A recent study published in Nature Sustainability has shed light on the critical role played by Indigenous territories and protected areas in the preservation of forests in the Brazilian Amazon.
The study, which analysed satellite images and national datasets between 2000 and 2021, revealed that only 5% of net forest loss in the Amazon region occurs in Indigenous territories and protected areas, despite the fact that these areas account for more than half of the region’s forests.
The authors of the study have described the findings as evidence of the “vital role” of Indigenous territories and protected areas in conserving the Amazon’s forests. However, the study also revealed that from 2018-2021, the annual rate of forest loss in the same areas was twice as high as in non-designated areas — a stark warning highlighting the negative impact of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s weakening of environmental protections, and emphasising the importance of protecting Indigenous territories and protected areas in order to conserve the Amazon’s forests and ensure their long-term sustainability.
The Amazon: A biodiversity hotspot at the heart of South America
The Amazon rainforest, the largest of its kind in the world, stretches across nine South American countries, with the majority of it located in Brazil. This region, known as the Brazilian Amazon, is a hub for biological diversity, covering an area of 394 million hectares in 2000.
Divided into Indigenous territories, protected areas, and non-designated areas, the Brazilian Amazon boasts nearly 330 protected areas and is home to almost 400 Indigenous groups. These Indigenous territories and protected areas, which are filled with lush forests, play a crucial role in the conservation of the Amazon, according to the study.
Protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon are further categorized into two groups: strict protection, which is designated for biodiversity conservation and is characterised by high forest coverage and low deforestation pressure, and sustainable use, which permits people to utilise the resources of nature while maintaining its ecological balance through sustainable agriculture.
18-year-old Indigenous leader Amanda Kayabi from Samauma Village in the Xingu Indigenous Territory highlights the significance of the Amazon to Indigenous communities, saying, “As Indigenous people, it is our duty to protect the Amazon. Our territory, our forest, is everything we have — our home, our source of food, traditional medicines, crops, and a place for prayer and clean air.”
The role of Indigenous people and communities
The efforts made by Indigenous peoples to conserve the Brazilian Amazon are reflected in the portion of the rainforest that they are responsible for. In 2018, Indigenous territories and other protected areas held 206 million hectares of forests — 52% of the total forested area measured in 2000, the baseline year used for comparison.
One of the Indigenous leaders, Amanda Kayabi, has been collecting seeds in the Xingu Seed Network, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, since her teenage years. The Network aims to reforest the deforested areas in the Xingu territory and around the world.
The study in Nature Sustainability also found that while covering over half of the forested areas in the Brazilian Amazon, Indigenous territories and other protected areas accounted for only 5% of net forest loss and 12% of gross forest loss between 2000 and 2021. Charts included in the study show that the lowest amount of deforestation happened in Indigenous territories and national protected areas, as well as in areas with strict protection. The study also confirmed what experts and conservationists already know: most of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon occurs in the southern and eastern parts of the region, referred to as the “arc of deforestation“.
To determine the extent and location of deforestation in Indigenous territories and protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon, researchers employed a three-step method.
The first step involved the creation of an annual forest map, which was achieved by utilising daily satellite imagery to differentiate between forested and deforested areas in the region. This was made possible thanks to a high-resolution model to accurately distinguish forests through obstructions including dense cloud cover that often blankets the sky in the Amazon.
The annual forest maps were then merged with government data on Indigenous territories and protected areas, allowing the researchers to calculate the amount of forested area within these regions.
The final step involved the comparison of deforestation rates both inside and outside of Indigenous territories and protected areas.
The director of the Land and Resource Rights initiative at the World Resources Institute, Peter Veit, has weighed in on a recent study that aimed to understand the extent and location of deforested areas in Indigenous territories and protected areas. According to Veit, the study is “fairly consistent” with previous research, noting that the study’s inclusion of both primary and secondary forests is a significant advancement as there has been limited research on secondary forests in the Brazilian Amazon due to difficulties in obtaining quality satellite images in the region.
The root of the deforestation crisis in the Amazon
Studies have shown that the main causes of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon are agriculture, pasture for livestock production, mineral mining, and urbanisation, with Indigenous territories and protected areas in the region seeing higher rates of deforestation from 2018 to 2021 — a period coinciding with the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro.
Toya Manchineri, Coordinator of Territories and Natural Resources for the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon Basin (COIAB), concurs with the findings of the study, stating that illegal invasion and logging are the main drivers of deforestation, while cattle ranching, farming, and soybean production are also contributing factors.
Manchineri also points out that despite existing protections, some Indigenous lands in the Amazon are being threatened. The Ituna-Itatá territory in the state of Pará, for instance, is one of the most deforested Indigenous lands in Brazil, with 70% of it taken over by invaders. Deforestation in the lands of the Yanomami threatens not only the territory but also the organisation of the people, he adds.
The importance of Indigenous territories in the Amazon’s conservation efforts
Indigenous territories in the Amazon are playing a crucial role in preserving the world’s largest rainforest and mitigating climate change. A recent report by the World Resources Institute found that these territories act as “strong net carbon sinks” by removing 340 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. In contrast, lands outside of Indigenous territories have been a net source of carbon.
With the newly elected Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, taking office, researchers and Indigenous leaders are hopeful for a brighter future for the Amazon. Lula has pledged to achieve net-zero deforestation of the Amazon by 2030 and is working to involve Indigenous leaders in decision-making by establishing a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, led by Sonia Guajajara, an Indigenous leader and activist.
However, Indigenous leaders believe that international cooperation and financing will be crucial in reaching these deforestation goals.