Land managed by Indigenous communities shows best preservation

What’s happening? Areas of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest controlled by Indigenous and traditional communities have the lowest levels of vegetation loss and deforestation rates, according to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Researchers examined conservation units across the country and found regions where access by outsiders is strictly limited through demarcation are among the best preserved. The UFRJ researchers noted lands managed by Indigenous and Quilombola communities had up to three times the amount of regrowth. (Mongabay)

Why does this matter? We’ve been advocating increased inclusion of Indigenous people and their knowledge in climate and conservation efforts for a while now. This research, published in Biological Conservation demonstrates the importance of this.

Improved inclusion isn’t just a moral box ticking exercise, it’s a strategic decision to remove biases that are stopping the people best suited for the job from being handed responsibility. And, in this case, the task is preserving our ecosystems that are teetering on the brink of collapse.

What did the study find? Between 2005 and 2012, UFRJ measured that deforestation rates and vegetation loss in land occupied by Indigenous communities was 17 times lower than in unprotected areas of the Amazon.

This has been attributed partly to conservation guidelines prohibiting activities linked to deforestation – such as agriculture – and only allowing educational or research activities. The study did note, however, there are obstacles preventing some Indigenous communities from taking stewardship of land.

UFRJ authors highlighted that the data on Indigenous conservation only comes from communities that are legally recognised as protected areas. Of the 772 Indigenous territories that exist in Brazil, 235 have not had their land rights and conservation stewardship recognised. Even when those rights are acknowledged, Indigenous communities still face violence from those trying to exploit their land. In 2019, seven Indigenous leaders from the Guajajara people were murdered in disputes on logging.

What needs to happen now? We shouldn’t need academic evidence to justify protecting Indigenous peoples, but the research from UFRJ provides further real-world evidence that conservation can benefit from being stewarded and coordinated by these groups.

Unfortunately, many Indigenous people are being evicted from the land that has been home to their communities and which they have stewarded for centuries. In Tanzania, for example, land historically stewarded by the Maasai people in the Serengeti has been confiscated over the last 80 years in the name of “conservation”. In April, it was announced that the Maasai people would be further evicted from land in the Ngorongoro conservation area – designated a world heritage site by UNESCO – to become a safari and game park.

According to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, 50% of land currently designated as conservation areas was confiscated from Indigenous groups. Returning land to its Indigenous owners is a necessary first step, and wherever possible, extending the use of traditional knowledge and involving Indigenous people in conversations about conservation more broadly, should follow.

Man vs. Nature – The research acknowledged that another factor in the success of Indigenous conservation was that outsiders are rarely allowed on their land, linking the presence of people in nature to its deterioration.

This isn’t a new concept. Tourists on beach holidays are typically instructed that touching coral reefs can kill them. We all know that human-led activities like mining, agriculture, and even basic littering, can have devastating impacts on the environment.

Studies, however, have shown that there are clear benefits for humans by being present in nature. Exposure to biodiversity is good for our immunity to diseases. The use of nature-derived materials is a key aspect of scientific development – especially in medicine. The simple act of being in green space is extremely positive for mental health.

If the only way to protect nature is by removing ourselves from it, how will our lives be changed? Or can there be a middle ground, where we reshape our activities and relationship with nature to ensure its preservation? Indigenous communities, many of whom have spent their lives in nature, no doubt have some of the answers.

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