19 January 2022

“Indigenous communities are the most effective shield against deforestation”


In native populations lands deforestation rates may be 26% lower compared to other areas, British researchers say. In Africa, they also perform better than protected areas

by Matteo Cavallito


In the world, areas managed by indigenous people experience a lower deforestation rate compared to other tropical territories, a research by the University of Shieffield said. The survey, published in Nature Sustainability, has focused on several territories in Asia, Latin America and Africa where conservation efforts by indigenous communities has generally proved no less effective than those of the authorities controlling protected areas. The destruction of forest areas, says the study, is causing increasing concern. At COP26 in Glasgow, governments pledged to allocate $19 billion to stop the process by 2030.

Up to a quarter less deforestation on native lands

By using satellite data, an increasingly crucial resource in the study and in the fight against deforestation, and comparing similar areas in terms of morphological and geographical characteristics, the researchers were able to collect some clear data. In areas under the control of native populations, the study reports, there was less deforestation. With a reduction between 17% and 26% compared to the global average recorded in other areas. Disaggregated data are even more interesting.

“In Africa, Indigenous lands preserved forest cover better than protected areas, which had similar levels of deforestation to unprotected areas”, explains Jocelyne Sze, lead author from the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.

Moreover, she says, “In the Asia-Pacific region, spanning from India to Fiji, deforestation rates were similar on Indigenous lands and in protected areas. Both had deforestation rates that were roughly one-fifth lower than unprotected areas”.

Mixed data from the Americas

The numbers from the Americas, by contrast, provide a different picture. Even here, indigenous communities show some ability to reduce deforestation (-17% compared to unprotected lands). But with less efficacy than authorities managing protected areas (-28% compared to rates recorded in unprotected territories). “This is fairly surprising”, the researcher says, “as a lot of earlier research (in Brazil, Panama and Peru) found that Indigenous territories perform better in protecting forests than state-managed protected areas”.

“Protected areas are often created with human rights abuses”

The research shows the importance of the underestimated efforts by native populations in the defense of their territories. The Cofán community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, for example, constantly monitors its land and has long established regular meetings to make decisions on which crops to suspend and how to regulate the hunting of endangered animals.

Protected areas, on the other hand, have their dark side. “Protected areas have largely been able to reduce deforestation” Jocelyne Sze says. “But their creation can also mean the eviction of communities which have lived in forests for generations, barring them from resources and sacred sites”. Queste operazioni, aggiunge, “have often been made possible by human rights abuses, including violent intimidation and even killings by state forces and other groups”.