. In the Peruvian Amazon, for example, studies show that granting indigenous communities legal title to their lands reduced forest loss by 81% over the following year. Interestingly, such recognition is even more effective than declaring a forest region as a protected area, such as a national park.
This is not surprising to Martin Simmoneau, program manager for the Cool Earth charity, which works directly with rainforest communities. They have both the specialized knowledge to make good use of forest resources and an incentive to do so, he says. “The forest brings them food, it brings them water, it brings them income. Their long-term survival and prosperity as a people depends on it. It’s your bank account and your market. “
That said, he cautions against having a dewy-eyed view of indigenous groups. Like people everywhere, they need to earn a living, and the pressure to cover expenses like health care and education, as well as the desire for the little luxuries of life, can lead to some people selling stumpage, for instance. Meanwhile, with the population increase, some traditional practices, such as slash-and-burn cultivation (practiced by both forest communities and newcomers) are also driving deforestation.
Mategru Ikpeng sorts the seeds collected from the forest in the Xingu village of Ikpeng. Image: Ayrton Vignola
Often the best results are achieved when indigenous communities work in partnership with friends and allies elsewhere, sometimes in the country, sometimes around the world. Then they can combine traditional knowledge with 21st century experience and connections, to their mutual benefit.
So what does that look like? Below are three examples.
1. Xingu Seed Network, Brazil
The traditional homeland of the Xingu peoples is located in central Brazil, in an area under increasing pressure from industrial-scale agriculture and livestock. Conflicts between farmers and the Xingu are all too common. But deforestation is damaging farms and forests, disrupting water supplies and increasing the risk of fires.
Efforts to replant trees using conventional methods failed, until a new seed collection network, the Rede de Sementes do Xingu, intervened. It draws on the knowledge of Xingu women in particular, many of whom have become forestry entrepreneurs: they collect a wide variety of seeds from native species, and train community members and farmers in a traditional practice known as Mavuca. This involves spreading a mix of seeds on the ground and allows up to 10 times more trees per hectare to be planted, and at half the cost, than the conventional method of planting single-species saplings.
The Amazon is a vast carbon sink that is in danger. Image: Cool Earth
To date, more than 6,600 hectares of degraded forest have been restored, as a result of which the number and severity of fires have been drastically reduced. Even in 2019, when record fires broke out in the Amazon, only 1,600 hectares were lost in the Xingu Basin, compared to 100,000 hectares a decade earlier, before the program began.
In its 12 years of operation, the network, which won an Ashden award for climate innovation in 2020, has generated around US $ 750,000 (£ 574,000) in income for the Xingu communities collecting the seeds. It has also generated great pride among seed collectors, or Yarang as they are known, who share stories and videos of their work on messaging apps.
I didn’t know that people wanted to know what I know
And it has helped heal the gap between the Xingu and the outsiders, while giving the forest dwellers the opportunity to enjoy a prosperous life in their forest home, rather than abandon it in their quest for a better future in the forest. city.
Xingu farmer Placides Pereira is among the gatherers and has seen the impact of reforestation on his own land. Even during the severe drought of 2016, he says: “The stream that runs past my house did not run dry. A professor from a university came to investigate at my farm and I am already giving lectures. I didn’t know that people wanted to know what I know. “
2. Jan Valley, Peru
The remote Ene Valley in Peru is home to the Asháninka people. Their way of life has been greatly affected in recent decades by the successive impacts of the Shining Path guerrilla, the cocaine mafia and now the incursions of loggers, who pressure communities to sell their trees at a rate of demolition.
Lacking the cash to pay for basic items like education and medicine, this pressure can be hard to resist. But some are determined to do so, and several Asháninka communities have formed alliances with the Cool Earth charity to help develop more sustainable ways of earning a living: those that keep the forest intact, but can match the one-time cash injection that would come. of felling.
Giving indigenous communities legal title to their lands was found to reduce forest loss by 81%. Image: Cool Earth
These include growing coffee and cocoa, both of which can thrive in the shade of rainforest trees. Fresh earth provides funding and training to help Asháninka farmers improve the quality of their coffee and cocoa beans, find natural ways to protect them from disease, and connect with local buyers and regional markets. This helps them secure a decent price for what are, after all, high-quality products, with the added prestige of being “grown in the rainforest” coffee and chocolate.
Farming like this helps to relieve pressure on the forest due to slash-and-burn farming methods traditionally used to grow staple foods like cassava. Thanks to advances in satellite imagery, the Asháninka themselves can now see their impact. In addition to encouraging people to seek sustainable alternatives, they show that when indigenous groups maintain control of their lands, forest loss is drastically reduced, by more than 70 percent, in the Río Tambo district, where Cool associations Earth are underway.
3. Congo Basin, Cameroon
Outside of the Amazon, the largest strip of rainforest left on Earth is in the Congo Basin. It is home to an impressive diversity of wildlife, with 400 species of mammals, including gorillas, bonobos apes, and forest elephants. It is also rich in human diversity, home to more than 150 ethnic groups, including the Baka, each with their own store of knowledge and experience of the forest.
Sustainable logging takes place in Cameroon. Image: Brent Stirton / Getty
And it is here, within the borders of Cameroon, that some of the most successful African rainforest initiatives have taken root. The country has recognized more than 260 community forests, effectively granting local people land rights over their forest of origin.
Helping some of these make the most of their rights is the Rainforest Alliance. He is working with communities in southeastern Cameroon, around the Dja Biosphere Reserve, which is home to the rare western lowland gorilla. Here he has helped form community-owned businesses, to enable locals to benefit from the sustainable harvest of wood and other forest products such as wild mangoes and the Njansang nut, which is used for natural oils and soap.
Thanks to being connected with buyers who give them a fair price for their products, some communities have seen a five-fold increase in income. This not only helps lift them out of poverty, but gives them every incentive to protect their forests for the future.
Lead image: Clerizia Farias Pantaleão and Clarice Alves de Souza prepare indigenous seeds for forest restoration