Indigenous Land Rights Are Critical to Realizing Goals of the Paris Climate Accord, a New Study Finds

Tribal lands studied sequester far more carbon than non-Indigenous regions. Yet Indigenous’ rights are often ignored and the forests the tribes protect are exploited or lost.

An Arara indigenous boy plays with a stick at the Laranjal tribal camp, in Arara indigenous land, Para state, in the northern Brazilian Amazon rainforest, on March 15, 2019. Credit: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

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The land rights of Indigenous peoples across millions of acres of forests in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Peru must be protected and strengthened if the world has any hope of achieving the goals set forth in the 2015 Paris Agreement, a study released on Thursday found. 

The study, by the World Resources Institute and Climate Focus, two non-profit global research organizations focused on alleviating climate change, supports a growing body of research emphasizing the important role Indigenous peoples and other local communities play in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and protecting biodiversity.

In Brazil, for instance, the government would need to take 80 percent of vehicles off the roads to account for the carbon dioxide kept in the forests on Indigenous and local communities’ lands, the report said. 

But instead of including Indigenous communities when devising plans to meet goals under the Paris Agreement, governments have largely ignored the role those communities play in meeting emission reductions targets, according to the report. 


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Worse, the report said, governments have carried out policies that make it more difficult for Indigenous communities to obtain title over their land, and have enabled harassment and assaults against those communities by failing to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights. 

Juan-Carlos Altamirano, an economist at WRI and one of the report’s authors, said safeguarding the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities is critical to averting the climate crisis. Each additional degree of global warming—accelerated by the loss of Indigenous lands—increases the risk of floods, drought, sea level rise and other extreme weather events. 

“The challenge of meeting the Paris Agreement will be enormous if Indigenous and local communities’ lands are lost,” Altamirano said.

Indigenous-Held Forests Absorb Twice As Much Carbon

Scientists have long been aware that forests trap carbon dioxide within trees’ leaves, branches, trunks and roots. That’s why keeping forests intact has been part of global plans to combat climate change. When trees are destroyed through fires or clear cutting, forests can become a source of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions as once-sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere. 

But when it comes to capturing and keeping carbon in the ground, not all forests are equal. 

Using data from Global Forest Watch, a forest monitoring website, and Landmark, a Lima-based organization that monitors and maps Indigenous-held land, the study’s authors looked the forests in Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico to find out how well forests on Indigenous and local communities’ land sequestered carbon compared to other forested lands. Those countries are home to some of the most biologically diverse forests in the world. 

The researchers compared the net amounts of carbon dioxide released and stored on Indigenous and local communities’ lands against other forested lands from 2000 to 2020. They found that, on average, Indigenous-held forests absorbed over twice as much carbon dioxide as other forested lands, such as land owned by governments or private parties. 

The country with the biggest difference was Brazil, where, on average, non-Indigenous land emits about 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare while Indigenous land sequesters about 30 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare. 

The researchers also found that 92 percent of Indigenous and local communities’ land in the countries studied were “net sinks,” meaning they absorb more carbon dioxide than they emit. Without those contributions, governments would have to make up the emissions reductions elsewhere. 

“Brazil and Colombia would have to retire 80 percent of their vehicle fleet and Mexico would need to retire 35 percent of its vehicle fleet to account for the loss of carbon sequestration services provided by Indigenous peoples and local communities’ lands, whereas Peru would have to retire their entire vehicle fleet to make up for just half of the loss of Indigenous peoples and local communities’ contributions,” the report said. 

Governments Leave Indigenous Communities Out of Paris Plans

Despite the outsized role Indigenous and local communities play in sequestering carbon emissions, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil have largely excluded those communities from their emission reduction plans, the researchers found. 

A misnomer about the Paris Agreement is that, on the whole, it is not binding. Countries that have ratified the agreement are required to prepare successive “nationally determined contribution” plans (NDCs) that outline how they will achieve their emission and adaptation goals. The idea is that by requiring countries to increase their commitments over time, the world can meet its long term goal to limit global warming.

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But, in each of the four countries studied, laws and policies towards Indigenous peoples falls far short of protecting Indigenous lands and in some cases, actively works against it. 

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro put a hold on demarcations, or identification, of Indigenous lands and has supported legislation that would open up Indigenous lands to extractive industries. 

In Mexico and Colombia, the government can permit extractive activity on Indigenous lands without obtaining the approval of those Indigenous communities. 

And in Peru, the process for identifying Indigenous lands is so administratively cumbersome that it can take up to 20 years to complete. About a third of Indigenous and local communities’ land in the country is still unrecognized, leaving those groups vulnerable to wild cat miners and other land invasions. 

The researchers said these and other harmful policies have contributed to illegal deforestation on Indigenous lands and the murders and harassment of Indigenous peoples. In 2020, 65 environmental defenders were killed in Colombia, 30 in Mexico, 20 in Brazil and six in Peru, according to data from the nonprofit Global Witness. The vast majority of those alleged crimes have gone unpunished. 

The Road Ahead

Altamirano said that while the report focuses on Indigenous and local communities’ land, a larger message is that humans must protect all forests, regardless of who manages them, to achieve goals under the Paris Agreement. 

The problem of “leakage,” when a policy to stop deforestation in one place leads to deforestation elsewhere, is a concern. If deforestation on Indigenous lands stops, it could lead to greater rates of deforestation in other woodlands. 

Altamirano said to prevent leakage, policy makers should aim to protect forests in a way that recognizes communities that depend on them for their livelihoods and promote sustainable forest management—something Indigenous communities have effectively done for thousands of years. 

By bringing Indigenous communities into climate policy making at local, national and international levels, he said, there is a greater chance that their knowledge can be shared and expanded to non-indigenous land management. 

For the international community and wealthy countries like the United States, ensuring that forest-protection funding goes to Indigenous and local communities is key, Altamirano and his co-author, Darragh Conway, said. 

“Living in harmony with nature is essentially written into these communities’ DNA,” Conway, a lawyer with WRI, said. “When donors are funding forest protection, they need to make sure that money comes down to the local level because ultimately, these communities that live there are the ones best placed to protect forests.”