Giving indigenous communities legal title to their land has been shown to be more effective at protecting forests than declaring them national parks
The world’s rainforests are shrinking at a truly scary rate. That’s hardly news. But their destruction is now threatening to overwhelm all our efforts to slow climate change. Scientists warn that if we are to have any hope of capping the global temperature rise at the 1.5 degree threshold seen as the maximum ‘safe’ level, then we need to halt forest destruction, and soon.
Easier said than done. But when it comes to rainforests, the most promising solution seems surprisingly simple: trust the people who live there.
That may sound like wishful thinking. However there’s growing evidence that giving indigenous peoples control over the forest which they have called home for generations can be the best – and most cost-effective – way of safeguarding its future. Simply awarding them formal title to their land can make a huge difference. In the Peruvian Amazon, for example, studies show that giving indigenous communities legal title to their land cut forest loss by a whopping 81 per cent over the following year. Intriguingly, such recognition is even more effective than declaring a forest region to be a protected area, such as a national park.
This comes as no surprise to Martin Simmoneau, programme manager at the charity Cool Earth, which works directly with rainforest communities. These have both the specialist knowledge to make good use of forest resources, and an incentive to do so, he says. “The forest brings them food, it brings them water, it brings them an income. Their long-term survival and their prosperity as a people depends on it. It’s their bank account and their marketplace.”
That said, he cautions against taking a dewy-eyed view of indigenous groups. Like people everywhere, they need to make a living, and the pressure to cover expenses such as healthcare and education, as well as a wish for life’s little luxuries, can lead to some people selling off logging rights, for example. Meanwhile, with populations rising, some traditional practices, such as slash-and-burn cultivation (practised by forest communities and incomers alike) is also driving deforestation.
Often, the best results come when indigenous communities work in partnership with friends and allies from elsewhere – sometimes in-country, sometimes across the world. Then they can blend traditional knowledge with 21st-century expertise and connections, to mutual benefit.
So what does that look like? Here are three examples.
1. Rede de Sementes do Xingu, Brazil
The traditional homeland of the Xingu Peoples lies in central Brazil, in an area under increasing pressure from industrial-scale agriculture and cattle ranching. Conflicts between farmers and the Xingu are all too common. But deforestation is harming the farms as well as the forest, by disrupting water supplies and increasing fire risk.
Efforts to replant trees using conventional methods failed, until a new seed collection network, the Rede de Sementes do Xingu, stepped in. It draws on the knowledge of Xingu women in particular, many of whom have become forest entrepreneurs: they collect a wide variety of seeds of native species, and train community members and farmers alike in a traditional practice known as Mavuca. This involves scattering a mix of seeds across the soil, and makes it possible to sow up to 10 times more trees per hectare – and at half the cost – than the conventional method of planting saplings of a single species.
To date, more than 6,600 hectares of degraded forest have been restored, as a result of which the number and severity of fires has been dramatically reduced. Even in 2019, when record fires raged across Amazonia, only 1,600 hectares were lost in the Xingu Basin – compared with 100,000 hectares a decade previously, before the programme started.
In its 12 years of operation, the network – which won an Ashden Award for climate innovation in 2020 – has generated around US$750,000 (£574,000) in income for the Xingu communities collecting the seeds. It has also generated a great deal of pride among the seed collectors, or Yarang, as they are known, who share stories and videos of their work on messaging apps.
I didn’t know that people wanted to know what I know
And it’s helped heal the rift between the Xingu and outsiders, while giving forest dwellers the opportunity to enjoy a prosperous life in their forest home, rather than abandon it in their search for a better future in the city.
Xingu farmer Placides Pereira is among the collectors, and has seen the impact of reforestation on his own land. Even during the serious drought of 2016, he says: “The stream that passes by my house did not dry up. A professor from a university came to research at my farm, and I’m already giving lectures. I didn’t know that people wanted to know what I know.”
2. Ene Valley, Peru
Peru’s remote Ene Valley is home to the Asháninka people. Their way of life has been hard hit over the last few decades by the successive impacts of the Shining Path guerrillas, the cocaine mafia and now incursions by loggers, who put pressure on communities to sell off their trees at knockdown rates.
Lacking the cash to pay for essentials such as education and medicines, this pressure can be hard to resist. But some are determined to do so, and several Asháninka communities have formed partnerships with the charity Cool Earth to help develop more sustainable ways of making a living: ones that keep the forest intact, yet can more than match the one-off cash injection that would come from logging.
These include growing coffee and cacao, both of which can thrive in the shade of the rainforest trees. Cool Earth provides funding and training to help Asháninka farmers improve the quality of their coffee and cacao beans, find natural ways to protect them from disease, and connect with local buyers and regional markets. This helps them secure a decent price for what are, after all, high-quality products – with the added cachet of being ‘rainforest grown’ coffee and chocolate.
Farming like this helps to take the pressure off the forest from the slash-and-burn cultivation methods traditionally used to grow staples like yuca. Thanks to advances in satellite imaging, the Asháninka themselves are now able to see its impact. As well as encouraging the people to pursue sustainable alternatives, they show that when indigenous groups keep control of their land, forest loss is dramatically reduced – by over 70 per cent, in the Rio Tambo district, where the Cool Earth partnerships are under way.
3. Congo Basin, Cameroon
Outside the Amazon, the largest remaining swathe of rainforest on Earth is in the Congo Basin. It’s home to a stunning diversity of wildlife, with 400 species of mammal including gorillas, bonobo apes and forest elephants. It’s rich in human diversity too, home to more than 150 ethnic groups, including the Baka, each with their own store of knowledge and experience of the forest.
And it’s here, within the borders of Cameroon, that some of Africa’s more successful rainforest initiatives have taken root. The country has recognised more than 260 community forests, effectively giving local people land rights over their home forest.
Helping some of these make the most of their rights is the Rainforest Alliance. It’s working with communities in south- eastern Cameroon, around the Dja Biosphere Reserve, which is home to the rare Western Lowland Gorilla. Here it has helped form community- owned enterprises, to enable locals to profit from sustainable harvesting of timber and other forest products such as wild mangoes and the Njansang nut, used for natural oils and soap.
Thanks to being connected with buyers who give them a fair price for their products, some communities have seen a five-fold increase in revenue. This not only helps to lift them out of poverty, but gives them every incentive to protect their forests for the future.
Main image: Clerizia Farias Pantaleão and Clarice Alves de Souza prepare indigenous seeds for forest restoration