Study Documents a Halt to Deforestation in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest After Indigenous Communities Gain Title to Their Territories

Land rights granted by the government make a difference, allowing forests to slowly begin healing, researchers find.

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The Cacique Nelson, of the tribe of Guaranis, walks in a deforested area of the old Atlantic Forest on Jan. 26, 2017. Credit: Diego Herculano/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The Cacique Nelson, of the tribe of Guaranis, walks in a deforested area of the old Atlantic Forest on Jan. 26, 2017. Credit: Diego Herculano/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Most people know that Brazil’s rainforests are rapidly disappearing, and that the loss accelerates global climate change while harming the communities living under the trees’ canopy.

Now, a study published in the scientific journal PNAS Nexus suggests that after Indigenous communities obtain legal title to their territories, the rate of deforestation significantly declines. 

The new research centers on Brazil’s portion of the Atlantic Forest, fragmented along the country’s eastern coastline and wrapped around São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Though it draws far less global attention than the Amazon rainforest, it remains a vital and deeply threatened ecosystem: Only about 12 percent  of the country’s Atlantic Forest is still standing after five centuries of development, colonization and resource extraction. 

The loss has alarmed human rights experts and scientists. The forest is not only home to dozens of Indigenous communities, they note, but also provides clean water, hydroelectric energy and food to the bulk of Brazil’s 214 million people. And like the Amazon tree cover, the Atlantic Forest serves as a sink for the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. 

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The PNAS Nexus study looked at forest cover change, or the net difference between deforestation and reforestation, in 129 Indigenous territories throughout the country’s Atlantic rainforest from 1985 to 2019. Among the territories reviewed, 77 Indigenous communities had obtained legal title to their lands during the time period studied while 52 had not. 

Homing in on 73 territories to which communities had received title, the researchers found a significant difference between rates of forest cover change before and after legal title, also known as tenure, was gained. The rate of net deforestation averaged 0.73% a year before tenure but just 0.05% after tenure. Measured in area, that amounted to an average net loss of 22.1 hectares, or 54.6 acres, each year before title was granted but only 3.3 hectares afterward.

The researchers also compared the rate of change in the titled lands, before and after tenure, with that of untitled lands and found that titled properties were effective at curbing deforestation and increasing tree cover. Using what is known as a “difference in differences” model, the researchers found that titled territories gained forest cover at an annual rate that was 0.77 percent higher than the rate on untitled lands. While some titled lands still suffered net deforestation over the period studied, in other words, it was nonetheless 0.77 percent less than for untitled lands. 

Although the steady improvement in forest cover from year to year is modest, the findings add to a growing body of evidence that forests legally held by local communities around the world fare better environmentally than land controlled by the government or private interests including corporations.

Yet the study stands out because unlike the Amazon rainforest, much of the Atlantic rainforest is in a Brazilian region that is highly developed and industrialized: São Paulo is Brazil’s most populated city, followed by Rio de Janeiro. In essence, the results counter the assumption that forests under the control of Indigenous people reap environmental benefits because they are mostly in remote and sparsely populated areas. None of the territories examined by the researchers lie in extremely remote areas.

Political, legal and social factors may be at play in the improvement in forest cover. First, Brazil’s constitution provides a legal basis for preventing non-Indigenous people from using lands that are legally titled to Indigenous communities. 

To gain title, Indigenous communities must go through a four-stage process that culminates in a presidential decree. Once the land is titled to an Indigenous community, the federal government is legally required to enforce the community’s rights against intruders—although whether it actually follows through tends to depend on political will. Under former President Jair Bolsonaro, who was voted out of office last year, the budgets of environmental and Indigenous protection agencies were slashed, leaving many of the Indigenous communities to fend for themselves in protecting their forestland. 

Brazil’s newly elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, has indicated that he will restore that funding and reverse other Bolsonaro-era policies that undercut Indigenous and environmental rights. Still, communities without legal title to their ancestral lands have significantly less protection and generally have no option but to combat the illegal extraction of resources, from mining to agribusiness and lumber tilling, without support from federal law enforcement. 

Lastly, when Indigenous communities have legal rights over their territory, they have a greater incentive to protect it. Many live interdependently with the forest, relying on its ecosystem for subsistence and for maintaining their traditional cultural practices. Having formal title gives communities a degree of certainty that their investment is legally safeguarded. 

Now that there is “robust evidence” for the environmental argument behind granting legal property rights, the next question is what support Indigenous peoples will need to tend forested areas in the long term, said Rayna Benzeev, a co-author of the report and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

A Destructive Legacy Dating Back Centuries 

In contrasting deforestation of the Atlantic Forest with that of the Amazon rainforest, the study pointed to Brazil’s history of colonization, which was highly concentrated along the country’s Atlantic coast. 

While deforestation in the Amazon region did not take off until the 1970s, European settlers began destroying the Atlantic Forest after arriving on Brazil’s eastern coast in the 16th century, the researchers note, with the exploitation of its riches peaking in the 19th and 20th centuries. The proximity to urban areas hastened that trend. 

Like other colonial powers, Portugal based its legal ownership of what is now Brazil on the Doctrine of Discovery, an international principle originating in the 15th century that gave European countries property rights over the lands of Indigenous peoples. 

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The doctrine is grounded in the notion that the colonists’ conquest was justified by the superiority of their own European and Christian culture. Non-European and non-Christian people were deemed savages incapable of self-governance and in need of “civilizing.” The Roman Catholic Church assumed authority under the doctrine to grant European nations, including Portugal, sovereignty over lands occupied by Indigenous peoples. 

From the time of colonization in 1500 to the 21st century, Brazil’s Indigenous population plummeted from a rough estimate of anywhere between three to five million to about 900,000, largely as a consequence of violence, slavery and disease. After Brazil gained independence in 1882, government policies and attitudes toward Indigenous peoples remained intact. During the 20th century, the government’s Indigenous Protection Service, the agency tasked with guarding their welfare, carried out policies leading to deaths, torture and land thefts among the peoples it was overseeing. Much of the impetus arose from a drive to exploit natural resources on Indigenous land. 

After years of advocacy efforts, Brazil adopted a new constitution in 1988 that marked a turning point for Indigenous rights. Among its provisions was a requirement that the federal government demarcate all Indigenous territories within five years. 

So far the government has demarcated only about 40 percent of the more than 1,200 Indigenous territories in the country, and over the last decade, progress has halted: Only one Indigenous territory has been legally titled since 2012. 

Even when Indigenous communities obtained title, their control was limited to permanent possession and use of the land’s surface while the government retained ownership of the subsurface mineral rights. Over the last decade, businesses and politicians have pushed the federal government to open up Indigenous territories to mining and other development. 

Since taking office on Jan. 1, Lula has reversed some of Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous policies, including a decree issued by his predecessor that allowed for so-called artisanal gold mining on Indigenous territories. 

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