Climate Crisis

Amazon’s least-deforested areas are due to ‘vital role’ of Indigenous peoples

The Brazilian Amazon is home to nearly 400 Indigenous groups and holds nearly 330 protected areas.

The Brazilian Amazon is home to nearly 400 Indigenous groups and holds nearly 330 protected areas. Image: Unsplash

Yanine Quiroz
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Climate Crisis

  • Only 5% of net forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon occurs in Indigenous territories, according to a new study.
  • The findings reveal the “vital role” of Indigenous territories and protected areas in forest conservation in the Amazon, say the authors.
  • However, over 2018-21, the percentage of annual forest loss in those areas was twice as large as the one in non-designated areas.
  • The authors warn that this change highlights the effect of the recent “weakening” of environmental protections in the area.

Only 5% of net forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon occurs in Indigenous territories and protected areas – even though these areas contain more than half of the region’s forest.

That is a key finding from a recent study, published in Nature Sustainability, which looks at data over the period 2000 to 2021. It analyses satellite images to estimate annual forest area and then overlays that information with national datasets on different governance and management systems.

The findings reveal the “vital role” of Indigenous territories and protected areas in forest conservation in the Amazon, the authors write.

However, over 2018-21, the percentage of annual forest loss in those areas was twice as large as the one in non-designated areas, the study finds. The authors warn that this change highlights the effect of the “weakening” of environmental protections under former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

The great Amazon

The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, spanning nine South American countries. The majority of the rainforest is found in Brazil, making the Brazilian Amazon a biodiversity hotspot.

In 2000, the total forested area in this region covered 394m hectares.

This biologically rich zone is partitioned into protected areas, Indigenous territories and non-designated areas. Protected areas are then split into two categories: strict protection (areas designated for biodiversity conservation, which subsequently have more forest cover and less deforestation pressure) and sustainable use (which allows people to sustainably manage nature and use its resources, such as by sustainable agriculture).

The authors write that Indigenous territories and protected areas “are covered by forests” and their contribution “strengthens forest conservation substantially”.

The Brazilian Amazon is also home to nearly 400 Indigenous groups and holds nearly 330 protected areas.

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Amanda Kayabi, an 18-year-old Indigenous leader in Samauma Village in the Xingu Indigenous Territory, tells Carbon Brief that “we, as Indigenous people, have a duty to protect the Amazon”. She adds:

“Our territory, our forest, is everything that we have: where we live, feed, plant traditional foods, [obtain] medicines [and] crops, where we pray, the air we breathe.”

The contribution that Kayabi and other Indigenous peoples make towards conserving the Brazilian Amazon is reflected in the amount of rainforest they are responsible for. In 2018, Indigenous territories and other protected areas held 206m hectares of forests – this is 52% of the total forested area measured in 2000, the baseline year that the authors used for comparison.

Kayabi spends her time collecting seeds, an activity she has done since she was a teenager. She works along with other Indigenous women from the Xingu Seed Network, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, whose stated mission is “to reforest what was deforested around the Xingu…not just for the territory, but for the whole world”, Kayabi says.

While covering more than half of 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, the paper says.

The charts below show the average annual forest loss rates before (blue) and after (orange) the establishment of Indigenous territories and protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. The left panel (g) displays the deforestation that occurred in (from left to right) national protected areas, Indigenous territories and state protected areas. The right panel (h) shows the deforestation in strict protection areas, Indigenous territories and sustainable use areas.

The charts reveal that the lowest amount of deforestation occurred in Indigenous territories and national protected areas, as well as in areas with strict protection.

The lowest amount of deforestation in Amazon occurred in Indigenous territories and national protected areas, as well as in areas with strict protection.
The lowest amount of deforestation in Amazon occurred in Indigenous territories and national protected areas, as well as in areas with strict protection. Image: Qin et al. 2023

Kayabi emphasises the important role that Indigenous peoples play. She tells Carbon Brief:

“We bring solutions for forests to grow, we are the ones who will help. Indigenous peoples are the solution!”

Tracking deforestation

The study confirms something that scientists and conservationists already know: that most of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon occurs in the southern and eastern portions of the region, an area known as the “arc of deforestation”.

The chart below displays the forest loss inside (top) and outside (bottom) Indigenous territories and protected areas across 2002-21. The colour of the shading indicates when the deforestation occurred – from 2002 (yellow) to 2021 (red).

Map showing the spatial distribution of annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon
Most of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon occurs in the southern and eastern portions of the region. Image: Qin et al. 2023

To understand the extent and location of deforested areas in Indigenous territories and protected areas, researchers used a three-step approach.

First, they built up an annual forest map by using daily images from satellite data to identify forested and non-forested areas in the region.

Satellite image collection tends to be difficult in this part of the world due to the dense clouds that cover the Amazonian sky. But the researchers resolved that issue by using a high-resolution model that allowed them to distinguish forests through these cloudy skies.

They then overlaid the resulting annual forest maps with government data on Indigenous territories and protected areas to estimate how much forest area is contained in those regions. Finally, they compared the forest loss occurring both inside and outside Indigenous territories and protected areas.

