How Indigenous land rights could help save the Brazilian Amazon from deforestation

A recent study lends support to what many Indigenous people have often said: Lands held by Indigenous people are better protected from environmental destruction than other areas of the forest.

Kayapó Indigenous protesters block highway BR-163 with a banner that reads in Portuguese "Defending the Amazon. Without listening to Indigenous people, there will be no concession and nor grain railway," near Novo Progresso, Pará state, Brazil, Aug. 17, 2020. Credit: Andre Penner/AP

By Anna Kusmer - 08. September 2020

When Daiara Tukano was growing up, she learned from her family what it meant to care for the natural world and look after the rich ecology of Indigenous peoples’ traditional lands.

“Indigenous peoples, in a general way, know that humankind is not the center of the universe. We learn with nature around us because we are a part of nature,” said Tukano, a human rights researcher who belongs to the Tukano people of Northern Brazil. 

“Some people say Indigenous land isn't productive. For us, it’s more than a sanctuary. It is really rich. And the way of continuing to be rich, as a territory, is being the source of an enormous diversity. And that’s not just biodiversity, but cultural diversity as well.”

The Brazilian Amazon is constantly under threat from outside invasions. The country is seeing one of its worst years in memory when it comes to losing forests due to fires and illegal deforestation.

Between one-quarter and one-third of the rainforest is federally recognized Indigenous territory, which allows communities to use the land as they see fit with greater protection against illegal activity.

Ensuring property rights

A recent study lends support to what many Indigenous people have often said: Lands held by Indigenous people are better protected from environmental destruction than other areas of the forest.

“What we were trying to learn is whether collective property rights give Indigenous tribes the tools to curb deforestation inside their lands,” said the study's co-author Kathryn Baragwanath, a PhD student at the University of California, San Diego, who focuses on the political economy of natural resources.

Baragwanath’s study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that deforestation was two-thirds lower within Indigenous territories compared to outside areas.

“Collective rights are very effective, but only when they are fully granted,” said Baragwanath, who added that property rights in Brazil are often only ensured with a lengthy legal process.

That process ends with “homologation,” an official decree granting the land to Indigenous people. The study found that this step was essential for protection, even of territory that is already recognized by Brazil’s federal government as belonging to Indigenous people.  

“We think that this last stage is very important because once homologation is granted, the land is no longer open to contestations,” said Baragwanath, suggesting that developers and land grabbers cannot legally get title to such lands. Homologated territories also have better access to monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to try to stop illegal clearing.

“Once homologation is granted, the land is no longer open to contestations.”

Kathryn Baragwanath, PhD student in political economy

Research has shown that in many cases, Indigenous lands around the world produce fewer carbon emissions, are better protected and have higher rates of biodiversity than other areas. 

Since the 1980s, there has been increased recognition from Brazil’s government that Indigenous land rights are essential for environmental conservation. The acknowledgment stems from the country’s 1988 constitution, which said that Indigenous peoples should have legal ownership over their land.

Izabella Teixeira, former Brazilian environment minister, said the interests of Indigenous peoples are key to many of the policies she supported, such as the National Policy on Territorial and Environmental Management of Indigenous Lands, which aimed at guaranteeing the conservation of Indigenous territories.  

“You need to respect the rights of these people. You need to work together with them. They know what they need,” Teixeira said. “We developed these public policies and also different tools to manage together with Indigenous people based on their priorities.”

Even with homologation, Indigenous territories always face the threat of invasion, Tukano said. She says her people’s territory on the border with Colombia and Venezuela is constantly threatened.

“Even if we have an Indigenous territory that is recognized, we deal constantly with all kinds of invasions,” she said. “Illegal mining, illegal exploitation, and illegal trafficking.”

‘Created a hate discourse’

In 2018, deforestation took a turn for the worse with the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, who is known to emphatically oppose Indigenous land rights. Under Bolsonaro’s rule, illegal deforestation is on the rise, as land grabbers, miners and loggers take advantage of lax environmental enforcement.

“During his campaign, one of his slogans was, he’s not going to allow the creation of another single centimeter of Indigenous land,” said Philip Fearnside, who has been studying the Amazon for 40 years at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia. “He hasn't issued any of these homologation stamps, and that leaves those places open to being invaded.”

Fearnside said Bolsonaro has sent implicit, and at times explicit, messages to would-be illegal loggers that environmental enforcement is now lax, which puts un-homologated Indigenous territories at even greater risk.

Nearly 30,000 fires are currently burning in the Amazon rainforest, as well as other parts of Brazil.  Many were set illegally to clear land for farming and livestock production.

“It is impossible to speak about Indigenous life without talking about the preservation of those territories ... The land is the physical base, where all other rights originate: the right to life, culture, identity and health.”

Luiz Eloy, APIB lawyer

Luiz Eloy, a lawyer with Brazil's Indigenous People Articulation (APIB), helps Indigenous communities fight for their land rights in court. Eloy is a member of the Terena people in the Pantanal region, which is south of the Amazon rainforest and the world’s largest tropical wetland but is currently experiencing devastating fires.

“The prosecution and criminalization of Indigenous leaders, which has been more abrupt and direct during Bolsonaro’s government, has created a hate discourse against indigenous people,” said Eloy. “It’s driven by racism.”

Last year there was a spike in the number of Indigenous activists murdered in Brazil. Eloy said many leaders are criminalized for asserting their basic rights.

“It is impossible to speak about Indigenous life without talking about the preservation of those territories,” said Eloy. “The land is the physical base, where all other rights originate: the right to life, culture, identity and health.”

Tukano said Bolsonaro isn’t the only problem. The issue stems from an economic system that drives people into the forest to make a profit, like farmers who burn the rainforest to grow soybeans or graze cattle for international export.

As long as the demand is there from places like China and elsewhere, the destruction will continue.

“We need you to stop polluting,” Tukano said. “We need you to stop eating so much meat. And what do you use that soybean for?”

“Stop consuming the products of the big agri-industries that are invading Indigenous territories [and] are killing people, because they are also killing you.”

Kayapó Indigenous protesters block highway BR-163 with a banner that reads in Portuguese "Defending the Amazon. Without listening to Indigenous people, there will be no concession and nor grain railway," near Novo Progresso, Pará state, Brazil, Aug. 17, 2020. Credit: Andre Penner/AP

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