They also compared their results with other studies that use different datasets, satellite images or algorithms, such as the official Brazilian deforestation dataset.

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The study has two advantages over previous work, says Prof Xiangming Xiao, the director of the Center for Earth Observation and Modelling at the University of Oklahoma and the corresponding author on the study.

Using daily satellite images and their improved algorithm ensures more consistency over time and better spatial coverage of their estimates, Xiao tells Carbon Brief.

Peter Veit, the director of the Land and Resource Rights initiative at the environmental research group the World Resources Institute (WRI), says that the work is “fairly consistent” with previous studies. Veit, who was not involved in the study, tells Carbon Brief:

“Overall, I would say that they’re comparable [to previously published work]. Their own deforestation dataset does not amount to be so significantly different than the results in different studies.”

Veit adds that a major advance in the analysis is that the researchers look at deforestation in both primary and secondary forests – the former are virgin and untouched forests, while the latter refers to forests that have been disturbed either naturally or by humans. Xiao notes:

“It is important to identify and monitor secondary forests, but it is a challenging task in the moist tropical zone, where frequent clouds and fire-induced aerosols in the atmosphere often result in a small number of good quality images from the optical sensors. As a result, there has been a limited number of studies on secondary forests in the Brazilian Amazon.”

On the other hand, Veit suggests that it would have been valuable if the researchers had included forest degradation in their analysis and had looked at the implications of forest loss for biodiversity or climate change.

A new forest path

The study notes that the main culprits of forest loss are typically agriculture, pasture for livestock production, mineral mining and increasing urbanisation.

Toya Manchineri, the coordinator of Territories and Natural Resources for the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon Basin (COIAB), agrees with that assessment. He tells Carbon Brief:

“The issue of cattle ranching, farming and soya is entering the Amazon very strongly. But the main drivers of deforestation are illegal invasion and illegal logging. Mining takes a lot of water from the river, destroys land and the mercury contaminates water and fish, causing illnesses in the Indigenous populations.”

Manchineri points out that, despite protections, there are some Indigenous lands in the Amazon that are being jeopardised. The Ituna-Itatá territory, in Pará state, is one of the most-deforested Indigenous lands in Brazil. “70% of it is being taken over by invaders,” Manchineri says. He adds that deforestation in the lands of the Yanomami threatens “not only the territory, but the very organisation of the people”.

Despite protections, there are some Indigenous lands in the Amazon that are being jeopardised.
Despite protections, there are some Indigenous lands in the Amazon that are being jeopardised. Image: Unsplash/mprage

Higher rates of deforestation in Indigenous territories and protected areas of the Brazilian Amazon were seen from 2018 to 2021 – a period consistent with the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, who served as Brazil’s president for the calendar years 2019-22, the study points out.

The “weakening” of Brazil’s forest protection policies was evident during that time, the study says. For example, despite increasing deforestation, the number of fines levied for violation of environmental and conservation laws dropped by 72% from March to August 2020.

Several other studies have addressed the vital role of Indigenous territories in forest conservation in the Amazon. A recent report by WRI estimates that 90% of Indigenous lands were “strong net carbon sinks from 2001-21”, removing 340m tonnes of CO2 annually. At the same time, the lands outside of those territories were a net source of carbon.

“That’s startling,” says Veit, who co-wrote the WRI report. He tells Carbon Brief:

“What their findings and our findings show is that if [the new Brazilian administration] wants to get to net-zero deforestation, the problem is outside of Indigenous territories and protected areas. And while it is important for [this] administration to help and provide more support for [Indigenous peoples], so they can continue to manage those lands, real attention has to be given to the other lands where deforestation rates are incredibly high.”

Aerial view of Amazon Rainforest
Only 5% of net forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon occurs in Indigenous territories. Image: Unsplash/ivoprod

Researchers and Indigenous leaders hope that the newly installed Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – better known as Lula – brings back stronger protections for the Amazon.

Lula has pledged to reach net-zero deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon by 2030. As part of this, he is including Indigenous leaders in decision-making. For example, he recently established a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, appointing Sonia Guajajara, an Indigenous leader, activist and defender of Indigenous peoples rights, to lead it. In 2022 Guajajara was elected as federal deputy of São Paolo and this year she is the “first indigenous woman to become a minister in the country”. Lula has also promised land demarcation, which entails establishing the extension of an area under Indigenous possession and formally registering it in a decree.

However, for Manchineri, international cooperation and financing is critical to reach these deforestation goals – not just better recognition in Brazil. He tells Carbon Brief:

“Demarcation alone is not enough. It takes a package of investments, of technical knowledge, and of support for our communities so that we can really protect our lands.”

Back in the Xingu Indigenous territory, where women contribute to sustainable management of their trees and seeds, Kayabi once again stresses the stark differences between Indigenous-managed lands and the rest of the region. She says:

“When you leave the Indigenous land, you will find a desert just outside, because only in our territory are there forests.”

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